Getting The Dead To Blog For You

Thanks to an interview with librarian on my local public radio station, I became aware of a fascinating blog written from beyond the grave. The grandson of William Henry Bonser Lamin is publishing his grandfather’s letters home from the trenches of WW I exactly 90 years after they were written. The first letter, written on February 7, 1917 was published on February 7, 2007. His grandson had to make some allowances in his publishing schedule since 2008 was a leap year and 1918 wasn’t. But he remains true to all gaps in letters whether due to loss or his grandfather being home on leave. Only the Lamin family knows whether the senior Lamin returned home or perished in the trenches. All misspellings, grammatical errors are preserved.

While the same element of a suspense over an unknown fate may not exist for some of the more famous artists in history but the basic idea might be one arts organizations could use either over the course of a season or in the weeks or months leading up to an event. If the letters are accessible, the organization could post them in some manner appropriate to their plan. What was Tennessee Williams writing in his correspondence while he was writing A Streetcar Named Desire? Or Van Gogh when he painted Starry Night? He had committed himself to a mental hospital at the time so it is sure to pique some interest based on that fact alone even if there is nothing untoward in his letters.

A release plan that was paced slow enough not to overwhelm people or make them feel it was a burden to follow but frequent enough to give people an excuse to return to the website regularly could be welcomed by patrons of all experience levels. This could be a good alternative to attempting to have performers and creative teams contribute to a blog during rehearsal and performance periods. A reproduced letter with notations that the untimely death of a sister referenced by a composer were the primary motivation for a symphony will probably motivate a respectable readership.

The biggest negative I could see if this became a common practice is that those organizations with money and prestige will be able to do more research and gain exclusive access to estate letters. But the less affluent arts organization can still flourish by employing more publicly available materials in a manner that resonates with their community.

View From The Other Side

Where Are These People Coming From (And Why Aren’t They Attending My Shows?)

Being around theatres for so long, it is easy to become jaded and forget just how wondrous the on stage perspective of the audience seating area can be for people. Over the last few weeks we have had an inordinate number of tour requests. I have easily given more pleasure tours (vs. perspective rental tours) in that period than I have in the previous three years.

Don’t get me wrong, as I have noted in previous entries, I relish any chance to show the facility and brag about it. I certainly welcome the opportunity to increase awareness of our activities. It has been a great time to have tours due to all the activity surrounding our upcoming production. Actors, props people and carpenters have talked to tours about their backgrounds and what they were doing for the show. Even when no one else was around and I had to go turn the lights on in preparation for the tour, there has still been so much hanging or laying around to point to and ignite imaginations.

So Strange and Exotic

But what has never failed to impress people is stepping out on to the stage. As we move from the scene shop on to the stage people catch sight of the hemp fly system which seems strange and exotic to them. If the wings are filled with props and equipment, they catch sight of this as well and get a chance to see through the illusion of what appears otherwise from the audience.

At some point, they end up seeing the audience seating from the stage and for many, this reversed perspective is the most exciting part of the tour. I usually make sure to take people out into the audience area so they can see how much of what was apparent while standing onstage suddenly disappears from their view. Again the realization of how much of the illusion is preserved by distance and limitation of sight lines is often intriguing to people.

A View From The Bridge

Then there are a few choice groups who get to clamber up above the stage to the loading rail of the fly system, across the catwalks over the audience seating area and up above the lighting gird to look down 70 feet to the stage below. That introduces a whole different set of sensations for many people.

Two years ago our technical director took people up on to the roof of our stagehouse and showed them the expansive vista available from that vantage point. Ever since then one of the tour participants as been looking for an excuse to get up there again. A recent conference he organized gave him that excuse. While most chose not to climb out on to the roof, just about everyone was intrepid enough to climb above the grid. The conference organizer pulled me aside yesterday and told me how everyone appreciated the opportunity and how excitedly they spoke about their experience.

I guess it says something about how interesting the experience is that someone would schedule a break in a meeting include a tour of your facility. With that sort of investment in my theatre, I am going to make sure I keep lines of communication open with this guy so that he is always able to advocate and talk about us whenever he is so moved.

It’s Also Greener Over the Septic Tank I Hear

Certainly it is partially a matter of the grass being greener in your neighbor’s yard or one person’s garbage being another’s treasure. For those of us working in these buildings, the space represent challenges. There isn’t enough room in the wings or on the fly system battens to accommodate everything we need to for the show. On the other hand, we would love if the building were smaller so we didn’t have to go so far to change the lamps and gels in the lighting instruments.

For visitors, ours is a mystical land. I know from conversations with the groups, for many it is their first time setting foot in a theatre much less on or backstage. They hardly have any context by which to process the experience much less recognize the limitations we deal with everyday.

Fuzzy Definitions

During his talk prior to the design charette for Performing Arts Center Eastside, Alan Brown cited the 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown apparently has access to the raw data which is not listed in the NEA report. The answers Brown lists from the survey may cause you to question the results of the surveys you conduct.

Brown lists an admittedly small excerpt of the verbatim responses to the question: “What was the last “classical music” concert that you attended?” Among the answers listed are Tito Puentes, The Stompers, Showboat with Tom Bosley, Music Man, King and I and Oliver.

For the question, “What was the last “opera” that you attended,” Phantom of the Opera appears five times along with Les Miz, Brigadoon and “It was on Broadway” (remember, these are recorded verbatim).

Not having access to all the raw data, I have no idea what percentage of the answers these represent. As I suggested, it does make you wonder when people answer surveys that they enjoy and want to see more classical music or opera, if your concept of classical music/opera is the same as theirs. These results are from 10 years ago so I wonder how much less significant these categories are to people these days.

I also wonder if there isn’t a constructive way to make use of this situation. By and large people attending a performance have absolutely no idea if the hosting organization is for profit or non-profit (and a foggier notion of what that may mean). They aren’t there to support their favorite non-profit, they are there because they enjoy the product. They may feel a loyalty and trust in the organization but it might not have any relation to the tax status.

With this in mind, would it be a benefit to arts organizations to de-emphasize classical and opera and focus on the idea that they produce great performances? You wouldn’t want to abandon the label altogether or misrepresent what you were offering because you would alienate people who did know the difference between opera, classical music and musical theatre (or ballet, modern, jazz; Shakespeare, Miller, Godot, etc) The Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t going to get away with advertising a concert as their latest remix of that rockin’ composer of the 20th century, Rachmaninoff. Unless, of course, they do treat his music to a remixing, the nuances of their interpretation vs. another orchestra’s will hardly constitute a remix.

Acknowledging that people don’t care how performances are categorized as long as they have an enjoyable experience changes the way you market performances. If the definition of classical music is rather nebulous, the fact that the violinist received a Pomme Rouge when they were 17 is nearly bereft of meaning. (As it should be, my mother was giving me pommes rouge before I was 5 years old.) Marketing has to focus on why someone will enjoy the performance and not overly concern itself with convincing someone they like the organization’s definition of classical music or whether the recipient likes classical music at all.

This probably sounds strange because the performance is of the organization’s definition of classical music. But what I am getting at is that the focus shouldn’t be on telling everyone what a great and important guy Beethoven was. Certainly, mentioning Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 is a waste of column inches in a newspaper for all the influence it is likely to have. Telling people they will enjoy it because the opening motif is one of the most recognizable phrases in the world and has been appropriated and integrated in numerous compositions since can be convincing. The idea that it is Death knocking at Beethoven’s door is certainly compelling.

I know that this is pretty much discredited but that is the story Pat Conroy tells students in The Water Is Wide. I first read the book 20 years ago and that fact has stuck in my mind since. If the piece can inspire excitement in poorly educated students who were entirely unaware of classical music, what impact will it have on people who are marginally or generally aware of it? Even more importantly, the kids didn’t know classical music to know if they liked it or not. I’d bet they would have categorized Beethoven alongside any other piece of well played music they came across.

Of course, the water flows both ways in regard to this sentiment. When asked if they liked opera, someone might say they liked Phantom but didn’t really care for The Magic Flute. A good experience with what they think is opera, classical music, Shakespeare (but really Oscar Wilde), won’t guarantee liking the “real” thing. Nor may it inspire experimentation even if they equate Phantom with opera due to simple lack of name recognition.

So what I am saying is, just put the information out there telling people why they will enjoy a performance and let them decide if they will or not. In some respects, if people are defining what might traditionally fall in a Pops concert (Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach) as classical music, it could help, however marginally, to gently dissolve the barriers of definition and include familiar pieces like Beethoven’s 5th. The 1812 Overture certainly hops back and forth across this fence. Bugs Bunny helped turn classical music into pop music. Perhaps there is something to be gained by tossing the Blue Danube Waltz into the pops. I still associate that piece with the cartoon of swans swimming behind their mother (starting around 4:15 in this video) And who can forget “Kill da Wabbit” and “Spehwur and Magic Helmut” from “What’s Opera Doc?”

Opera Has Sex Fiends? Sign Me Up!

This week the readers of England’s Sun tabloid got the opportunity to attend the opera for between $13 and $52 where the tickets generally run around $175. The Sun announced the opportunity back in July. People had to buy the paper one Sunday to get details so they could enter a lottery for tickets. At the time, there was a bit of negative reaction (note this one is on rival paper, The Guardian) with people decrying it as an ineffectual move since those who normally read the sensationalistic Sun were not the type to return to the opera at regular prices. Some opined that those who liked the regular misogyny exhibited on Page 3 would hardly appreciate high culture.

But the opera in question, Don Giovanni, seems ready made for those who read of the peccadilloes of young lotharios on a daily basis.

In something of an inversion, the unrefined masses got a night in Covent Garden while afficiandos had to satisfy themselves with a simulcast at a movie theatre chain…or wait until another night. (Actually, this characterization makes it sound like a reversal of the usual. In fact, unlike the Metropolitan Opera, this was the Royal Opera House’s first simulcast.)

If you watch the video accompanying the BBC article , you will see the reactions were mixed. Some had a wonderful time and will come again. One woman said it was a nice evening but she wouldn’t hurry back. Another woman listed her concerns over the high cost of attendance (transportation, food) even with the reduced prices. Then there is the guy at the end who proudly proclaims he read the The Guardian.

This illustrates that even when offering reduced tickets, you have to be prepared to answer concerns and motivate people to attend again above and beyond the quality of your product. There was one man quoted in the article as he left at intermission because the seats were uncomfortable.

“We left because it was rather cramped,” said Mrs Tweedy.

“It’s not a reflection on the opera – it was amazing. The voices were great and the lighting was fabulous, but there was a gentleman who decided to share half my seat with me.”

Mr Tweedy said: “It was my first time at the opera – it was ok but after an hour and a half sitting in a cramped seat it was getting a little bit too long for me, but I’d go again.”

This put me in mind of the Urban Institute study on arts attendance I cited a couple years back which found that the two elements that people said would cause them to decide not to attend a performance at a venue again were not having a good social experience and not liking the venue.

It is impossible to say now whether the man will indeed attend again or not despite his experience. Covent Garden has a certain cachet which can’t be overlooked. If this had happened at a less famous facility, perhaps the judgment would have gone against the opera.