The (Maybe) Final Recordings of the 2019 NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

This week the National Endowment for the Arts posted the final recordings of works created for the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. Last Spring, six works by seven high school students were chosen as winners of the competition.

The subjects of their works were: mermaid kingdoms threatened by pirates; The American Civil War; Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932; choosing whether to attend college; Greco-Persian wars; and time travel.

The thing I really appreciated about the release of the final recordings is that the NEA also posted the original songs each person submitted alongside the final song they developed in conjunction with a mentor. This helps reinforce the reality of the process in creative process. Many of the songs have different lyrics and music by the time it came to do the professional recording.

Having the initial and final pieces side by side helps people understand the adage about genius being 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration is very much real. If the creators continue to work on these projects, in all likelihood these final recordings will turn out to actually be an intermediate step in the development process.

No Creativity Here, We Are Serious About Education

I recently saw an article on Arts Professional UK reporting that the governments of England and Wales would be opting out of the new creative thinking assessment section of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test administered to 15 year olds. (The United States also participates, but I haven’t been able to discover their stand on the new test module.)

I had some mixed feelings about this news. Students will continue to take the test in math, science and reading,  so it raises my hackles a little that they will still be testing those subjects and eschewing creativity. According to one commenters, there is a fear that measuring creativity would indicate you aren’t serious about education.

Professor Bill Lucas, Co-chair of the PISA 2021 Test of Creative Thinking….some people fear opting into the creative thinking assessment would give “a signal that you don’t value standards in English, maths and science as much, because you are somehow potentially aligning yourself with a view of the purpose of education that is beyond the basics of the core subjects.

Thinking the purpose of education is beyond that of reading, math and science?! The horror! Satisfying a voracious curiosity is so outdated.

The creativity test has been designed to (my emphasis),

…measure and reflect “the nature of real world and everyday creative thinking”. …

…will provide policymakers with valid, reliable and actionable measurement tools that will help them to make evidence-based decisions. The results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education,” the assessor says.

“Creative thinking is thus more than simply coming up with random ideas. It is a tangible competence, grounded in knowledge and practice, that supports individuals in achieving better outcomes, oftentimes in constrained and challenging environments.”

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I am a proponent of anything that emphasizes the concept creativity is a process requiring effort, reflection, and trial and error rather than a magical ability granted or retracted at the caprice of the gods.

On the other hand, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you also know that I discuss the fact that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the result you get is meaningful.

One of the things countries do with this test is compare themselves with other countries. As I am reading about the test design, there is discussion of how cultural norms and expectations affect creative thinking. Even assuming the test prompts are appropriate to the culture of the country in which the test is administered, I would expect the way different cultures view creative expression would impact the results in ways that couldn’t be compared like math and science competencies could.

For that matter, there may not be a firm basis of comparison in the same country between the 15 year olds that took the test one year and those that took the test when it was administered three years prior.

Is there really an objective, comparative measure for creativity when students are given one hour to:

…engage in open and imaginative writing (with constraints limiting the length of written text that human raters will need to evaluate); generate ideas for various written formats by considering different stimuli, such as cartoons without captions or fantasy illustrations; and make an original improvement to someone else’s written work (as provided in the task stimuli).

[…}

…engage in open problem-solving tasks with a social focus, either individually or in simulated collaborative scenarios; generate ideas for solutions to social problems, based on a given scenario; and suggest original improvements to problem solutions (as provided in the task stimuli).

There is also a visual expression section with tasks similar to the written expression section described above and a scientific problem solving section with tasks similar to the social problem solving described.

As a way to give the individual something to reflect upon in regard to their own skills and providing a bit of an imprimatur to creative expression, these tests could be useful.

As a thing schools and countries should fret over as something with real relevance and providing indications of future success, it doesn’t really have any real meaning. (Though if they fear appearing too frivolous about education, there might even be a few countries who will be ashamed if their students attain too high a result.)

These tests just reflect what a cohort of 15 year olds can do in an hour on a certain day.  Whatever that means in terms of math, science and reading, it means even less when it comes to subjective judgments about how creative someone was in generating captions for cartoons or how original their suggested solution to a problem might be.

I didn’t realize until I started searching for links to other PISA related stories that the result of the last test were actually released today (The Arts Professional UK article came out last week).

The headline on a New York Times piece is “It Just Isn’t Working: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts. – An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.”

Part of you might be thinking the test scores wouldn’t be as bad if schools would actually introduce the role of creative thinking and problem solving into the education process.  That is likely true. But should creative capacity be measured by tests? Do you want fretful headlines about American kids doing worse in creative measures than 65% of the world?  It would be a clear indicator that people were paying attention and invested in creativity, but there are lot more constructive indicators of those things available.

 

NB: As a perfect illustration of how you can’t be creative within a strict time period: The moment I hit publish on this post, I immediately realized I should have titled it “No Creativity, We’re British,” as a take off on the play, No Sex Please, We’re British — something that would have qualified as an original improvement on someone else’s written work noted as a measure in the creativity test. (Granted, you might be hard pressed to judge it an improvement)

Escapism Over Escape

Historically, theater fires have been among some of the worst in terms of loss of life and property damage. Improvements in firefighting equipment and building design and construction have fortunately made most of those tragic tales infrequent, relative to the situation in the late 19th and early 20th century. An article on New York City theatre fires in Lapham’s Quarterly during this time period illustrates what significantly increased the hazard and opportunity for loss of life were gross misrepresentations of the safety of theaters coupled with a lack of effort to improve the conditions.

To combat the growing reputation of theaters as death traps, New York City impresarios began to advertise their venues by stressing just how safe they were—without changing the actual structures. In 1901 the top of the Broadway Theater’s playbills, above the production information, read “Safest theater in the world—34 exits.” That same year, the Knickerbocker’s playbills stated that it was “Absolutely Fireproof.” By 1904 the Majestic was billing itself as “New York’s finest—the world’s safest theater—positively fireproof—42 exits,” and by 1906 the Colonial was claiming it was “absolutely fireproof—this theater has the lowest insurance rate issued to any theater in the world.”

…According to Gerhard’s report, as of 1899 New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater could hold 1,400 people but be emptied in 2.5 minutes, while the Abbey Theater could hold 1,450 people and be emptied in 1.5 minutes. The enormous Madison Square Garden, which could hold 17,000 people, apparently required only 4.5 minutes for complete evacuation.

These hypothetically efficient evacuations were impossible to execute, however. Theaters and movie theaters often were illegally packed to standing-room-only capacity, with additional bodies blocking potential routes of egress. Furthermore, Gerhard found that the doors were locked in many of the buildings, and many of the exits first wound through basements or alleyways. Some exits even led to wooden staircases. Families and young children were frequently given permission to be seated in the highest galleries, which made their top-priority exits more difficult.

What is interesting is reading about how much the theater owners and managers resisted safety procedures fearing the optics of making people aware of fire exits would make people consider other diversions. A good number of the bad choices were preserved in the name of maintaining the escapist environment of the theater.

Among the reforms that had been suggested were having firemen walk out on stage at the start of the evening holding placards directing people’s attention to the nearest exits. It was pretty much exactly what flight attendants do on a plane today. When it was brought up in a meeting of theater managers, there was a great deal of push back out of fear of panicking audience members or souring the experience by suggesting the theater was unsafe. According to the article, actors would see a fire but would continue performing in order to maintain the facade they had constructed. In at least one case, opening a door caused a cross draft sending the fire the actors were observing flaring into the seating area.

It is something to think about as live performances try to compete with digital forms of entertainment. What lengths are people willing to go in order to provide the immersive experience they believe is required. What corners will be cut? I have already seen hints of this where occasionally contracts request/require no pre-show announcements or stipulate they occur so early only half the audience sees them. I don’t imagine any of this would expose current audiences to the dangers looming silently over 19th & early 20th century audiences, but the lessons of those times bear consideration.

New York Theater Tourists Don’t See

I was really excited to see the article title on Non-Profit Quarterly, “NYC’s Small Theaters Have Limited Budgets but Great Cultural Influence” I thought it was great that someone was focusing on cultural impact rather than economic impact of the arts.

But this isn’t entirely the case. The subtitle of the study conducted in NYC is “New York City Small Theater Industry Cultural and Economic Impact Study” Cultural impact does come first, but it is only covered in about a two pages while economic impact is covered in 7-8 pages of the study.

The cultural impact part of the report probably doesn’t contain anything revelatory for most people in the non-profit arts, but it is gratifying to see it acknowledged. For example (my emphasis):

In recent years, a number of small theaters in New York have evolved beyond singular-purpose performance houses into neighborhood-oriented cultural centers. As venues continue to open in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, many have made efforts to strengthen connections with local communities and businesses. Educational and family-oriented programs, as well as discounted tickets for local residents and local hiring, are commonly used to foster connections. In this way, they provide ‘social capital’ in addition to ‘cultural capital’ for neighborhoods and the city-at-large. This role often includes providing non-performance programming aimed at the needs of the local community, including social justice initiatives, as well as providing their theater venues for community events when not being used for rehearsals or productions.

The study also points out that a number of shows like Hadestown, The Band’s Visit and Hamilton had their initial development in these theaters. But few hit shows emerge from these spaces compared to the continued, on going impact of these other activities, initiatives and partnerships.

Another familiar topic that is covered is the challenge of audience development as print advertising loses its effectiveness and fewer people are producing quality critical reviews of work via a centrally accessed source:

As a result, newer and less-known theaters bear a considerable burden, as the cultivation of an audience base relies heavily on word of mouth and social media, as well as critical review. In order to address this, theaters are adopting a wide variety of strategies and tools. These include using innovative marketing efforts, leveraging social media and online platforms to target younger demographics that may not traditionally find their way to the theater, initiating strategic partnerships across theaters within the sector, such as co-producing, or neighborhood-oriented partnerships like in the historic South Village, below Washington Square Park, and utilizing the existing and growing number of listing platforms. When successful, these efforts not only boost ticket sales but also achieve a broader goal for a number of theaters, which is to increase inclusivity by cultivating audiences who have historically been underrepresented in the theater, including people of color, people with disabilities, and younger audiences. Theaters are looking to be more rooted in a specific place, deeply embedded in the local framework and engaged with local communities.

One of the great benefits of this study, even for people who don’t live in NYC is the level of detail it goes into on many operational topics. It looks at the role of unions in NYC; wage requirements; finance; donor cultivation; maps & statistics on venue closures since 2011.

It explores the challenges faced by theater companies that end up performing their works at different places all the time, making it difficult for interested people to find them again.

The report also provides a glossary defining many theatre related terms and job roles.

All in all, it is a good introduction to the non-Broadway theater operating environment in NYC which has its own unique characteristics, but also shares alot in common with any non-profit performing arts venue.

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