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.

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.

This Can’t Possibly Be A Real Description For An Arts Job

Aubrey Bergauer tweeted about a position at her new day job with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last week.

That fact wasn’t notable in and of itself. What surprised me as someone that has worked for institution of higher ed is that the description actually seemed to reflect the actual position and the organizational culture in which the applicant would work. Usually those descriptions are boilerplate “exhibits excellence in the field of (insert field of study here)” or appear to be written by committee.

This is how the position description opened:

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is looking for a creative and strategic content strategist, writer, and producer, reporting to the Vice President of Strategic Communications. If you’re someone who believes content is king, gets the Gary Vaynerchuck content model, lives for geeky top-of-funnel content strategy, and buys into Mark Schaefer’s Marketing Rebellion, you have found your tribe. We want someone who knows classical music, understands how to empower others to discover and tell the incredible SFCM stories through shareable, thumb-stopping content, and has writing chops with a fun and bold (and maybe slightly sassy?!) voice. If rewriting the rules for music conservatory education, engaging the next generation of world-class musicians, and sharing the remarkable successes that come from students and faculty who dare to color outside the lines will make you spring out of bed in the morning, then SFCM is your home calling, and we can’t wait to meet you.

This actually gives you a sense of the work you will do and what the guiding philosophy will be. Even if you don’t know all the references and aren’t in the job market, doesn’t the energy of the description tempt you to apply?

Alekzandria Peugh who commented on my response tweet sure thought so:

Now if we can get more people to write such engaging (but accurate) job descriptions, a quarter of the hard work of hiring and retention will be over. (Paying a suitable wage and providing a good environment being the other three quarters)

It’s Annual Appeal Time?! My Papercuts Still Haven’t Healed From Last Year’s Envelop Stuff-A-Thon

As Thanksgiving approaches, your anxiety level may be rising at the prospect of spending uncomfortable meals with relatives, engaging in an even shorter official Christmas shopping season than usual, and getting your annual appeal letter out.

I can’t help you much on the first two, but a couple years ago Fracture Atlas posted their helpful “Procrastinators’ Guide to Sending a Year-End Appeal”

Reading their guide might cause you a little bit more anxiety at first when they suggest the appeal consist of three different missives rather than one, but I promise there is a method in their apparent madness that aims to make the whole process productive for you. (my emphasis)

The centerpiece could be a 1-2 page letter mailed in a pretty envelope with a seasonal stamp. This will set the flavor for your whole campaign, aesthetically and thematically. Your “sides” could be a follow-up email about two weeks later, with a final email request within the last few days of the year. Make sure there’s a visual through-line in these materials and that they reference each other, otherwise the recipient may not recognize that the materials are related.

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I talk about the importance of marketing materials being focused on the experience of the participant rather than on the importance of the organization or performer. The appeal letter is no different. Juliana Steele who wrote the Fractured Atlas piece says the emphasis should be on the impact the donor can have and be positive in tone rather than focused on the organization and its frightening dire need.

While it may be true that your program, production, or exhibition will have to scale back if you don’t raise the appropriate funds, remind them of what you will be able to do with their support, not what you won’t be able to do. The holidays may have them stressed out — give them inspiration!

Other suggestions Steele makes deal with the logistics of the ask–including specifically asking for a donation rather than implying it. Projecting success is important, but not the appearance of wasteful spending. Steele says the letter should be printed on good paper, but nothing so fancy that people become concerned about organizational priorities.

It should be easy for people to return their check in a return envelop or make a donation online. The more steps people need to take to get funds to you, the greater a chance their process will stall along the way.

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of writing an appeal letter is just getting started. Take it from someone who learned to type on an actual typewriter–the best thing about word processing is that the time cost of writing more than will be ultimately necessary is near zero. Starting to write anything knowing you will edit it down moves you closer to the end goal faster than staring at a blank screen. (These blog posts don’t come easy a lot of times and often evolve a fair bit from the topic I started writing about.)

Steel provides the following advice along those lines:

Writing a letter that is inspiring can be challenging and anxiety producing. Honestly, all you can do is sit down and get words on paper. Turn off the television, navigate away from your inbox, read appeals from other organizations, and make a list of all the amazing stuff you do (and will do next year). After a while, you will have something to work with and build upon.

Send this to a friend