A Few Lessons From Covid and SVOG

I was attending the Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference recently and sat in on a Life After SVOG session. There were a number of things discussed that either fell into the category of “the pandemic revealed the need for this” or “this was always a problem and the pandemic revealed the need for change.”

In the former category, representatives from the National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) and National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) both mentioned that it became clear that there was a need for affordable touring insurance.

The NITO rep also brought up the need to have more transparency about ticketing fees. I didn’t get a chance to seek clarification, but my assumption was that since the organization represents the artists, they were questioning whether the venue was making revenue on performances that was being excluded from what was supposed to be shared with the performers.

In terms of overall advocacy, there was discussion about breaking down silos and making common cause with other industries in the future. For example, while arts groups were successful in getting relief for organizations and individual artists in the form of millions of dollars, there was a group advocating for aid for workers excluded from payroll based programs like PPP which secured relief in the billions, some of which arts and culture workers were eligible to receive.

Along those same lines, the way the relief programs were administered varied from state to state. In Oregon offered grants to individual artists whereas New York didn’t. So there is a perceived need to ensure people and groups which were excluded in programs in the pandemic aren’t overlooked in the next crisis simply because they reside in a different state.

In terms of problems which always existed that have come to the fore, panelists mentioned that cultural workers had started to demand organizations reconcile their internal cultural to their externally declared culture. Basically, organizations would publicly advocate for a fairness and equity they didn’t provide their own staffs. Among the results have been unionization efforts among museums and theaters revising their un(der) paid intern and apprentice programs.

Another thing that people will probably says has been revealed is the hunger they have felt to be assembling again live at conferences. As much as people complained about attending conferences in the past, there are exchanges that happen in person that aren’t possible when you are half paying attention to a video screen while working in another screen.

For example, the ego boosting experience of people telling you how great your blog is and wanting to take selfies…

Best Creativity Is Messy Creativity

In the past I have written critically about the use of creative practice as a prescriptive tool to boost the development and achievement level of children (i.e. attaching headphones to your belly to expose a baby to Mozart in utero).  Back in November, The Guardian had a long form piece on the related topic of giving kids educational toys with the same end in mind. Research basically shows it doesn’t work:

But, despite the best efforts of millions of striver parents, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can turn three-year-olds into geniuses by giving them plastic ukuleles for their birthdays, or even drilling them on their violin scales. (You may well be able to foster in those children a paralysing perfectionism and deep sense of inadequacy.) Equally, you don’t have to grow up with hundreds of toys, or speaking three languages, in order to be extraordinarily bright. (In fact, you can still learn several languages with a high degree of fluency in later childhood and beyond.)

Not all of that nuance has broken through to parents. Already in the mid 1980s, Brian Sutton-Smith, probably the most prolific play scholar in history, could write: “We have little compelling evidence of a connection between toys, all by themselves, and achievement…”

The oft repeated story about kids being more interested in playing with the box the toy came in points to the exact type of play that does contribute to skill development. The less concrete and realistic the intended use of the object is, the better.

It seems that basically that from birth through adulthood, the best pursuit of creativity is messy, unstructured creativity.

After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toy, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were “more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,” the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”

As a result of such research, it is increasingly acknowledged that the best new toys are the best old ones – sticks and blocks and dolls and sand that follow no pre-programmed routines, that elicit no predetermined behaviours.

A Look At Who’s Managing Foundation Funds

For the third year in a row, the Knight Foundation has conducted a survey of the top 55 charitable foundations with the intent of measuring the diversity of those managing the assets. Of the 50 eligible to be measured, (five do not have funds under active management or engage in other approaches which don’t meet study criteria), 15 declined to provide a response to the survey.

Knight Foundation was disappointed in the lack of transparency. I had written about the problem of donor advised funds essentially sequestering charitable gifts with no obligation to to distribute them. Some of those on Knight Foundation’s list of non-responders are set up in this or similar arrangement.

Knight Foundation had examined their own practices about 12 years ago and appalled by what they found, set out to diversify the companies that handled their investments.  Reading the report, you may be disappointed to learn that 81.9% of the top 50 charitable foundations funds are invested with firms primarily owned by white men. However, at 18.1% charitable foundations are veritable role models in the investment world at large where the industry average is 1.4% invested with diverse owned firms.

Knight Foundation isn’t simply pursuing this policy to provide a fairer distribution of assets under management to diverse owned firms. They have seen that diverse owned firms engage in more diverse investment strategies avoiding “group think” approaches which may result in unhealthy concentrations of assets in problematic companies and industries, but this investment approach by diverse owned firms is no more risky than non-diverse owned ones.

That study, and the two in the series that proceeded it, found no statistically significant difference in risk- adjusted returns between diverse-owned and non-diverse-owned asset management firms. Put another way, despite no performance advantage, firms primarily owned by white men manage 98.6% of the over $80 trillion under management in the United States. And that $80 trillion represents more than three times the entire GDP of the United States.


What Did You Change In Yourself To Memorize Those Lines?

I know a lot of people in the performing arts literally or figuratively roll their eyes at the inevitable question, “How do you remember all those lines.”   However, Stephen Colbert reminds us that you don’t have to always answer the exact question as asked. In a tribute to former teacher/friend/mentor Frank Galati who recently died, Colbert recently shared a commercial break conversation he had last October with John Lithgow where he discusses Galati’s thoughts on that question.

“He said, ‘how do you remember all those lines? Let’s not take for granted that there is something magical about that. You’ve changed something in yourself. People don’t sit down and memorize two hours of text. You did. Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ He goes ‘What are you when you go on stage? What is that other thing that you are becoming? How are you presenting yourself. What are you willing to become this person who wants to present ideas and emotions to an audience. How do you become beautiful?

And that the beauty of the world we see all around…and when you go on stage you answer the accusation of the world which is that you are hiding your beauty.  The beauty of the world accuses you of hiding your beauty. When you go on stage, whatever you are, whatever part of humanity you are, you are just as much a part of the world that you find beautiful. And therefore, when you’re on stage, you’re as beautiful as an statue, you’re as beautiful as any sunset. When you allow people to see you, beautifully…”

Colbert goes on to relate how Galati cited a story about choreographer George Balanchine instructed a dancer to raise her leg beautifully, which is different from gently or lovely, but that she did so beautifully because the instruction had meaning for her.

The beginning of that story where Colbert cited the idea of changing something in yourself to be able to accomplish the memorization resonated for me. Often the act of memorizing text is only one small part of what is required to memorize the character you are going to portray. That character is different from you as the actor so you have to recall a 1000 little things, including the text, to bring that person to the stage.

That is different for every actor and every part. Thinking about it in that context allows you to respond differently to that oft asked question.

Perhaps this clip resonated with me because the morning of the same day I heard it, I heard a story about a woman who made the 2,744 step ascent of the steep Manitou Incline 1003 times in 365 days. (First woman and fourth person to ever do that)  If you were to ask how she did it, she made a similar remark to Galati’s about changing something in oneself:

“I felt like it was something that I would have to level up in every area of my life: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, socially … to be able to accomplish something like that,” Jones said.

It might not be a big surprise that you would have to change something about yourself to accomplish a physical feat, but a similar recognition doesn’t really exist for acting. There may be an assumption that is can all be accomplished by sitting in your living room chair. Providing a more complete answer to the question of how lines were memorized may shift that perception.