Interesting Happenings

I am very happy today having received a call to interview for at the Wayne State University Dept of Theatre. The position is the Director of Theatre Management, Marketing and Public Relations. Obviously I am pleased at the prospect since this is a direction in which my passions lay.

I won’t be able to blog as completely as I have since I will be gathering materials and information for presentations during my interview. I had taught Theatre Management at the University of Central Florida as a visiting professor so I have a fair bit of old information to sort through as well as some of the new ideas that I have been distilling from recent reading and blogging.

On the other hand, the whole process will get me thinking even more than I am and should yield some interesting blog subjects. I will probably use this opportunity experiment and write a little bit everyday about my process as I suggested yesterday that production staff and actors do while preparing for a show. Over all, the interview experience is a chance to talk to people about something that really excites me so it promises to be a lot of fun overall.

Unfortunately, the process of preparation will also means that I will have to suspend my search for a different blogging service provider. I am not quite pleased with the design and updating options I have available here and am considering moving somewhere else. But, that will have to wait until next week.

One last thing–when I wrote yesterday about the potential for embarassing things to appear on any blog an arts organization sponsored, I didn’t realize how timely the comment was. When I wrote my comments to the Artful Manager blog I tried to have a degree of professionalism, but did engage in some side commentary to add some humor. When the text of my email appeared on the Arts Journal letters section, I was surprised and also honored that it was regarded to be interesting enough to be placed there. I hadn’t intended it for consumption by a wider audience and had I known it would appear there, would have been more polished in my writing.

Then I read my letter again and had an “eek!” moment. I had forgotten one of my little comic comments referred to me picking up veneral disease pamphlets in the doctor’s office for the illustrations. I had to groan thinking about how many people in the arts community, including prospective employers were reading that.

Still, blogs are becoming a tool for the success of businesses these days according to a recent Business 2.0 article. The rules and etiquette of their use still need to be established.

Im Famous Now….

Okay, maybe not too famous, but my comments on the Artful Manager blog postings about the arts manager as an evangelist appeared today on that blog. My thoughts are quoted in relation to “bait and switch” using Chick tracts as an example. (Yikes! As I was grabbing links for this blog, I saw that my full letter was posted on the artsjournal.com site. You can read it here.)

What I wanted to reflect upon today though, is the amount of commentary I am seeing in regard to “open source” as applied to the arts. For a long time it has been used in connection with software development, most notably regarding Linux. However, I have recently seen it discussed in regard to the arts. (Unfortunately, I can’t track down the places I have seen it except in the Artful Manager blog.)

As promised in my statement of purpose for this blog, I have been thinking about how an arts organization might go about putting this into practice. One of the applications of this idea is certainly open book management, a term apparently coined in 1995 by John Case who wrote for Inc. magazine:

“The beauty of open-book management is that it really works. It helps companies compete in today’s mercurial marketplace by getting everybody on the payroll thinking and acting like a businessperson, an owner, rather than like a traditional hired hand.”

The practice has also been extended beyond employees to provide information to vendors and other organizations whose dealings are closely entwined with ones company. The question then is–can the same practice work with an arts organization’s employees, patrons and local arts journalists?

According to the articles written since 1995 in Inc., companies have realized some actual benefits from adopting this approach. The most widely cited result is usually that the practice empowers employees by educating them about where costs are high and places them in a position to suggest alternatives that will cut the expenses.

Most non-profits have to file financials with the state and those filing are available public scrutiny and often accessible online. It is a far different thing though, to eliminate all the searching a motivated person would have to do to acquire this information and publically invite patron and employee review. Certainly there would have to be an effort to educate the public and employees about what they are looking at. As with the commercial application of the open book philosophy, the benefit would be that an employee or patron can make educated suggestions about alternatives.

I have seen some arts organizations use this approach, but only when financial crisis threatened and they desperately needed sympathy and understanding. At that point they were meeting with the IATSE leaders to work things out and were briefing the local arts writers weekly about all the efforts being made to turn things around. Obviously, you want to open your books long before a crisis approaches with an eye toward preventing one. If you do end up in a crisis, it would be beneficial to have employees/patrons/arts journalists who completely understand every element that contributed to the problem and are thus more sympathetic than they otherwise might have been.

Now certainly one of the reasons the open book approach to management works is that employees, vendors and major customers of companies have a fair understanding of the forces which affect industries related that company. This isn’t necessarily true with an entire patron base so opening everything to everyone might prove counterproductive when employees are constantly explaining and justifying decisions to people who understand the business of the performing arts to widely varying degrees.

You also can’t open every aspect of a performance to the public. Direction, design and performance choices can’t be done by committee and retain quality. It is possible to involve arts writers more integrally during the creative process and perhaps get more complete coverage than just a review. (Though certainly many reviewers have a lot to cover and don’t have the time. Also, you may get expanded coverage at the price of your reviews as shown here and one blogger’s reaction here.)

I did read an article recently (which I wish I could find again) that talked about covering the arts like sports. It quoted a portion of a speech by Chris Lavin. I seem to recall that Mr. Lavin’s speech caused quite a debate with many detractors feeling that such coverage would cheapen how people viewed the arts. (I will try to see if I can locate the debate online.)

One of the things I have found interesting in the articles I have read advocating sports type arts coverage is the idea that sports writers have a relationship with the people they are writing about and have strong opinions about relative strengths and weakness of people and teams on offense and defense.

It was sort of amusing to me to think about arts writers going to early practices like sports writers go to training camps and opining about how good the cast was going to be during the upcoming season. It might seem funny to think about an arts writer mentioning the fact that the training program an actor is coming out of is strong on period acting and also stresses Meisner and thus her presence in the Feydeau farce promises good things for the production, but that is the type of indepth analysis readers of the sports pages get every day. Is it crazy to think more people might become interested in the arts if newspapers encouraged their arts reports to write such involved pieces (and gave them the resources to do it)?

Another area where the open source idea has really made head way lately is the internet itself, especially in relation to blogging. Howard Dean’s campaign really brought attention to tools that would enable people to organize grassroots support for a purpose. Non-profit organizations are already picking up on the trend to help them with fundraising.

Certainly, as a conduit of information dissemination and promotion, the internet has a tremendous amount of potential far beyond transmitting spam. Actors/directors/designers can post blogs on an arts organization’s website talking about the progress a show is making in rehearsals, etc. There would be a fair amount of value added to an avid performance goer’s experience if they could read about decisions that were being made, discarded and then perhaps revisited by the various people involved. As a performance continued its run, the actors might reflect on their changing approach to their role.

In fact, access to material that portrays decision making closer to the moment it is happening might enhance the learning experience of acting/directing/dance/design students much more than a Q&A session with an artist where the person’s relationship to the decision making process is much more remote and abstract. Having performed the reflective exercise of blogging about their experience, an artist who is doing such a Q&A session might be able to impart insights of greater value than he/she previously had.

The same section of the website containing the blogs for a certain production could feature an area where patrons could make comments about that production. There is a certain danger inherent to providing people with a forum to discuss their experiences at your organization. Not only do you run the risk of angry people making scathing remarks about the director’s behavior in rehearsal or the quality of your show, but you also suffer some credibility problems if you censor the bad out while presenting the forum as a completely candid representation.

The bogus reviews to discredit or overly praise authors recently discovered on the Canadian version of Amazon is only one example of this problem. Only presenting positive comments or allowing anonymous postings can cause suspicion that something similar to the Amazon problem or the faked Sony movie critic is transpiring.

So, some interesting possibilities for applying open source to the arts. I am sure I will think of some more as the blogging process continues.

A Beginning…

The title of the blog is no mystery to most arts people. The periennial effort of most arts organizations is to get butts in the seats–people attending your event.

As mentioned in the “what’s this all about section,” I am an out of work theatre management person seeking to keep his skills relevant, etc. (Though I certainly plan to continue with this project once I become gainfully employed again.) I do a lot of reading already and visit http://www.artsjournal.com/ regularly to keep up on the state of the arts all over the country and world. I avidly read many of the blogs there, including Terry Teachout’s About Last Night and Andrew Taylor’s The Artful Manager.

It is actually Mr. Taylor’s writings that inspired me, in part, to start this blog. I really enjoy a great deal of what I read in his blog and give it a lot of thought. A good deal of what he mentions is theoretical about how things should be done and how concepts that weren’t necessarily created in regard to the arts have implications for the arts.

It all fires my imagination and I try to figure out how I might apply these things in any of the arts organizations I have worked at or may work at in time. Honestly, my first impulse is to email Mr. Taylor and run my thoughts by him. However, he has an Arts Adminstration Program to run and I am sure it wouldn’t be long before he started taking out restraining orders.

So thanks to my internet provider, I remain in Mr. Taylor’s good graces and have an outlet for my thoughts. My real aim is to get some well considered feedback from other folks out there. Some things I will mention in the course of the blog, others I will place in another section as a practical resource of ideas that worked (or didn’t work, but might work for someone else).

My thought is that most arts managers are often too busy thinking about keeping the organization and budget afloat that they don’t have a lot of time to individually do strategic thinking about the future of the organization. When they do recognize that there is a need for change, they often don’t have the luxury of time to think about new approaches and instead fall back on slight variations of what they have done before.

By providing a place where the contributions of many arts managers may be listed and easily accessed, I hope to simulate a sort of communal strategic thinking that will enable people to make a wider variety of choices. If you have a day open to generate new solutions, this may be a place to come find options you may never have devised in a day so that you can spend that day assessing your choices. The danger is that it will become a place to find a quick fix to a problem in order to free up that hypothetical day to deal with other things instead of utilizing it as resource of options due long contemplation and consideration.

As of this writing, that section is empty and these fears and hopes premature. I hope to add some content shortly. If anyone has some ideas, stories to share, or feedback on what you see here, I would like to hear from you at buttsintheseats@mindspring.com

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