New Face and New Place

This is the first new post of this blog in my new location. All past posts have been moved from my old location to this one which I believe will be more serviceable.

The usual statements about beginning your indulgence until I get myself straightened out and designed in a lovely manner apply here.

When To Start Acting

I thought I would wax philosophical today and take the day off from looking at practical solutions. I was thinking recently of an article I had read so many years ago that stated that of all the performing arts, theatre was the only one a person decided to devote themselves to when they were 18 years old. Dance and classical musical instruments, it pointed out, you had to start on when you were young. Waiting until you are 12 is pretty much too late if you expected to be any good. Children had the luxury of waiting until they were graduating high school to make the decision to pursue drama.

There is a degree of hyperbole that I have attributed, but that was the gist I came away with from the article. Whether it meant toor not, it made me feel like a dilettante for waiting until I received accolades in high school to decide to be a theatre minor in college. (Though I literally was a dilettante since the word is dervived from Italian meaning one who loves the arts) True, there was my earlier starring role in my 8th grade play as Martin the Cobbler, but I felt guilty for thinking I could become a success when all those dancers and violinists had been working since they were four to have a chance at success.

On the other hand, I should have felt guilty for thinking I could become an actor when there were so many people with actual talent who were working hard for a chance at success. At the time I read the article in question, I had a limited comprehension of what it meant to act. Sure, I understood the whole idea of making myself vulnerable, not censoring my impulses and acting rather than indicating, etc. Though I thought I was doing all those things, I see now that I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I got a bit older and the hormones stopped raging through my brain and I could actually ponder things uninterrupted that I realized an actor couldn’t really start his/her work until they got older. Musicians have to master and integrate themselves with their instrument, dancers must master their bodies. Actors must master and comprehend life.

Certainly, dancers and musicians must do the same to add depth to their performance. For actors though, it is their performance, they have to present a believable version of being a human they are not. For that, you have to actually understand people you are not and empathesize with their existence. This isn’t an easy thing to do when you are young and think the world revolves around you. Some people can’t even get past the self-centric view when they get older.

Now that I am older, I think I could be a better actor than I was even though my acting classes are some distance behind me. I understand people and the human condition so much more. I have always been an avid reader and have read the same book 4-5 times. In some cases I did it because I often saw things anew, but often because the book fired my imagination and provided an escape. In the past 5 years or so though I have gone back and read books I read many times as a teenager and suddenly gained HUGE insights into the subtle things the characters were going through because of my real life experiences.

The question this sort of leads to then is in relation the formal education an actor should have. Given that they have to experience a wide slice of life, is it really valuable to have them concentrate on theatre as an undergraduate major? I have to admit, the head of my undergraduate theatre program believed it was not and only offered a minor in the program. At the time, I didn’t agree with him, (though the first time I wasn’t cast in a show I was ready to swear off theatre altogether), but now I see the wisdom in it.

The idea of whether potential MFA acting students should have a wide liberal arts base majoring in history, English, sociology, etc vs. having received theatre training as an undergrad has been debated often. There is certainly no guarantee that a person who has concentrated on the sociology or literature of cultures and had some theatre training would have better insight than a person who concentrated on theatre and took sociology and English as a lesser focus.

It comes down to whether a broad base of knowledge or prior technical training in acting better serves two people with equal talent when they enter an acting training program.

The same could be applied to managers. Is it better to have studied theatre as an undergrad or English? Certainly, there would be a benefit to have been a business student with a theatre background if you wanted to enter a career in theatre business. They may have to take some additional non-management theatre courses to round themselves out a bit more, but they already understand the elements which affect all businesses, arts related or not. (Though there is also some debate about whether managers are being trained to know enough about their particular discipline.)

The question is then, does a person who got a BA in something besides theatre belong in a serious management training program? I say serious program because I have seen arts administration programs where the faculty essentially admitted they mainly served primary and secondary school art teachers looking to boost their pay by getting a MA in Administration. Certainly the people getting the degrees were being trained to be administrators, but because the majority didn’t intend to become managers themselves, there was less of a concern on the part of the professors and students alike to guarantee that the graduates had the skills not to plunge an organization into bankruptcy.

So have English majors received the training that can be built upon by an arts administration program? Is a theatre minor enough training on the art side so that the student can concentrate on attaining business skills?

One comment I have heard of late is that undergraduate writing skills are atrocious and that this is the first area a management program has to concentrate on improving. Marketing, public relations and development offices owe their success to expressing themselves well.

Unfortunately, being an English major doesn’t guarantee this skill these days, though you might expect otherwise. I must confess that as an English major, I might have possessed substandard skills myself had I not been pursuing teaching certification in addition to a theatre minor. (Though I am sure stream of consciousness blogging might belie my claim that my skills are not substandard.)

The answer to all this is probably, as one might imagine, that you can’t generalize and have to assess each student as they present themselves. I was an English major with theatre and education minors. It wouldn’t have served my graduate program or me very well had they adopted strict guidelines as to the undergraduate degree type I received as a condition of admission.

Before I went into grad school, I had a fair bit of marketing, front of house, acting and technical background from undergrad training and had worked on an American College Theatre Festival and two Association of Theatre in Higher Education conferences. I had also done lighting and carpentry in summer stock and been on the house crew for a presenting house.

I probably had a fair understanding of the issues facing theatres before I entered my training program. Certainly, I got exposed to some pretty extreme on the job training on these issues before I had earned my degree. (The theatre I interned at was a week or less away from closing its doors the entire time I was there.)

So there you have it. My musings on artist training and a little bit more about my background!

More Customer Service Thoughts

I came across some articles with relevance to ideas I expressed in earlier posts. Before I get into them though, I wanted to add a quick aside and direct people to an additional article I came across on the increasing influence power of blogs.
The first article I came across in an old issue of Fast Company is actually a review of Taking Care of eBusiness, by Thomas Siebel that makes a number of good points that are applicable to arts organizations. The first is in regard to knowing the different channels through which your patrons want to communicate with you.

“Customers with an order or a complaint don’t just call a toll-free number or wait for their district sales representative to arrive. They may turn to email, a Web site, or a host of other channels to do business. If companies can’t make each of those channels work well or can’t integrate information throughout each piece of their sales, marketing, and service systems, well, it’s never been easier for customers to say good-bye and take their business elsewhere.”

The article goes on to say:

“The lesson is clear: Smart businesses coordinate their sales and service efforts across multiple channels, moving information around so that customers’ preferences and history are accessible no matter whether the next interaction is online, in a store, or via a call center. That’s not an easy task, but Siebel argues that the payoff is immense.”

If you have read any of my earlier posts or speech on Arts Management in an Age of Technology, it probably comes as no surprise that I should zero in on this article. The importance of making it easy for people to make a decision to visit your organization and deliver the information they want in the manner they want it is pretty much my mantra these days.

The article continues in the same theme–noting customer preferences and taking the initiative to act upon them and anticipate a patron’s desires. (“Ah yes Mr. Smith, I got your voice mail message. Even though it was garbled as you drove through a tunnel, I saw you usually like seats in row G around 15 &16 so I placed you there before the show sold out.”)

It also talks about having all relevant data available to your front line people. Many a performing arts organization probably knows the value of this since inevitably your newest ticket office attendant will take a call from the biggest donor and tell them there is absolutely no way they can get into the show. Having a field from the donor database that feeds into the box office database noting that the person in question falls into the Super Angel category can avoid such embarrassment.

A few other articles I read reminded me of a Harvard Business Review article on the perfect one question customer survey. The perfect question was how likely you would be to refer the business to someone else. I found a couple more articles that discussed it in theory and practice.

The more theoretical talked about establishing referral programs. It put me in mind of a blog on orchestra marketing in which the author, Drew McManus suggested a adaptation of the Amazon referral program using discount vouchers. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is just one option of the many ways to execute this concept to help increase attendance.

The article that showed someone putting the referral idea into practice illustrated how Stoneyfield Farms got their yogurt promoted by word of mouth. What they did was allow people to adopt the cows who provided the milk for the yogurt after they bought a certain amount of Stoneyfield’s products. This not only increased sales but also gave them the publicity and demand they needed to get placement in supermarkets.

I have seen acting conservatories do a similar thing where people donate money to provide a scholarship for a specific student or just simply choose to adopt a student or two without any monetary commitment. The only bad side of this program is that even though there are students studying design and management, everyone wants to adopt the actors because of their visibility and the other students feel slighted.

Still, this is a possible program for arts organizations allowing people to adopt actors, dancers and musicians across a season. Perhaps money is involved, perhaps not. Certainly a whole club or families might pool money to adopt a performer or director and would get to have dinner with them once during a season or a run depending on the adopted’s availability. (A starving artist is sure to have plenty of availability for free meals!) The larger the group adopting, the better of course because more people have a sense of pride and involvement with an organization and therefore are in a position to boast about their adoptees to others and have an incentive to continue to buy tickets.

Feed Me!

Apropos the end of yesterday’s post, I came across an article on the web that discussed RSS feeds which is another sign of how technology is allowing people to narrow down how much of the world to which they are exposed. You may be seeing this option popping up on blogs and websites you frequent. Essentially what the feed does is send story headlines and notifies you of changes to a website.

The technology is still in its beginning steps though the article terms it as the next killer app that will change the way business is done on the web. Like the start of web browsing, you have to download viewing software though Microsoft is apparently going to integrate a viewer in its next operating system. It also feeds you news and information without ads but that is sure to change as well as the technology becomes the new channel through which people view their world (and it ain’t cheap to transmit all this feed.)

Because it is in the beginning stages, there isn’t any uniformity to the feeds. Some may be sparse text headlines with links back to a website for more information, others might give you a multimedia blast with the entire text of an article.

What does strike me though is that this is another low cost opportunity for arts organizations to get information out to audiences and develop relationships with specific people by providing information tailored specifically to their interests. You can use this format to send information about upcoming seasons, warn people about a show that is about to sell out, or even remind people they purchased tickets for that evening when they turn their computer on in the morning. Given that people are subscribing less and waiting until the last moment to purchase tickets, organizations may also end up reminding people to buy tickets at all.

Certainly this might be a solution to a lot of the problems faced by the Mondavi Center in the article I cited yesterday about shows being forgotten and lack of good seats. Favored patrons be they students, subscribers or donors could have their own special feed with advance offerings and special deals.

I will be watching this technology to see how it develops and what implications it might have for the arts.