Orchestras in the Age of Edutainment

I was visiting the Knight Foundation website and came across the aforementioned article, “Smart Concerts: Orchestras in the Age of Edutainment” by Alan Brown.

It offers some interesting reading about the tension between offering classical music in a manner that is appealing to new audiences while adhering to the expectations of long time audiences. (Of course the lessons learned are applicable to all the arts.) The former doesn’t attend often, but constitutes the future of your organization. The latter frequently attend, donate much needed monies in the face of declining foundation support and sit on your board. All of which can make it difficult to innovate.

Brown gives a number of examples of innovations that orchestras are using, including Concert Companion with which readers of Greg Sandow’s blog may be familiar.

He also recounts the resistance that some of these programs have faced, including booing at the Minnesota Orchestra.

A little more about that in a bit.

Brown makes some familiar observations about arts attendance. One thing he notes is that consumers want a more intense experience in a shorter time because they have less time. Thus the prevalence of extreme sports and standing ovations. People want to feel that they have had a good time in the time they had.

Another observation is that while technology makes so many more musical options available to people with the ability to download opera as easily as the latest pop single, it also allows people to continue to reinforce their own tastes by providing them with so much material, they never get tired of listening and experiment with other options.

One section I found particularly interesting:

In his book “Who Needs Classical Music?,” Julian Johnson argues that classical music, fundamentally, is discursive in nature and requires careful and complete listening in order to be fully appreciated. Instead, he says, most consumers ‘use’ (or misuse) classical music to alter or underscore their mood, or just to fill empty time.2 Mass culture’s appropriation of classical music may be good or bad, depending on your point of view, but there is a larger idea here. Much of music’s allure derives from the relative ease with which it can be selected and programmed by the listener. In focus groups, music lovers describe how they listen to one kind of music for vacuuming, another kind of music for cooking, another kind of music for exercising, and so forth. Consumers understand what it means to be your own curator, and derive great satisfaction from arranging art around them to the satisfaction of their own aesthetic – especially music and visual art.

I really appreciate Julian Johnson’s views. The last artistic director I worked for wouldn’t recommend musicians to people who wanted live background music at parties and receptions. His feeling was that a musician works too hard at his/her craft to be ignored and spoken over. And it reinforces the idea that their product is worthless and disposable. He felt that it was better to get a good CD player and sound system.

I also like the idea though that consumers know the value of being their own curator. I am not quite sure how to execute it, but I sense there would be great value to an arts organization in a program that validated this sentiment and empowered patrons in some manner.

The four tactics that Brown says are being employed by orchestras are: contextual programming, dramatization of music, visual enhancements and embedded interpretation. Of these, I would imagine that dramatization and visual enhancement might be considered most sacreligious by long time concert goers.

Dramatization is “theatrically produced in service of a larger concept or purpose using some combination of narration, drama, dance, scenery, lighting and video. But the music remains the main attraction.

Visual enhancement, which he describes as the most controversial, “…can be divided into two categories: visual enhancements that add an artistic element to the concert, and visual enhancements that (literally) magnify the performers. It is not unusual for orchestras to introduce visual elements such as banners, flags, projections and ambient lighting to the stage, sometimes in service of a theme or special occasion.”

Since these programs try to “sex” the music up by adding new elements rather than allowing the music to stand on its own merits, I can understand why people might be upset.

Contextual programming he defines as “contextual programming as the practice of selecting programs, series and even whole seasons around unifying ideas – topics, themes, genres, idioms, artists and other constructs – however focused or oblique. Contextual programs have more conceptual glue holding them together.”

One thing he points out is that unless you are a long time attendee or a musician, you might be hard pressed to understand why a particular mix of music from different composers was chosen for performance. (Lord knows, I have always wondered) Contextual programming offers some sort of narrative that explains this. As noted, it could also be oriented to a theme like The San Diego Symphony’s Light Bulb Series program, “Can Classical Music Be Funny?” (Lord knows I have wondered that as well.)

Embedded Interpretation encompasses elements which are part of the performance itself, such as the Minnesota Orchestra where the conductor provided some explanation about why the pieces were put together (many loved it, some booed) and the Philadelphia Orchestra where the musicians share insights about music during their summer programs. Of course, there is also the Concert Companion which provides commentary synchronized to the music broadcast to a handheld PDA.

The whole article is worth reading because I only touch on some of the examples given and I think many of them can inspire programs for other organizations.

Plate Full of Dollars

A short entry today since a new nephew joined the family a few hours ago.

It occurred to me today that while there are articles, classes or at least textbook chapters on pretty much every aspect of arts management from company to fiscial management, I have never really read any good information on donor relations, specifically wooing them. I was having lunch today for the first time with one of the bigger donors to my theatre. It was essentially just an opportunity for him to meet me as the new theatre manager, etc.

I was taking a fairly low key approach, letting him talk about his trips to Southeast Asia, etc and his 18 years of experience as the grandfather in a production of Nutcracker. The development person who was with us apparently thought the conversation was moving too slow and about 5 minutes into the meal says “So, Joe, tell us about your plans for the theatre.” and later “So X, what do you think the theatre should be doing?” And when he got up to go to the salad bar, she started to tell me what to ask him when he returned. (Which I didn’t)

I actually had to keep from laughing because it really felt to me like a sitcom where people are on a blind double date with friends and the friend that did the setting up tries to find common ground by commenting on the interests of those who were set up.

Some friends of his told me he was of the mind that he would give when he wanted to give so I didn’t feel pressured to really sell him, especially at our first meeting.

Despite the fact that I thought the development person was a little more pushy than was warranted, I was sitting there weighing all my options. Was I being too quiet by letting him talk about himself? Since he has been associated with the theatre longer than I have, I am really in a place to tell him about the theatre and not come off as condescending by telling him things that are patently obvious to him? Should I be talking more about my vision, or now that I have sketched a basic outline of my goals, just allow him to ask if he wants additional information?

In some regard, it is actually easier to be in a situation where you want to make donation request. In such a case, you know the goal of the meeting and you know what the successful outcome will look like. I have been on those meetings and meetings that were precursors to them.

What happened today was more like a meet and greet reception or a party where you mingle and make contacts. Only in this case, you don’t have the option of moving on to speak with another person when the conversation lulls. Yet with a development person sitting there, the situation isn’t entirely casual either. His/her presence introduces an element of expectation into the mix.

I don’t know if there are any correct set of guidelines for meeting with potential and existing donors like “If the goal of the meeting isn’t to make an ask of money or aid in recruitment of other donors, then you should be this aggressive, if it is, then do this.” I am sure it has as much to do with the local culture and the person as anything else. Some people don’t appreciate a run around and appreciate directness, others want to have a relationship developed with them as a person.

If I do find a good bit of text on donor relations, I will let you folks know! (Likewise, let me know if you already found one!)

But Can You Get a Job With That?

One of the things I really like about Hawaii is the opportunity (when I get it) to see a wide variety of culturally diverse performances. Since I have been hear, I have gone to a Gamelan concert (music from Bali and Java) and presented a show that melded traditional hula and modern dance to celebrate the arrival of a new Hawaiian island Loihi/Kama’ehu (in 30-50,000 years). (And just as an aside, there is hula that Hollywood portrays, the actual hula that Hawaiians dance and low postured, bombastic hula ‘aiha’a that originates from the Big Island. Very awe inspiring and powerful. Only time I have imagined that a hula dancer could kick my ass.)

This weekend I went to see a Randai production (search for that term on Google and every English language book and article was written by the show’s director.) Randai is a really amazing Sumatran theatre form that integrates the martial art of silak with song and dialogue. It also features wearing pants where one can stretch the fabric between the legs taut to create a booming drumming sound when struck. (And article from a production done 3 years ago can be found here.)

It is really fantastic stuff and easily accessible to Western audiences (the songs are sung in English in this production and the stories are pretty much universal) Where Western theatre is generally encompassed in 4 walls, Randai action occurs within a circle of performers (which is also how the martial art silak is taught rather than in the parallel rows you see in Japanese and Chinese martial arts)

Since the Randai form is so much a part of Sumatran life, children pretty much practice the martial arts moves from birth. The student actors at the University of Hawaii have actually been practicing the movement and drumming component 3 hours a day for 6 months in order to gain at least a rudimentary mastery of the techniques. I actually heard and audience member saying he would see the cast outside slapping their pants when he went to his morning class so they definitely were a dedicated group.

It made me a little sad though to think that it would be tough to translate this experience and dedication into an acting job on the Mainland. You look at a person’s resume saying they were part of a Randai ensemble and unless it is in your personal experience, you group their experience in with wacky fringe performance art. Nevermind the students have better control of their bodies now than most musical theatre students pursuing the “triple threat” of sing/dance/act. Without the frame of reference of having seen Randai, most directors wouldn’t know how to evaluate that experience though.

To be honest, faced with such a resume credit, I wouldn’t either. I have been excited to see it since August when I read about it in the brochure. But you don’t get show description on a resume.

Truth is, on the Mainland, Randai is wacky fringe performance art. (Actually some performance art I have seen is so derivative of other performance art, Randai would actually be on the fringe of the fringe.) On Hawaii it is actually pretty much mainstream. The university does it in a 3 year rotation with kabuki (which I really want to see!) and I believe Chinese opera.

When I say it Randai would be on the fringe of fringe, I don’t mean to imply it is “out there.” As I said, it is actually very easy to understand. I simply meant that people looking in the Friday arts listing would probably feel more comfortable going to something listed as performance art rather than taking a chance on something noted as coming from Sumatra.

Performing in the show sorta falls in that category of things that are great for you to have done as a person, but probably not perceived as having much value by others. Actors have a hard enough time making a go of it with regular performance credits to have to face someone looking at 6 months of their life as being without merit.

I certainly don’t think that it was a mistake for the students to do. Physical shows like Stomp, Cirque de Soleil, The Blue Man Group, etc, that aren’t formed around the framework of acting technique will certainly view the experience as valuable. But mainstream stage and television…maybe not so much. You can only sell to the masses (or the slim percentage of the masses that attend live performances) what the masses are prepared to consume. Casting sessions tend to be driven by this.

On the other hand, with something as visually interesting as martial arts on stage, all it takes is a rave revue of a Broadway or major regional theatre show. Suddenly Randai is en vogue and someone is developing a show for Vegas.

Short Grant Applications

Back last April, I cited a paper by the Independent Sector supporting, among other things, a simplified, unified grant application process so that one application might be applied to many granting institutions.

I haven’t found a unified process yet, but I have experienced a very simplified one recently. The National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts has a program where they give artists grants to develop a work in conjunction with a presenter partner. The paperwork for that looks about normal.

However, if the performance group wishes to take the work on tour, the National Dance Project will provide money to presenters to defray the artist fees. All the presenter has to do is send a very simple letter of intent (and NDP provides a sample template for the letter) to the tour coordinator which they pass on to the National Dance Project.

The NDP sends an evaluation form and a very easy to complete final report form which the presenter has to fill out (Took me about 30 minutes) in order to receive up to 25% of the artist fee back as a grant. Other than making sure print ads, press releases and program books have funding credits and writing letters to legislators telling them NEA money is well spent, that is it. NEFA makes it very easy to decide to present a work.

Actually, it seemed too easy. I was searching frantically for the grant application my predecessor did to make sure I was in compliance. The only back up I had was the letter to the tour manager declaring our interest to present it—surely that couldn’t be all we did to apply for it!

To some extent it was good that the application process was so simple. The deadline for 2005-2006 was Jan 21. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference just got over on Jan 11. That only left 10 days for presenters and agents to finalize dates and prices and then get letters of intent written up and submitted to NEFA.

I got an email from the members of my booking consortium who attended the APAP conference essentially telling me arrangements had been finalized and I had one day to send off letters of intent to a couple agents. Ironically, this was at the exact time I was frantically running around trying to locate the aforementioned phantom grant application so I could do follow up for the NDP funded show we just did so my understanding of the whole application process suddenly coalesced resulting in me stammering “That’s it?! That’s all I have to do?!”

So my hat’s off to ya New England Foundation for the Arts for making it easy on me!