More Power of Blogging Thoughts

Last month I did an entry on Bloggers as the New Arts Critics. This past weekend, Terry Teachout touched upon the same subject in an interview on Studio 360. (The whole interview is very interesting, but for the portion pertinent to this entry, click the forward button on your media player twice to the third segment and move the progress button to about 5:15)

During the interview, Mr. Teachout mentions that he writes so prolifically for his blog in addition to providing reviews and commentary for print journals and authoring books (a fact noted in a recent Washington Post article) because contributing to a new medium and interacting with his readers is so exciting and engaging. He goes on to talk about how he sees serious arts coverage naturally migrating to the web as less time is devoted to coverage in papers and television. He is confident that good bloggers will gain credibility and influence. He says of blogs, “They empower the amateur. Anybody can write one. And whether you have any credentials or not, if it is any good, believe me, it will get noticed.”

He was then asked if more amateurs blogging necessarily meant there would be more talented people in the world rather than just a lot of people churning out a lot of mediocre stuff. Teachout mentioned he now interacts with many very talented people who he had never heard of prior to coming across their blogs. These people don’t have access to the traditional media channels through which to make their reputation but are doing so on the web.

The interviewer also brought up the point that the ease of self-publishing on the web circumvents the reflection and review process that one goes through before submitting work for print publication and removes the outside point of view of an editor. Teachout responds by pointing out that it is also easy (and widely lauded by the online community) to go back and insert an update or retraction in an entry saying you were wrong in your initial assessment.

He did feel that the way Amazon has set up their review process was not conducive to the rendering of honest, quality reviews. He does mention that he can find some really excellent writing among the other reviews, mostly from people who are amateur experts with a passion for the subject matter.

I find this whole conversation on the future of blogging very exciting and intriguing. I had a brief email discussion on this matter with Adaptistration writer, Drew McManus. He pointed out that another article I linked to about publishers sending free books to top Amazon reviewers didn’t address the issue of payola for a favorable reviews. I had mentioned this as a possible dark side of blogging reviewers in my blogger as new reviewer entry. As I said then, how do you guard against it? If you are getting paid nothing and working hard to produce quality work, it is easy to favor those who provide you with even modest considerations.

The obvious answer is for today’s noted bloggers to come up with a policy of behavior that will establish a precedent while blogging with the intent to influence is still young. The problem is that there is no recognized source of authority (and isn’t lack of a dictating force part of blogging’s allure?) for people to organize around. Drew McManus’ opinion is that it will be another decade before companies find a way to make the process profitable for the writers. What happens in the interim? He points to the fact people choose news channels most closely aligned with their own views as a harbinger of the end to an effort of objective reporting.

While the idea that one may soon be able to go through life without having their world view challenged is rather frightening, the silver lining would be more writers would find employment satisfying the demand for niche writing. (I can even imagine someone becoming fabulously wealthy providing material that reinforced opposing views.)

As Terry Teachout said–interesting times and technology to be contributing to and taking part in. Of course there is a reason why the sentiment “May you live in interesting times” is considered a curse by the Chinese.

Ballet of the Speedway

Last night the Roanoke Ballet Theatre presented NASCAR Ballet. Their website explains it best:
“NASCAR Ballet centers around 20 ballet and modern dancers (who represent cars) who circle a forty foot horseshoe track that banks around the corner complete with break away railings.”

When I read the story last week in the Toronto Star, my first thoughts were akin to the Penelope McPhee accusations I quoted earlier this week– I felt it was an example of dumbing down the arts. I may have agreed with Ms. McPhee that this was an attitude that needs to be discarded, but I also admitted I recoil at anything that smacks of dumbing down as well.

Of course, I caught and scolded myself for not giving it due consideration before I denounced the idea. Since I haven’t seen the show, I don’t know if it was a good idea. Reading a bit about the development process and the way they intended to execute the concept, I must say I was a bit intrigued.

Good concept and execution or not, it does present a good test of the shift in attitude Ms. McPhee espoused. NASCAR probably represents the antithesis of the arts, at least stereotypically. The reality of NASCAR demographics probably conforms to a “sophisticate’s” perception as well as a “plain folk’s” concept applies to arts attendees.

The company has done some other non-traditional pieces in the past so the regular audience won’t be totally taken aback by the show. I imagine, though, that a traditionalist might be scandalized by “gauche” elements of production which include: three huge monitors. One presents a sportscaster calling the race and interviewing drivers. The second shows the “pit” where dancers/cars bedecked in sponsors’ logos are serviced. The third presents commercials by the show’s sponsors.

When I really got to thinking about it, I couldn’t see why a contemporary subject like death defying racing was any less proper a subject than courage in the face of enchantment is in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

The company seems to have acknowledged the reality of their situation and embraced the outlook suggested by McPhee and the creative communities monograph I recently cited.

“We are hoping through this production to expand the traditional dance audience to include others who may never have experienced dance. The race is represented in a fun, wholesome environment and respect for the sport is at it’s heart.

“In order to keep the arts alive, it is up to us to produce higher quality, exciting, never-before seen extravaganzas. We have to entice the audience in, we can no longer just expect their participation. By opening up our thematic interests, we open ourselves to a whole new segment of potential dance lovers…We need to keep experimenting, keep inventing. We have to be willing to take risks. We can’t be scared into thinking small.” says Jenefer Davies Mansfield, Executive/Artistic Director of Roanoke Ballet Theatre. “These elements are integral in keeping the arts alive in a fiscally conservative environment.””

I wish them good luck with this and future events and will be interested to see if what they are doing becomes more prevalent.

Arts Education

My cable modem’s insistence on not working seemed to imply I should take advantage of the turn in the weather to warmth and sun. Thus I do not have a long, involved entry today.

Instead, I bring you some resources for education in various fields. There are a great many organizations with good education outreach programs. The ones I list here have lesson plans and classroom resources or have scads of links to websites that do.

General Links

Arts Education Partnership has the most comprehensive selection of links to sites with education resources for all disciplines I have seen.

ArtsEdge, Part of the The Kennedy Center’s education website has a very extensive selection of lesson plans for every discipline.

AllLearn (Alliance for Life Long Learning) has online courses run by Yale, Oxford and Stanford. While you do have to pay for their courses, the link I list here takes one to a page with links to a number of academic subjects, including Dramatic Literature, Classical Music, Dance and Visual Arts.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival has some excellent articles on themes from all of Shakespeare’s plays, plus all the non-Bard shows they have done. Many of the articles are from their Insights publication which they make available to patrons.

Opera America offers links to study guides by opera compnaies across the US as well as guidance on additional programs.

I didn’t find any resources with lesson plans, but had links to the children’s pages of orchestras across the country (San Francisco, Dallas and Baltimore were my favorites!). These pages have a lot of activity suggestions for kids to do on their own or for their teachers to do in school. These were some of the best interactive education pages I saw in my search. (Translation: I spent a lot of time playing)

Visual Arts
The Getty and The Smithsonian both provide good lesson plan resources for the visual arts.

The New York City Ballet’s study guide for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was the only resource I could find at this point.

I am sure there are more study guide resources out there. If people want to make me aware of them, I will assemble this list on to a resource page.

Misc. Tips

I have assembled a small collection of ideas related to marketing and constituent relations. Thought I would share some of them today. I am not including donor benefits today because they could go on forever.

Volunteer Relations
April is National Volunteer Month so it is always nice to show your volunteers that you appreciate them. Some organizations I have come across have:

-Had volunteer dinners with entertainment and awards.
-Had a Holiday party where the volunteers were invited to bring an ornament to decorate the tree. This publicly exhibited how strong the volunteer corps was and how involved they were since few people ever saw more than a handful of them at one time.
-Annually nominated a volunteer of the year for a United Way recognition dinner and then noted the fact in the volunteer newsletter.
-A couple places I worked required the entire cast and crew to help strike the set at the end of the run. The volunteer guild would make a big pot of spaghetti or chili or bring a 4 foot subs for dinner. This let the volunteers rub elbows with the cast and also allowed the strike to move along on schedule.

Marketing/Public Relations

For Resubscriptions some organizations have:
-Had resubscription dinners with buffet/heavy hors d’oeuvres, sometimes with a concert/one act play as added incentive.
-Taped cards with Hershey Kisses attached the seats of season subscribers. The cards said “X Theatre Loves Their Subscribers! Exclusive Subscriber Ticket Sales End X.” This showed the subscribers they were appreciated and created a buzz among non-subscribers wondering what it was about. A curtain speech explained it all. (Have to credit Lisa Jones at the Carolina Ballet with this one. I adopted it from her. Works fairly well.)

For Public Awareness/Relations Some Organizations Can:
-Do short, pointed curtain speeches and be available at intermission for questions/comments.
-Speak at Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings. Offer special business packages.
-Hold backstage tours, playtalks and advanced discussions about themes in shows.
-Give discounts on tickets for people who bring food donations for the local Food Bank.
-Have free First Monday play readings taking advantage of the theatre being dark
-Set up special “get you to the theatre on time” seating and menus with restaurants
-Have pre-show orientation talks in a room off a lobby or restaurant (promoting dinner, talk and show packages)
-Approach a local bookstore about having staff do talks about shows, costuming, lighting design, opera, etc or with significance to a best seller. In return, book store will put up window display promoting a performance with props, posters and perhaps a dress form. (Actually started this process with a Barnes and Noble and got agreement but my employment contract ran out before it came to be.)
-Similarly, approach churches (they are groups of people who go to events regularly as a family unit after all) to do talks about topics of interest. (I met an executive director with an art history background who spoke at evening church talks on the fact that some of the implications in The DaVinci Code that famous people belonged to secret societies were based on fabricated forgeries a la The Hitler Diaries)
-Encourage actors/directors/technicians/musicians, etc to blog. I mentioned the benefits and pitfalls of which I discussed at the end of this earlier entry and the beginning of this one. Just today, I came across these guidelines Groove Networks sets for employee blogs.

-One policy I never was in the position to institute once I formulated it–No disparaging remarks about patrons on the job. One place I worked not only discussed the stupid things people said or asked, they posted a running list on the box office door. I believe this type of thing creates a hostile work environment which subtly insinuates itself into customer care.

Customers are indeed idiots. I should know, I am one. Everyone has an off day. When you deal with a couple hundred people each day, there are bound to be a few having their off day (as well as the chronic idiots). One easy solution to this is the old money in a jar routine whenever someone complains about a patron. Then take the jar to a bar after hours and use it to buy beer and pizza and complain your heart out there.

Anyone else have some tips they have found useful? Some of the things I have done and come across have been sort of corny, but they were successful. I would really be interested in knowing what people have done. I will compile a list and post it as a resource people can consult when they need inspiration.
Clicking on “Joe” at the end of the entry will let you email me.