You Are Paying For It After All

I was reading an article recently in the California Aggie that spoke of the trouble attracting UC Davis students to the Mondavi Center (article no longer available). Since student fees underwrite the Center’s programs, the administration would like to see more students attending. Only 13% of students attend performances that include people like Michael Moore, Bill Clinton, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. When dance and theatre department shows are in the spaces, attendance jumps to 50% (though ticket prices drop).

Granted, students may be required to see the departmental shows which may boost attendance. That is about the only element besides price I could see given reasons like lack of incentive and interest and difficulty securing good seats. Certainly the same could be said of the department shows.

This is a problem I have been faced with when working at universities and a question people ask if I have a solution to. I don’t really have a solution at all outside of the usual channels of student newspapers, etc. Given how much people use email and instant messaging devices, that would certainly be a direction to explore. It would just be a matter of finding an effective opportunity to get students to provide their addresses so you can send updates. How to make sure your messages don’t get ignored like so much spam is another thing altogether.

Given my philosophy of making it easy for people to make a decision to attend, I was attracted to the Mondavi Center’s tactic of putting daily ads in the student paper that only had the student prices listed rather than a half page ad with all the pricing listed which ran only once. Apparently it has begun to pay off for them as student ticket purchases for the remaining 50 shows of the season (out of a season of about 120 events) has risen to 17.2%.

The Center would also like their audience to reflect the racial diversity of their constituency base, but haven’t found as promising an answer to that as they have with their students.

It strikes me that more and more in the future appeals will be made to audience segments rather than audiences in general. The very fact that people can find programs pitched directly to their interests on the myriad cable channels means people’s vision is becoming increasingly tunneled.

I recently saw a program that pointed out that in the 1970s, a prime time program on one of the 3 available networks was ranked around 40 in the Nielsens and had something in the neighborhood of 17% of the viewers. Today shows like Survivor which are heralded as shows everyone is watching are actually only attracting 17% of the viewers because of all the choices available. The failures of yesteryear are counted as the blockbuster successes of today.

Usually, arts organizations can’t even consider advertising on TV and that is even more of an impediment today if you have to consider that one part of your demographic predominantly watches the Home and Garden channel, another A&E, another the History Channel, Discovery, TLC, etc.

The fact they are catered to changes people’s expectations slowly in other areas as well. They may seek newspapers, social groups, radio stations, etc that cater specifically to them rather than ones that are generally aligned with their interests. Trying to reach people is going to become increasingly difficult as time goes on I believe.

I will try to find some research that supports or refutes this idea, but until then. Anyone have any comments or thoughts?

Arts In An Age of Technology

Today I have added the text of my speech on Arts in an Age of Technology to my files section. The speech essentially covers how arts organizations need to deal with the growing expectations that technology brings.

The speech is one I gave during my visit to Wayne State University but is bereft of the little notes I had included to remind me to share an anecdote or additional examples regarding applications of my points. Though I was already pretty much speaking on the topic and using the text as a guide rather than reading it, the ad libbed anecdotes actually added about a half hour to my speech.

Readers of my blog (if there are any of you) will recognize quite a bit of material toward the end from earlier blog entries. The beginning is material I have been pondering for a couple years and have actually spoken on before. It was rather exciting to be speaking on ideas I had only just formulated a handful of days before.

Hopefully the inclusion of this speech in the Practical Applications section is a precursor of many other articles and ideas which will appear there over time (presumably not all originating with me).

The Most Commanding Day of the Year

Today always reminds me of my grandmother who would announce that March 4th (forth) was the most commanding day of the year. It always seemed to me to be a day ripe to be made into a holiday. Two months after the new year, it would be a good day to reaffirm your dedication to resolutions.

I spent the better part of the day refining thank you letters to the search committee at Wayne State. Taking the time to send a letter to each one of them was practicing a bit of what I preached all week. Unfortunately, I also boasted that I wrote good thank you letters while there so I had an obligation to write particularly well. It wasn’t difficult for the most part since I was grateful to different people for different things. However, I hate to be derivative of myself in my letters so I endeavored to talk about my abilities in different ways.

Now that I have returned from my interviewing, it is about time to complete this experiment in reflecting upon my experience as I had suggested in my Feb 24 entry and go back to my stated purpose of finding practical applications to theories. (Another reason to look for a new blog host–this one doesn’t have the tools to allow me to link to earlier entries)

I was happy to see an article on the Washington Post website talking about the value of reflectively blogging about your performing experience. In this case, it is about a musician who is travelling and blogging about his impressions and experience. The article mentions many of the same concerns I expressed in my entry about an organization’s rightful concern about what uncensored, unguided thoughts an employee is conveying in his blog. The entire process seems to be a success and rather pleasing to all parties involved.

Although the blogging musician, Sam Bergman, didn’t know if his efforts would be valuable to audience members, another Arts Journal blogger, Drew McManus, felt differently and invited people to give their reaction.

Since I essentially argued exactly all of this during my visit to Detroit, I really have to restrain myself from forwarding these articles to them with a big “SEE, I’M NOT CRAZY!!!!” in the subject line of an email.

Tomorrow, perhaps I will place the text of the class I taught in my good ideas section. It integrates a great deal of what I posted in my earlier entries, but also talks about things I have been mulling over for a long time.

Return From Detroit

So I am back from my Wayne State interview. It was very exciting and quite a valuable experience in terms of simply having a forum to explain my views on theatre management theory and practice and how to teach it. It certainly sounds different when you are talking about it than when it is part of an internal dialogue.  Honestly, in some cases I was surprised at how intelligent the words coming out of my mouth sounded. Inevitably, some of it didn’t sound as good or I couldn’t explain as clearly as I would have liked.

The program at Wayne State seems to be a very good one and I would certainly like to be affliated with it. Apparently their approach is bucking the current thinking about theatre training and their U/RTA membership is in jeopardy. To me, their program seems like a valid alternative and more valuable to the students than being in a program that does the bare minimum to be in compliance. If nothing else, my visit has provided more subject matter to mull over and present here on the blog.

I apparently hadn’t completely understood a question one of the faculty asked me. Another staff member clarified his intent later and I was a little disappointed because it was in relation to a topic I had given some thought to and could have answered more clearly than I had.

The question was in relation to attracting an audience to the theatre which was better reflective of the population of Detroit which identifies itself as 85% African-American. It is certainly a difficult question and not one I am entirely comfortable about answering given that I am white and discussing the behavior of other races is risky.

Still, it is a valid area of concern and one I have thought about because I believe theatre managers should devote some consideration to solutions in this area regardless of their race. We are among the best educated about an arts organization’s abilities and options. If we don’t think about these things, who will? I believe there is a greater sincerity in the intent of arts organizations to involve and expose diverse audiences to their product than in the motivation of most companies and politicans to attract the same groups to their products and causes.

The following is an excerpt of an email I sent him today. I believe it is a fair assessment of the situation and doesn’t make terribly erroneous or biased statements about the way things stand. I think the biggest argument against it could be is that I (and my questioner) are implying that different races should be valuing/assimilated into the entertainment choices of caucasians. This is certainly a valid point and one could engage in a lengthy debate about the value and validity of European based entertainment for people who come from outside that tradition and the benefits that caucasians can derive from exposure to multicultural arts At the moment I am only trying to find one solution for a small piece of the larger puzzle and debate. It is starting point in terms of pursuing a goal of attracting a more diverse audience for any tradition.

I wrote:

The answer, of course, is not an easy one. It is a matter that I have given some thought to over time. I have perception/theory (you may have actual evidence and feedback as a result of your efforts), that the problem is partly a matter of acculturation. There is the often cited idea that only rich, educated people attend arts events because tickets are more expensive than movies and the arts can be intimidating to understand. However, walking into a theatre, it doesn’t take much effort to conclude that only rich, educated, white people attend arts events.

I think it is easier for a caucasian to one day make the decision to start attending arts events and surmount the intimidation factor because they saw it was something their parents valued (even if they tried to rebel against all their parents stood for) or it allows them to make social contacts that will advance their career or even as a result of some idea that attendance is what one does when one reaches a certain stage in life. Even if it is not an overt influence, there is a subliminal influence of shared cultural values that may not exist as much in other racial communities. If you aren’t white and you walk in to a theatre and see who is on stage and in the audience, it is not hard to imagine there is a subliminal influence against you attending

In addition to all the things I said yesterday, I would add that attracting an audience can be a matter of tapping the resource of opinion leaders, whether it be newspapers and radio stations that serve a racial niche, or actual people. The thing that springs to mind first is churches. This is a good place to look across the board since people who are invested in regularly attending events together can be a desirable group. The fact that presidential candidates are going to churches to woo the black vote is pretty strong evidence that they are places of influence.

Theatres often invite tour operators, critics and other decision makers/people of influence to shows they are trying to promote. It might be useful to invite ministers to shows or rehearsals, have a dinner/reception before hand, provide them with educational and informational packets, talk to them about the shows and answer questions. Essentially make it easy for them to recommend the shows to other people.

Of course, there has to be a commitment to presenting suitable shows across a season. Having a single show that has a particular resonance with a group and expecting people to become enamored of your usual fare is akin to the PGA trying toget more men interested in watching golf by televising women in tight shorts and skimpy tops playing one weekend and then going back to the regular schedule the next.

As I am certain you are aware, there is a fairly limited canon of shows that might be of interest to specific groups, even including shows with universal themes which can be cast using people with a similar racial background as your target audience. And because there are so few shows like this, it is difficult to cast shows with diversity. Therefore, fewer non-whites find satisfaction in being an actor which provides fewer faces audience members can identify with on stage which keeps the audience more homogenous.

It is the old Catch-22. Audiences want to see people/themes they can identify with, actors want to see audiences and perform roles they can identify with, theatres are more willing to produce shows that will have an audience to sustain it, those shows present themes their current audience base can closely identify with. I am sure I am not telling you anything you don’t already know or haven’t considered.

Actually, if any training program has a chance of success in attracting a diverse audience, it is Wayne State. I met/saw more diversity among undergrad and grad actors there than anywhere else I have been. Of course, the truth might be that I met all the actors in both programs. When I was at the X Conservatory in Y, they had a terrible time trying to maintain diversity in their program. Because of the limited role choices, etc. many of the men and women they admitted didn’t feel fulfilled by their experience and left the program in their first or second year in search of another program that might serve them better.

I don’t have any short term solution for the problem. It is all a matter of what I was saying in the meeting yesterday. Repeated exposure to a topic/way of thinking can slowly alter perceptions and plant positive associations about the theatre in people’s minds. There has to be a long term commitment to putting the right combination of people and shows on stage, putting the touring company in front of the right groups, bringing in the right matinee groups. Eventually you hope the message will come across that the theatre is financially, geographically, intellectually, socially, etc accessible to audiences.

I don’t know if this helps at all, but perhaps it will provide some clarity and inspiration that will allow you to arrive at a solution of your own.”

Anyone with other viable solutions? Let me know.