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.

So Many Thoughts, So Little Time

I have been finalizing my preparations for my visit to Wayne State and my flight on Sunday. Besides packing clothes and the like, I have also been making photocopies, practicing the delivery of my class presentations and trying to anticipate the type of questions all the people I meet with will ask.

As before, the process has brought a number of new ideas to mind to consider and explore. Unfortunately, I can’t prepare for my trip effectively and related them all here as well. I probably won’t be able to update the blog again until Wednesday. However, it would be very interesting to be able to continue this experiment and actually make entries reflecting on my experience while I am still in Detroit. I will have to see if I can get web access somewhere.

So Much Life Lived

I have spent the day preparing for my interview at Wayne State next week. The process reminded me of a For Better or For Worse comic strip where the daughter, Elizabeth, is filling out an application form and realized how much she has accomplished in her life. I spent most of yesterday and all of today reviewing old papers and things I had done during my last university teaching experience. In the process, I discovered the reactions to the Chris Lavin article on covering the arts like sports that I was seeking a couple days ago.

I found I had forgotten many of the things I had accomplished and was honestly surprised I had actually thought up the things I did. I also realized that if I had forgotten so much, how much more had my former employers, now references forgotten of the dazzling things I had done? It goes without saying that they never appreciated my full genius as I had, but how much of the things they had appreciated have they forgotten as well?

Of course, I have had instances when people have said my references said I was given glowing recommendations so perhaps my references did remember…or they were fond enough of me to make up extravagant lies.

Most of the work I did today was in preparation for a class on theatre management I will be teaching. My only worry is that it is 2 hours first thing in the morning on the first day I am there. I will probably leave me brain dead for the rest of the interview.

It was very interesting preparing for the class. I had quite a bit of material ready to present from my prior teaching experience. But I have done a lot of reading and rethinking of my ideas since then so it was rather exciting to be able to integrate ideas I just formulated earlier this week into a presentation I will deliver next week. It will be interesting to see how my theories stand the scrutiny of the faculty and students.

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.