Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No, really, we must start thinking about diversity!

I feel like I've been going on forever about how white populations are precipitously heading toward the minority in the Bay Area, since I saw this presentation from the San Francisco Foundation that said, well, that white populations would in fact be the minority in all five Bay Area counties SFF serves by 2050. In fact, there will be no majority population much more quickly than that, and certain counties like Contra Costa and Alameda will reach a Hispanic majority within the next 20 years.

And now here's this New York Times story by Sam Roberts that essentially outlines the same projections for the entire country, per the U.S. Census Bureau. Depending on whether immigration continues at the same level as it has been or continues at a slower pace (those are really the two options), whites will be in the minority nationally between 2040 and 2050.

Why is this important? It is faulty logic to think that an arts infrastructure that creates work for and relies primarily on the attendance of white audiences will be able to sustain itself when projections are showing 20-30 percent drops in white population in the next 40 years. And right now, no one seems to care. Recently, we did a study of how our 100 Free Night of Theater companies are approaching non-white audiences. Here are some bullet points from the study, which is still being processed:

  • 39% of companies claimed no African-American or Asian-American audience share. Almost half (44%) claimed no Hispanic audience share. For comparison, the SFF study puts the current ethnic distributions for those three communities as 8% African-American, 23% Asian-American, and 22% Hispanic in the 5 Bay Area counties.

  • Of those that claimed some non-white audience share, the average claim was 7% for African-American and Hispanic, and 12% for Asian-American.

  • 85% of companies were producing shows that they self-reported as not particularly resonating with non-white audiences of any ethnicity.

  • 88% of companies were planning no particular outreach to non-white populations.

I find these numbers incredibly frustrating. I know it's hard, and I know there's a lot of nuance in the conversation. And I know it's such a hard conversation to have with companies, especially because there are few stories of organizations who have (1) had the impetus to become more inclusive and (2) succeeded. But this isn't a thought exercise anymore.

Mission Paradox, in a post spawned from discussions on Arena Stage's diversity conference (read more at their New Play Development Program blog), argues that companies all fall into one of the following groups, and then suggests a path forward:

1. The Sincere Effort Group - They have the support, the money and the time. At most these groups will need help and guidance on the strategy side of the ledger. They want to diversify, but they may not be sure how, or confident in their ability to do so. This group deserves all the help, encouragement and guidance they can get.

2. The Scared - These people have some sort of fear barrier stopping them from diversifying. Fear of losing audience. Fear of losing money. Whatever. This group should be supported and encouraged . . . to a point. Some organizations spend their entire life cycle scared, that's just how it goes.

3. The "Other Priority" Group - These organizations have decided, for whatever reasons, that other initiatives are more important then a diversity effort. I think we, as an industry, should respect the decision this group makes. Maybe it's a bad decision. Hell, it is probably a bad decision. But groups have the right to make bad decisions.

4. The "No Desire" Group - This group has no desire to diversify. Who really cares why they feel that way? The only thing that matters is that they made that choice.
Again, that's a perfectly acceptable decision to make.

I think our job as a field is to look at each organization and figure out which "diversity category" they fit in.

Then we deal with them accordingly.

Our job is not to move people from one category to another. That's a choice only they can make. Embrace the ones that want change. Support the ones that need help. Wish the rest of them the best of luck and send them on their merry way.

It's a hard line, but honestly if we're talking about a crisis of relevance (and when aren't we talking about a crisis of relevance?) then diversity has to be part of the conversation.

What group do you belong to?

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is This The Future of Ticketing for Small and Midsize Performing Arts Organizations?

Yesterday, I sat in on an all-day design workshop (in New York!) for a new product called AthenaTix, which is currently in development via the national service organization (formerly mostly know for its services to individuals) Fractured Atlas. The program, like Project Audience, which I wrote about earlier (and which I’ll be writing about again shortly), is funded in large part by the Mellon Foundation. AthenaTix, which is targeting to launch Version 1.0 about a year from now, will be an open-source, free ticketing software specifically designed for small and midsize arts organizations. V1.0 will allow for fairly mundane, but important, things like an easy sales path, robust show information, quick processing, printable tickets, etc. But, in later versions, it also has the potential for a lot more--notably shared attendance data across multiple companies (as more organizations start using the system), customizable logins, advanced customer tracking capability, and perhaps even (though likely not in V1.0) dynamic ticket pricing that would respond to set variables like percentage sold, length of time from performance, ticketing variations from night to night and seating area to seating area, and maybe even aggregate review response (via traditional media and social media) to maximize profits. And Athena (which is actually an extremely hard-working acronym for Advanced Technology Hub and Extensible Nexus for the Arts, but is also conveniently named after the goddess of wisdom) is actually envisioned as a modular system that will eventually cover everything a small organization would need in the way of technology, from constituent management to donor software to content management. The system, which, according to Fractured Atlas executive director Adam Huttler, will take up to 20 years (!) to complete, has the potential to revolutionize the way small companies interact with constituents and dramatically level the playing field between variably sized arts organizations.

To be clear, the product that comes out in a year will not be nearly as robust as that--it will probably function only for general admission houses of under 100 seats, with limited runs and a single price point for any given performance (i.e., no discounting). Given all that, perhaps it’s easy to see why what’s got me excited is what’s coming after V1.0--the high potential in V2.0 and onward for substantially benefiting small and midsize organizations (at little or no cost) is extremely appealing, even though V1.0, in the current formulation that they’re talking about (which may, I should point out, change as the design process continues), essentially replicates services that are already available with almost nothing new on the docket.

It seems, too, that when it rains it pours. PatronTechnology, the for-profit company behind PatronMail, is currently beta testing a similar product called PatronManager in Los Angeles. While I can't speak about specifics because the product is still very much in development, Theatre Bay Area staff and members of the Theatre Services Committee were recently presented with a half-hour demo of the product, and what we saw was very exciting.

In both of these cases, the goal is to create a low-to-no-cost solution for ticketing (and donor) management for small and midsize companies. Fractured Atlas, once AthenaTix is finished, will offer it as open source code to whoever wants it, but will also be launching a national ticket vending site built on the AthenaTix platform and collecting ticket processing fees as income. AthenaTix, and the entire Athena program, will be radically transparent--they're currently sharing everything at PatronManager is still in beta, and so is somewhat under wraps. If you're interested in learning more, email me and I'll connect you into the process.

All of this is very much still in process, but we’re really excited here at Theatre Bay Area to see not one but two fantastic products coming down the pipeline designed to directly address a major field-wide need.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Writing for the Head Is "All Wrong"

Frank Dickerson, a fundraiser and researcher, recently published an article whose title gives away his thesis: "The Way We Write is All Wrong." His piece, which is specifically about fundraising language for American nonprofits, linguistically analyzed 1.5 million words from 2,412 online and direct-mail fundraising documents using a series of computer programs developed by a linguist named Douglas Biber.

The article is interesting and is written, deliberately, in the easily accessible, anecdote-filled tone that Dickerson recommends fundraisers use--which has the side benefit of being quick and easy to read. Essentially, Dickerson's analysis reveals that the vast majority of the fundraising pieces he looked at have a tone and format linguistically consistent with dry, scholarly writing; fundraising discourse "failed to connect with and involve readers on a personal and emotional level" and "failed to tell stories about real people whom readers might actually care about."

The most interesting part of the paper, for me, was his hypothesis on why nonprofit fundraisers fall back on overly written, overly edited, dry asks that rely on statistics, measurable outcomes, etc. Dickerson argues that development professionals in the nonprofit world are super educated, with advanced degrees, etc., and that being brought up in that style of scholarly writing affects their ability to write. In his words:

"They write as if they were still graduate students. They continue to produce a style of discourse appropriate to a past-bound setting, dedicated to a past-bound task, created for a past-bound audience…In contrast, [fundraisers should] follow writing rules or laws of composition that enable discourse to achieve pre-determined rhetorical aims…[like] interpersonal involvement and narrative discourse."
(Italics his…all of them.)

After taking a short side trip into the neurological underpinnings of his argument, which is interesting but sort of out of left field, Dickerson does provide some examples from the 2,412 pieces he analyzed that scored really well on his Biber scales. One is a letter from the Catholic charity Covenant House that tells a story about giving a meal to a young hooker on the street. The other is a rather gripping tale from a Jewish charity that helps forgotten Holocaust heroes. In both cases, what really got me is that Dickerson is advocating the type of storytelling that I often reel from--I find it manipulative and frustrating. At the same time, it's not terribly surprising that direct-mail pieces that appeal to the emotional, empathic part of a person's brain do better in asking them to support a cause.

We in the arts may have a shorter way to go to get to that type of fundraising writing, since we traffic first and foremost in an ethereal product that itself appeals to the emotional, emphatic part of the brain.

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