Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Responsibility of Art Is Not Just Internal

When I was sitting at the Dynamic Adaptability conference a couple months ago, at one point an artist got on stage ostensibly as part of a panel on how to raise money for individual projects. He led a rousing 10-minute example of how to engage an audience to donate money to a hypothetical project and encouraged audience members to shout out questions about the project, things like “what is your budget,” “what is the format of the event,” and some variation of “what is the point off this event.” And it’s this last one that caught me, because in response, without hesitation, and to the great joy of the many artists in the audience, the speaker said, “Art does not need a reason to exist; art does not need to be justified.”

As an advocate for the arts, and as a person with a mind for marketing, I find this line of argument both reductive and damaging. Of course art needs to justify its existence, just like any other potential investment opportunity – to claim otherwise is simply to say to claim that art sits above all other aspects of the world. To argue that the simple existence of a piece makes the world a better place, regardless of the quality, message, aesthetic and form of that piece is the same as saying that the mushroom scrubber is in fact a useful invention simply for the fact that it exists. And ultimately, I think such an attitude, of choosing to say “if you don’t get it, too bad” as opposed to trying to puzzle out the intricacies of translating the vocabulary of an artist to that of a lay person, is at the heart of a lot of the perceived irrelevancy and marginalization of the field in the larger population.

I get extremely agitated when I hear a person in one sentence say that they make art from a personal place and feel no need to understand how it engages or doesn’t engage with the community, and in the next sentence say that they want to (or, often, “deserve”) to make a living doing just that.

When it comes down to it, I feel that there are certain people, the greatest artists of all time, for whom such an attitude might be true (although, to point it out, many of those artists did not in fact make a living off of their work during that time, and were instead only celebrated later). And I don’t claim to be able to judge which of the many thousands of individual artists in the city are the ones most likely to be the next great, society-touching savant. But I know, for me, that I love being an artist – taking photographs, designing quilts, writing short stories, painting, drawing, doing theatre – and I don’t especially feel a need to create that work with the world at large in mind. The difference, I think, is that I also don’t have any expectations that a room full of people will throw money from the balconies at me simply because I tell them to, nor that were I in that position, I would not have to answer that person in the third row who shouts out, “Why does this deserve to exist?”

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lights Up: Theatre Bay Area's 2010 Annual Conference

Theatre Bay Area had its 2010 Annual Conference last Monday, May 10, and hooboy was it action-packed! Titled Lights Up: Sparking Conversations on Excellence, this year's conference at the War Memorial & Performing Arts Center featured keynote speech by arts advocate Eric Booth, community conversations and breakout sessions on rethinking new play development, arts education advocacy opportunities, exploring alternatives and adaptations to the nonprofit structure, navigating theatre coverage in the new media landscape, the state of the Bay Area acting pool, measuring the effectiveness of your social media strategy, community engagement as part of the artistic process and much, much more. We also had a number of bring-your-own-breakout sessions, plus playwright-director speed dating and a networking bingo game to help break the ice. People were tweeting all through the conference at the #tba2010 tag, adding another level to the ongoing conversation.

At the conference we also unveiled Theatre Bay Area’s strategic plan for 2010-13, which we’re pretty excited about. The next few years’ chief focuses will be on promoting excellence within the organization and the field, building diverse and devoted arts participants in our audience development efforts and strengthening and preserving an arts-friendly ecosystem. The strategic plan is also online, so check it out.

The day wrapped up with a closing address from Theatre Bay Area executive director Brad Erickson, which we wanted to share in its entirety. Enjoy!

Beyond “Nice”

What an amazing day this has been. Thank you to Eric Booth, and Todd London, and our old friend David Dower, and all the panelists and speakers today. Thank you to Dale and Rebecca, who co-produced today’s conference. Thank you to all of Theatre Bay Area’s staff, our board, our Theatre Services Committee, or Individual Services Committee. Thank you to our volunteers, to everyone here at the War Memorial—and thank you to all of you—400 people here today. Amazing.

Now, before we head upstairs for a drink and Expo and our After Hours programming—yes, there’s more to come—I want to spend a few minutes flipping through this curious playbill type thing we gave you today. Our 2010 Strategic Plan, our roadmap for the next three years—our “Plan in Three Acts.” (Thanks to Rebecca Novick for this great formatting idea.)

Everyone here who works in a theatre or dance company, or almost any other kind of organization, has almost certainly been involved in a strategic planning process. Sometimes they’re invigorating and insightful, sometimes you want to kill yourself. Sometimes you’re just doing it because someone somewhere said you needed to—a funder perhaps?—and really you can’t wait to just get the damn thing done and put it on a shelf where you never have to look at it again.

And then sometimes you really do need to ask—because you really don’t know—Where exactly are we right now? And where in the world are we going? For us, this time around, the questions were more like that.

A couple months ago, Theatre Bay Area hosted the annual conference of performing arts service organizations—or APASO—here in San Francisco. One of our speakers was Diane Ragsdale, the arts program officer at the Mellon Foundation. Diane talked to us about “Surviving the Cultural Change.” She reminded us that for all the real dangers brought on by the recession, the greatest challenge for the performing arts today was recognizing and adapting to huge shifts in our culture. She quoted Dana Gioa, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who observed that “the primary issues facing the American arts at present are not financial. They are cultural and social. We have a society in which the arts have become marginalized.” Diane referred to Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies who has stated that her greatest concern for the field was that arts organizations cannot easily explain why they matter. (Which made me remember that Ben Cameron, former head of Theatre Communications Group and now at the Doris Duke Foundation, has remarked more than once that the most pressing problem facing theatre today is not a fiscal crisis but a crisis of relevance.)

Diane pointed us to a book by Laurence Gonzales called “Deep Survival” which examines why some people in life-threatening situations manage to survive and others perish. “Gonzales,” Diane told us, “explains that the way we navigate in life is by forming and following mental maps: Literally pictures in our minds of particular areas or routes. Gonzales says you get lost when you ‘fail to update your mental map and then persist in following it even when the landscape,’ (the real world), ‘tries to tell you it’s wrong.” In other words, “Whenever you start looking at your map and say something like, ‘Well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘That boulder could have moved,’ a red light,” Diane told us, “should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there. In the sport of orienteering, they call this ‘bending the map.’”

Over the past two years, major markers on all of our maps have shifted radically. Oceans have evaporated and mountain ranges have turned to plains. Our economy has crashed and is now rebounding. Perhaps. If Greece—and Portugal, and Ireland, and Spain—don’t take us all down again. Great Britain has elected a hung Parliament and is struggling to form a government. And our own elections loom just a few months away.

Our world has changed and is continuing to change. Where are the mountains, and the lakes, and the boulders on our maps in May 2010? Are they where we expected them? Are we bending our maps? How many of us need to tear up the Rand-McNallies in our mind, and draft entirely new mental maps that show the world, the Bay Area, as it is today?

For our “Plan in Three Acts” we have chosen for our guide-star one particular word—a hard, sharp-edged, metallic, glinting kind of word, more diamond than down comforter. It’s a word that elicits strong reactions—personal, idiosyncratic, immediate, emotional. Love it, hate it, the word is compelling. The word is excellence.

“Excellence” and our relationship to it—as an organization, as a field, as individual theatre artists—was an idea that emerged from a number of sources during our planning process. It came from board members. It came from members of the community—artists, funders, theatre leaders—it came from a wide spectrum of people whose interest was that Theatre Bay Area should hold itself to the highest possible standards—and that we should also find a way to broach the subject of greater excellence in the field.

And so, we have Act I, Scene 1: In Which We Take a Hard Look at Ourselves and Address Weaknesses and Areas for Improvement—Setting excellence for ourselves as an organization, as our first goal. It’s a scene in which we push ourselves past OK, past good-enough, beyond “nice” to tougher assessment of our programs and services. We are committing ourselves to strengthen what’s good about what we do, to fix what’s not working, and to throw out what’s just plain broken or no longer relevant. It won’t be easy and we’ll need your help. We invite you—no, we beg you—to be honest with us about what’s of value to you, what’s not, what needs to be improved or expanded, what’s just fine the way it is, and what needs to be thrown away.

Next, Act I, Scene 2: “In which we foster excellence in the field.”

This for us is the scariest scene of all. During our planning process, we had months of energetic, even heated, debates about whether we should even tackle this issue head-on. Staff was hesitant. Leaders of theatres and individual artists were excited, though, even insistent. Was it not possible to dare ourselves as a community to spark conversations—candid, no-holes-barred discussions about evaluating the overall quality of our work.

No one imagined some Olympic-style panel of judges in our theatres assigning numeric grades to the work—9.8, 4.7, 6.3. But there was enormous energy around confronting and challenging a Bay Area cultural norm—one I think you’ll recognize—our pervasive, our persistent, our invidious NICENESS.

Niceness, as a human trait, is for the most part a—very nice thing. People from around the country have often commented on the remarkable collegial quality of our theatre community. This trait was called out recently in Theatre Development Fund’s study of new play development, “Outrageous Fortune.” (Todd London, one of its authors, is here with us today, and many of you participated this morning in a conversation around those findings.) At the close of the book, after laying out serious issues in new play development nationwide, Todd and his co-authors point to several examples of success, case studies of what is working well in bringing new plays to life. And the Bay Area is called out for our communal approach. “It Takes a Village” the segment is titled, and it describes the way our theatre companies and new play development groups swap plays and playwrights, share resources, trade information and have formed an informal but interconnected network for supporting playwrights and theatres. This organic system is fantastic and I believe it is directly related to our culture of collegiality and community support, to our over-riding niceness.

But I will also posit that our deeply-rooted niceness—our reluctance to hurt one another’s feelings, and even our innate skepticism of absolutes of all kinds—which is surely one of the reasons for the Bay Area’s long reputation for open-mindedness and tolerance of difference—that this propensity for niceness that we share actually gets in the way of candidly evaluating the artistry and the impact of the work on our stages. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, our niceness stops us from sharing our candid assessments with the artists themselves. Oh, we can be quite upfront about what we think in lobbies and bars after the show—that is to say, behind each other’s backs. But face to face? Awfully hard for us to do. It’s not considered “nice.”

Act I, Scene 2 asks us to make a resolution as a community to move beyond “nice”—beyond a superficial sort of sweetness—towards a deeper respect for each other as artists, a deeper caring, a deeper valuing of the work itself—by creating constructive mechanisms for seeking out and sharing honest evaluation of the art we produce.

Today we distributed a questionnaire asking each of you about your own practice of self-assessment. How you do reflect on your own work? Whose opinions do you trust? Who understands your aesthetic, who gets what you’re trying to do, and who will tell you what you need to hear to be better?

We’re looking at the role Theatre Bay Area can have as an organization in facilitating these conversations, in sharing practices of assessment and reflection. Can we create connections and forums for talking about enhancing the quality and the impact of our work?

I learned from Eric Booth during one of our breakouts today that the etymology of the word “assess” is “to sit with” or “sit alongside.” What a beautiful image: to sit beside one another, supporting each other in our individual efforts to reach greater excellence.

And what amazing work we have to assess. How exciting it’s been over the last several weeks to follow the huge success of Bay Area theatres and Bay Area shows on the national stage. The New York Times in April ran a Sunday feature citing our region as the place in America where “musicals dare to be different.” The story pointed to genre-bending work from Berkeley Rep, TheatreWorks, Brava and Shotgun. Then, last week, following the announcement of the Tony nominees, Rob Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle, framed this year’s competition in New York as the Battle of the Bay, with so many plays, musicals and artists with Bay Area origins now top contenders for this season’s Tony Awards.

When we talk about the excellence of Bay Area theatre, we’re talking about building upon these kinds of successes to fully support the highest reach of all our artists and companies, in all their artistic and cultural diversity.


Because surely the excellence of the work, and our growth as artists, directly affects the relevance of what we do for the communities we live in and deepens the impact of our art on the individual lives of people who come to our shows and engage in our programs. Because ultimately, what we do is about them.

A year and a half ago, in conjunction with Free Night of Theater 2008, we launched a study with renowned researcher Alan Brown looking at finding ways to measure how the work on our stages was impacting, deeply effecting, the audiences in the seats. Something like 80 theatre companies around the Bay Area participated in this pilot study, the first ever to concentrate on a single arts discipline and one of the very earliest inquiries ever into what Alan calls “intrinsic impact.”

What is “intrinsic impact?” I don’t think Alan likes it when I put it this way, but here’s how I describe “intrinsic impact:” We often say that theatre is a transformative experience. Well, this study seeks to measure that transformation. You were transformed? How transformed were you? And how long did that transformation last?

Intrinsic impact is that difficult-to-describe effect that art can have on person’s emotions, intellect, memory and imagination. Why is this important? Well, isn’t this why we make theatre in the first place? To move people, and move them deeply—whether that’s to laughter, or tears, or intense debate, or just to have people leave the theatre humming a song, arm around their companion, and feeling better than they did when they arrived.

Interestingly and less altruistically, the more powerfully audiences are impacted by the art on the stage, the more likely they are to return. And so we have a key to addressing the most astounding statistic I’ve heard in the past 12 months. Here it is. For all the work we have done as a field to attract new audiences to the theatre, and to all the arts, 75% of these new audiences never return. This is true for theatre and dance and symphonies across the country.

What’s wrong here?

If we’re to keep the audiences we bring in, we must understand if our work is connecting with them, if it’s making an impact.

This year, with fantastic support from the Doris Duke Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a host of other funders, we will be launching a nationwide study of intrinsic impact, looking at 25 theatres in 6 cities around the country, working with their artistic directors and managing directors and marketing directors to find ways to measure and strengthen the impact of the art on our stages to the people who see our shows.

Act Two of our strategic plan is all about these folks, the people who come to see our plays. We’re thinking differently about audiences these days. We’re picturing them not just as targets for our marketing, not merely as butts for your seats, not even just as something to be cultivated over time, as in “audience development.” Rather we’re reframing our focus towards engaging the people of the Bay Area as life-long participants in the arts. Now, will we continue to market to residents and visitors alike? Of course. Will we keep trying attract attendees, especially new attendees, to your shows? You bet. Will we continue working to develop audiences for years to come? Absolutely. But we will move beyond the perfectly nice goal of higher attendance towards a more radical purpose of creating theatre participants—of building a wider and wider network of people, all over the Bay Area, who act, and direct, and write, and design—who volunteer and serve on boards and give money—who advocate in Sacramento and City Hall, who vote and teach and—oh, yes—go to plays. Lots and lots of plays.

All the research shows that more and more, people around the country, of all ages, of all demographics, are increasingly becoming creators of art in their own right. They are singing in church choirs and playing musical instruments—more guitars are being sold in California today than ever before. They are making videos and uploading them to the Internet, “curating” musical collections on their iPods, creating web pages, stepping up to open mikes at poetry slams, and, yes, taking acting classes. People are making art even while attendance at “big box” arts events—that is, theatre and dance, along with opera and symphony—continues to decline. These mountains of audience engagement have moved, and our mental maps must reflect the changed cultural topography or we will surely lose our way.

We will succeed in bringing in new audiences in so far as we succeed in making them real participants in the art we put on our stages, and in making them real partners in the companies we run. We will succeed in so far as we are truly connecting to the communities in which we live. To today’s California of 2010. To tomorrow’s California of 2020. Diversifying our audiences to look like today’s California—not the mainly white, mainly middle-class California of the 1950’s—is not just a nice thing to do, something to be embraced by nice, liberal-minded, well-meaning people like ourselves. No. Making sure our audiences look like today’s California is an urgent priority for our companies and for theatre itself, and is as much a matter of survival as balancing our bottom lines. Theatre in the Bay Area must reach and speak to a new California that is increasingly Latino and Asian-American. That is both younger and older than ever before. That is populated with children and adults who haven’t seen comprehensive arts education in the public schools in 40 years.

In Act Three of our plan, we will endeavor, with all of you, to change our region and our state, to make the Bay Area not just a nice place to be, but to make our region—and here’s our big Vision, pull out your playbills—“to make our region a global model for how to create and sustain a diverse society—one that values the arts as an integral component of individual and communal life, as a key element in the exercise of democracy, and as a crucial catalyst for promoting understanding, sparking creativity and fueling economic prosperity.”

When we drafted this vision statement, one of our board members commented that not even the United Nations embraced such lofty goals. I’m not sure if he meant that as a criticism or a compliment. But how appropriate it seems, standing on this stage where the U.N. charter was signed. In any case, this vision comes from you. From this amazing theatre community of artists, and administrators, and advocates, and supporters, and audiences—and from the larger community of creative people of all kinds—who for centuries have flocked to this Bay to reinvigorate their work, to rebuild their lives, to re-imagine their communities.

We are incredibly blessed to live and work in a region that goes so far beyond “nice.” That reaches superlatives in so many ways. That inspires one of our television news stations to state, with a straight face and as a matter of journalistic fact, that they serve the Bay Area—the best place on Earth. Let’s match that, and make this the best theatre community—on the planet.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Annual Conference wandering the blogosphere

Barry Hessenius, the former director of the California Arts Council and currently a consultant and author of Barry's Blog, mentioned one of our Annual Conference sessions in a blog post recently. His post, which was specifically about the Omni-Directional Mentorship session being hosted by Edward Clapp, was also more expansively about the role and state of arts administrators in the field. It's a hard topic -- are we getting top-heavy as an industry, with more administrators than artists, or are we in fact experiencing the opposite, as Michael Kaiser believes: a dearth of competent arts professionals to keep the industry not just afloat but thriving in an increasingly competitive landscape?

Who knows? But we'll certainly be discussing that juicy tidbit and much more at our Annual Conference this coming Monday, May 10 in San Francisco.

To register for the Annual Conference, please visit before noon on Friday!

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