Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, the Joys of Live Theatre

I recently made a reservation to see a show at a local theatre. I received an email back from the artistic director, who had also directed the show, saying that she hoped I still wanted to come, but that she felt that she had to tell me in advance that she would be going on carrying a script in place of an actor that had left the show. Of course I still went, not only because I know her to be a great actor and wanted to support the theatre, but also because I had great deal of interest in seeing this particular show. I replied as such and also added, in jest, something to the effect of “I hope you aren’t also house managing and running the light board!" Imagine my surprise when I walked into the theatre and she actually was house managing!

I was reminded of an opening night performance I attended a number of years ago at a large Equity house, where the lead actor had left the show a few days before opening and the director went on in place of the actor, script in hand. It was one of the most memorable and moving nights of theatre I have ever experienced. In that case, the artistic director made a pre-show announcement providing the context of “Oh, the joys of live theatre.” In both cases, the script became virtually invisible, either due to the skillful physical handling of the script, the performance/skill of the director/actor or some combination of the two.

What struck me most about both of these experiences is that there was an almost palpable electricity onstage. There seemed to be a renewed focus and increased energy from all of the players. The actors and the entire production team rallied together in a way they couldn’t have possibly done in the absence of this adversity. The end result, though likely very different from the rehearsed "product," was, in my estimation, probably a more energized, committed and focused performance for all.

The audience in both of these cases approached their experience differently as well. They were almost uniformly rooting for the team to pull it off and even looked forward to the story they would be able to tell their theatre-going friends: “I was there when….” They also were, probably unconsciously, even more attentive, observant and gracious than they would have been otherwise.

While none of us would ever wish for something to go awry during the run of a show, such instances epitomize some of the things I love most about theatre: its risk and its immediacy. As an artist, these brushes with theatre "disasters" remind me to challenge myself: am I always bringing as much focus and commitment to the work I am doing as I can?

I’m sure we all have many similar stories, at theatres large and small. What are some of your best "I was there when..." stories (either as an audience member or as an actor)? How did the theatre "disasters" affect the experience as a whole, either for the actors or for the audience members?

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Proving what we know is true

This post originally appeared on ARTSblog.

As artists and arts advocates, we all know, deep down, that Art Matters. But we continue to grapple with how best to talk about that value, to “justify” (a loaded word) or “prove” that the continued investment in infrastructure, arts education outreach and daily artistic input into the population-at-large is necessary to the creation of a tolerant, educated, empathic and energized society. The great work of Randy Cohen and Americans for the Arts on the economic front, including the creation of the Arts and Economic Prosperity Calculator, have gone a long way towards standardizing the arguments around economic impact of arts and culture, and has essentially gotten us all on the same page. But, and this language is getting to be a cliche, economic impact is only part of the answer – half of the answer at most, really – and getting to the point where we can talk about the intellectual, emotional, social, empathic impacts of the arts in the same specific, data-driven way as we can talk about the economics may open up a brave new world of advocacy for money, time and respect from the government, the funding establishment, the education system and our patrons.

Of course, in some ways, we’re already good at getting at some version of what researcher Alan Brown calls the “intrinsic impact” of art – mostly in the form of testimonials from arts patrons. A well-formed interview can get you incredible stories of the transformational power of art, and such things, when well-packaged, can prove very valuable in the conversation with arts skeptics about the value of artistic work. But interviews are really, truly only part of the answer here, and as part of the National Arts Marketing Project Conference session, Did the Campaign Work?: Integrating Impact Assessment into your Strategies, we (Theatre Bay Area) will be unveiling a year-long research and development effort to create a web-based service for theaters and other arts organizations across the country to quantify the intrinsic impact of their work, generate easy-to-read dashboards, and provide sample survey and interview protocols to generate a new type of conversation using a new vocabulary. Working with research firm WolfBrown and arts service organization partners in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, Theatre Bay Area will generate a year-long set of activities focused around in-depth work with 18 theatre companies (including some of the most influential regional theaters in the country from Arena Stage to the Public Theater) across the course of a season. This work will include a whole battery of efforts from surveying to long-form interviews, video testimonials, web interface development, and a series of community forums in fall 2010 and summer 2011 – all in an effort to spark a change in the way we, as artists, evaluate and value the arts. Because ultimately, no matter how much we believe it in our hearts, we can’t effectively argue for the value of the arts to anyone if we can’t speak about the parts of art that go beyond restaurant tabs, parking fees and tolls – in a language our debate partners understand.

We’re not trying to replace anything, we’re trying to add. In his book No Culture, No Future, Simon Brault notes, “…[A] one-dimensional and instrumental approach that would only justify or value artistic creation solely where it has calculable economic impact would be immensely more devastating for our society than underestimating the cultural sector’s economic contribution.”

The expansion of the argument for the arts, which began to work its way into the social and intrinsic impact spheres in the 1990′s, must now move from half-million-dollar-plus one-off studies to egalitarianized, easily accessible, standardized tools that anyone from the smallest to the largest cultural institution can use to demonstrate and analyze their own value and their great effect on the social fabric. We need as many tools as possible, and must, in Brault’s words, “come to terms with variable logic and negotiate with a multitude of new partners.” To that, I’d only add, “in a language as concrete and standardized as that which we use to talk about economic impact.”

For more in the Intrinsic Impact: Audience Feedback 2.0 study, visit, or come to our session!

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Monday, October 18, 2010

From the road: conversations about intrinsic impact, part 1

For the past couple of weeks, I've gotten to travel to five of the six cities that are taking part in our big intrinsic impact study, and it's been a truly fascinating process. As a part of this work, we are sitting down with the artistic, marketing and management staff of each of the participating theaters for two hours to talk through the survey protocol and, more generally, to talk about where research, and specifically research about audience feedback, falls into the artistic selection process. Boy, do responses vary.

In some cases, the staff seem to have a healthy conversation going with their audiences, creating what researcher Alan Brown, who is conducting the study via his firm WolfBrown, calls a "feedback loop." In other cases, the response seems muddy, and often indicates that the internal conversation about this question hasn't yet happened - or at least that a coherent consensus hasn't yet been reached. And then there are the companies that have a very clear view of things, and that view is that audience feedback sits nowhere near artistic selection.

I don't know that there is a right answer here, although coming at it from a marketing point of view I see some real downsides to not at least taking audience feedback, especially the type of "intrinsic effects" feedback we are talking about in this study, into account at all. After one of the meetings, Alan talked to me about how he is fascinated by those maverick artistic directors who don't really engage in a conversation with their audiences, but manage to succeed (sometimes fabulously). Artists like that exist, and their existence is fantastic - they are able to build experiences that audiences don't even know they want. These people remind me of visual artists like Pollock, Picasso and Van Gogh, who created from their own vision, and who managed to tap into the public's vision over time.

What is hard for me is that it seems clear that for every Van Gogh, there are thousands of artists out there who don't quite hit the zeitgeist, but think they will. When you loop it back to theatre, these are the leaders of theatre companies who think they are thisclose to being visionaries, to creating monumental work, but are in fact creating a bunch of insulated work that isn't really connecting. Maybe these artists are aware of this problem but don't feel that changing is a valid way forward. Or (more likely, I think) maybe these artists don't actually know whether or not their work is affecting in the ways they want it to be.

Ultimately, of course, the work becomes unsustainable if no one will pay to see it. But what if incorporating just a little hat tip to the audience's emotional, intellectual and social connection - seeing how, as we will be able to do with this intrinsic impact study, the audience's experience matches up against the goals of what theatre companies want them to experience - could shift that trajectory and make that many more successful pieces, that many more affecting experiences?

I'm interested in hearing how the conversation evolves over the year, and discovering who uses this information and how. We are prepared for some companies to simply set these results on a shelf and never look at them, though we hope that won't be the case. But even if in the end the leaders of a company decide that this type of work isn't their cup of tea, hopefully they'll figure out why they are resistant, and what the perceived threat is, and how real it is. That's a conversation, and in this case, that's success.

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