Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Delicious Tension of AftA

Jonathan Katz, longtime and now retiring leader of NASAA, and Maryo Gard Ewell, second generation community arts activist and teacher, decided to write a book each about the history of their respective areas of arts support.

This isn't the start of some fictional novel. This conversation actually happened during the AftA National Convention in Nashville in the middle of June. I was lucky to be standing there when they chatted and vociferously encouraged both of them to write those books. What a blessing for our field that would be, to have these first-hand accounts of what really happened over the course of the last sixty years during the rise of state and local arts support. For all the talk about the coming massive leadership shift (1 in 4 within five years), we have to acknowledge the body of wisdom that has the potential to be lost during it.

Marcus Shelby
AftA is informally about that delicious tension between learning--and learning from--our history and creating entirely new ideas, tools, and relationship. During the closing session, Bassist and Composer Marcus Shelby took us on a journey through music history with his gorgeous upright, helping us hear how music builds upon itself in its use as inspiration in times of struggle. Knowing the past, knowing the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, is critical to achieving new heights.

Adapting, changing, tweaking and finding what works for your art/organization/community: again and again the conventioneers talked about "what was" compared to "what can/should be." One of my favorite sessions was this very debate: support what was or demand what should be? Aaron Dworkin, of The Sphinx Organization, and Devon Smith, of Threespot, impressed with their passion, cogency of thought, and active listening of each other's arguments. The sanitized title "We should let arts organizations that don't adapt die" doesn't come close to the furor that I'm sure is often underlying the debate outside of the
convention setting. But at the heart of this argument is learning from history, not being beholden to it, and building on it to create a thing (art, relevance, conversations, organizations, etc etc) that matters.

Learning this history can be difficult in our field: time-consuming at the very least, to seek out information, even in this internet age, as a lot of it is not online (yet). Katz and Ewell are talking about writing books, after all, and even if I pre-order them, how many of my rural colleagues are likely to get a copy? I'm extremely blessed to have spent the last three years learning a lot of the history, both by attending AftA and through my Goucher graduate studies. But not everyone can take advantage of this opportunity, which is why those of us who can must take our knowledge from AftA and spread it around back home. Share the accumulated knowledge so that, rather than reinventing wheels, we can put those wheels together and really go.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My 3 Personal Takeaways from my Internship with Liz Lerman

The following was part of my final presentation for my internship with world-renowned dancer/choreographer/artist/amazing Liz Lerman. If you ever ever have the chance to work with her (or any of the dancers she's trained over the years, especially Elizabeth Johnson or Michelle Pearson), Do Not Hesitate. Jump at the fantastic opportunity.

I wasn't certain what I wanted to do for my internship. I already had a lot of experience in theater, and there wasn't really much in that field that I felt would be worth exploring as part of this learning environment. By the time registration rolled around, I had expanded my job as far as my board would let me take it.

My classes had both strengthened my confidence in my talents and skills and pushed me to explore being of more service in my community. I had figured out what my personal values were, and that what I wanted to do with my career--whatever that career would wind up being--was to honor, support, and nurture others who felt called to the performing arts.

Ramona and I had tossed ideas back and forth for several months about what I might do for my internship. “Tossed ideas around” is putting it nicely: Ramona shot down every idea I brought up. Honestly, I don’t remember what the ideas were, but I do remember being very frustrated that everything I wanted to do, there was a block being put in my way.

Now, when that happens, I have Liz in my head asking “Why are you frustrated? What is this discomfort about?” See, I also have come to believe that there are no accidents, and that there is a path in life, even if I may not be able to see where that path is leading.

One day at Residency last summer, Ramona and I sat down to discuss my final year in the program. Knowing how frustrated I’d been, and that I needed to settle on an internship idea fairly quickly if all the plans were to be in place at the right time, I did something I was not used to doing. Rather than asking for permission, I asked for advice.

I asked Ramona, “If I want to be Mara Walker one day,” she’s the #2 at Americans for the Arts, “what would you suggest I need to learn?” Ramona said, “well, you should learn how to work with a powerful personality, how to take direction and get things done.” And then, she asked the most incredible question: “And I have the perfect idea for you. How would you like to work with Liz Lerman?”

Now, I’d heard of Liz Lerman. It’s rather difficult to be in a room of nonprofit arts administrators who are strongly rooted in the belief that arts are part and parcel of community, and not have her name evoked.

I thought working with her would be a nice feather in my cap. I didn't realize it would change the very way I approached my own work and that it would wind up pointing the way to my career.

After talking with Liz and her team, we settled on the idea that I would explore the idea of a website for her tools that she’d built over the years. Dance Exchange had a toolbox on their website, but it wasn't in high use, and was not user-friendly to a non-dance audience. And, it was free.

Over the course of the project, I had three learning goals:
1. to manage the research for a legacy project with an individual artist
2. to translate an individual artist’s process into a platform applicable to other fields of inquiry
3. to increase the monetary resources for an individual artist

They were important skills or would be possible professional tactics.
What I did not realize was those were not the real things I needed to learn.

I hope I’ve already shown that I have done those three things. Here are three other things that changed me on a fundamental level:

1. I now like non-social dance. Can I be completely transparent for a moment? I was NOT a modern dance fan. I loved the ballroom dance world, ballet I could appreciate for the technical ability (forgive me, I didn’t know any better), but modern was truly a foreign language to me. And while I feel you can be an okay performing arts administrator without an appreciation of varying art forms, you’re not going to be head-of-the-NEA great. Reading on the the history of modern dance, the applicability of improvisation, the trust of contact, and the beauty of site-specific work has made me eager to explore the field more, even to the point of wanting to find a contact improvisation class after graduation. The idea of connecting on that level is intriguing.

2. Which leads to #2: trust and improvisation. The Universe has been nudging me in this direction for a while, and I feel like putting me together with Liz was its last ditch attempt to say, “Devra, you have got to learn to let go and trust other people to support you.” I believe this was evident because not long after we settled on the internship proposal, I got a new job as the Executive Director of a small theater in which local improv teams perform regularly. Working with Liz, reading her words on creativity, which included “Rattling around in other people’s universes. It is done through unexpected partnerships, unexpected connections, unexpected juxtapositions.” and hearing my improv groups lament a lack of attendance and understanding, all this put me in a position of being able to say “yes and?” rather than what my impulse of “change is scary” would have been. For too long I’ve played small out of fear and I can’t be of service to the field if I keep to that mindset. I have to be open and play bigger.

3. The final change was I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. {Read “community flag in Site Dance} I have long been passionate about the performing arts. My own life was radically changed in high school by my first community theater show. But I’ve had trouble figuring out that crucial intersection of what I’m good at, what I enjoy, and what can increase my resources. This internship has clarified that venn diagram for me: I am good at project management and building relationships. I enjoy putting together people and the resources they need to make their art. I believe in the power of community-based arts and that everyone has a story to share. So, I have decided I want to be a theater impresario. Not the old-time smarmy dictatorial kind. But the true meaning of the word: someone who helps bring projects and ideas to life. I want to find those community stories and make them shine. I want to encourage and help people follow their artistic desires. And I want to put audiences in front of those artists, to make the whole community better.

Liz wrote: {Read Creativity piece in Hiking}. There have been all of these things over the past three months, indeed, the past three years. At the end, I’ve come back around to the main force in my work. It was true of my days in retail, and is still true today: that there is a sparkle in someone’s eye when they understand and are excited about what they were doing, and my goal is to make that sparkle happen.

I’d like to thank Liz, Ramona, and all the folks who answered questions and provided help during this project, for this amazing opportunity.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thesis Teaser #2


Title of Thesis:                                   Courting the Community: Promises and Realities of New Performing Arts Centers in Small to Midsize Cities

Degree Candidate:                            Devra L. Thomas

Degree and Year:                              Master of Arts Administration 2014

Major Paper Directed by:                Robert Wildman

                                                            Welch Center for Graduate and Professional Studies

                                                            Goucher College

            The widespread construction of large-scale performing arts centers in order to revitalize downtowns has proliferated across the U.S. over the past twenty years. The economic research into the impact on the local arts ecosystem already established in these communities is slight. The goal of this thesis was to examine the arts ecosystems in four small and midsize cities located around the country that had recently completed such a revitalization project and determine what impact had been made on the various nonprofit performing arts organizations.
            Research conducted includes a review of each city’s building process and arts ecosystem, interviews with both the performing arts center management and nonprofit arts organization affiliates, and evaluation of financial data in public IRS 990 forms. After contextualizing the present-day concern by examining the history of competition within theater in 20th century America, there follows the actual repercussions of revitalization within these four cities and an exhortation to broaden the discussion among the new larger ecosystem.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thesis teaser #1

The first two paragraphs from my forthcoming Master's Thesis:

"The story is a familiar one: a city of a certain size decides it wants to increase the cultural offerings available for its residents. The city’s appointed leaders, or perhaps its unappointed ones, the businessmen or philanthropically-minded independently wealthy, look at the neighboring city, and the flow of people and money into and out of the beautiful new theater located there, and decide they should build one too. Capital is raised, land is acquired, and up goes a towering cultural institution, featuring the finest in touring performers and appealing to the patricians and the bourgeoisie.

“For tens of thousands of urban theatergoers these local playhouses would become their most immediate--and for some their only--point of reference for experiencing French theater” (Clay 770). In the mid to late 1700s, France experienced just such a theater building explosion. By the end of the century, over seventy French cities “had inaugurated at least one new playhouse” (738). Traveling shows flowed from one end of the country to the other (767). The new merchant middle class could enjoy the cultural cachet of attending the theater: “provincial audiences, too, could imagine that they were part of a national cultural community” (769)."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lessons Learned in Asheville: Part 2

Thanks for all the love for the 1st 5 Lessons. I'm digging hearing from everyone who cares about Asheville and theater. Here are the remainder of my arts applications.

6. "Give away something free to build your brand. Offer a pre-show show." There is a fine line between "not getting paid for your work" and "being generous with your work." It's up to every artist to determine where that line is. We can certainly all agree on the fact that we routinely--across the performing arts spectrum--undervalue our work and there is a dangerous continuum between commercial pay and community volunteer work. All of that, though, is for another blog post.
  This lesson is about generosity. We went to one of the newer breweries, HiWire Brewing, to sample their wares, and lucked into a free performance by a local blues musician, Andrew Scotchie. Great stuff, all way around (husband said the Double IPA was the best beer of the trip).
  First: the music show was for free, at a non-traditional site. I've heard people say, "this doesn't work with theater because we need the audience to pay attention, otherwise they don't get the scene." To which I say, "You think the musicians don't want people to pay attention?" I feel this is a cop-out for the work of growing new audiences. One of the local theater groups did Henry III as a pub crawl a few years back. Do we think that every barfly became a huge theater fan after that experience? Nope. But were there a few who did? Probably. Musicians (which is performance art, remember?) routinely do site-specific shows, play a bit of their repertoire for free, and interact with their audience to make them feel part of the performance.
  Second: If the main reason for your audience being in your building is for your 2-hr production, what else is happening to expand the evening into something remarkable? Are people showing up just before the curtain goes up because there's not reason to be there any earlier? How can we change that?

5 of these are Asheville pubs.
Mo's is in Hillsborough. Iron City is Pittburgh.
7. "Merchandise is the 2nd best advertising." Full disclosure: we have a pint glass collection that we use every day (part of which is pictured here). Know what this does? These glasses serve as constant reminders of our trips and experiences. Know what that does? Keeps these places at the forefront of our minds and makes us talk about them more to our friends and family. We all know word-of-mouth is the best advertising. But how do we keep people talking about us long after the show is over? I know a lot of larger theaters are doing this (Signature Theater is one of my faves.) but smaller theaters would benefit  even more from offering something for sale. As my friend Sara said, "Find something quality that fits with your brand and your audience." Pint glasses are perhaps the most perfect thing for a brewery to sell. What is it for your theater?

8. "Work with your competitors to everyone's benefit." It's rare that you go into a brewpub that only serves in-house brews. How often are theaters working with other theaters in the area? I have never heard an audience member say, "This is the only theater I attend." Collaborating in some way with other area groups/artists can be a win-win situation for everyone: new ideas, shared risk, audience growth. It doesn't have to be a big, co-produced show (although it could be!). It could be as simple as cross-marketing. Or buy one-get one half off on tickets. Or "bring your coffee mug from theater x and we'll give you a free cup of coffee at theater y." The possibilities are endless. HiWire doesn't lose audience when they offer the seasonal Greenman Porter on tap. Theaters aren't going to lose audience if there is a poster advertisement in the lobby for another theater's show.

9. "Unexpected details delight the experience."
Shared this w/ my brother,
who is building a tiki bar
Fodder for another blog post: I'm a thrift/antique store junkie. I love it when I stumble onto a space where the dealer has obviously taken a little bit of time to arrange things for maximum earning potential. It doesn't take much time or energy to make a junk pile into an orderly setting. We put a lot of time into designing our sets, costumes, sound, props, and lights. How can we use those elements in unexpected ways off the stage? It doesn't need to be expensive or time-consuming. Heck, it doesn't even need to be physically at the theater. One local theater ran a blog for their costume department for a show. Audiences could see character sketches, material selection, fittings, hat-makings, accessories. Details that make the play better, but rarely get valued as the work they are.*

10. "An overall experience can be enjoyable even with one underwhelming element." But the reverse is rarely true: one excellent element may not make up for an overall under-par experience. If you focus all your energy on acting, to the detriment of other elements and customer service, the entire occurrence may not engender a burning desire to return in the hearts of your customers. Be liberal with your efforts on making the whole event pleasurable, with the awareness that something may not hit the mark, and that's okay. But don't neglect anything.

Cross-pollination from other fields into the arts is one of my most favorite things to do. Take a look around everywhere you go. And let me know when you find something good!

*Who else besides me would like to watch the technical and design award portions of the major award shows (Tony, Emmy, Oscar)?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lessons Learned in Asheville: Part 1

Because I never stop arts administering when I'm away from my theater, I tend to see details that are applicable to my work everywhere I go. Case in point=my family took a 36 hour getaway to Asheville, NC last weekend. It was a lovely mental break from the constant managing/thesis/internship work I have going on right now. I also constantly remarked, "we should do this in theater," much to my husband's amusement. Here is the list, in order of the weekend.

1. "Kids are not an afterthought but should be planned for within the experience." In a bigger sense, this is no detail is too small. Think about who comes to your shows, who you want to come to your theater, and make them feel comfortable. As a parent, I'm always impressed when a business includes touches for my kid: eye-level signage, stools in the restroom, and interesting things at the check-out counter. Tupelo Honey treats the under 12 set as valued customers in their own right, with palates that are as varied as their parents'. 

2. "Amuse Bouche needn't appeal to everyone to be effective." Tupelo Honey brings these beautiful biscuits to the table when you sit down, gorgeous southern fluffiness, with house-made berry compote and local honey. Honestly, I wasn't that crazy about the taste. But the sheer presentation made me appreciate it and eager for my dinner to arrive. It's impossible to pick a small gift that will appeal to everyone who comes for a performance. But don't let that stop you from trying something. You could tie it to the show, or make it relevant to your organization branding, or make it not particularly relevant to anything within your four walls at all--the fact you're gifting anything may be enough for some people. 

3. "Do something remarkable and different with outstanding service and people will line up to work with you." We arrived right at opening for brunch at Early Girl Eatery and there was already a line of a dozen people waiting to get in (we'd been warned). This restaurant would technically be considered of the diner-variety: breakfast all day, meat-and-two (or three) offered, salads, that sort of diner. The food was amazing, incorporated local ingredients; the dining room had a friendly, comfortable atmosphere; and the service was almost impeccable*. Your patrons may come to you for the plays, but they come back to you for the experience. Make the whole experience so enticing that return customers take up most of your seats. This likely means saying "no" as rigorously as you say "yes." Don't put something on the menu just because it's in vogue. 

4. "Know your customer. You become a valued, supported member of the community by relentlessly focusing on that community." Malaprops is one of the best known independent bookstores in North Carolina, if not in the southeast. As an independent, with limited square footage, they've figured out who their customer is, what appeals to them most, and then offer that on a daily basis. Writer's groups, author readings and signings, community bulletin board: everything ties back into their literary mission. Find one small thing that fits with your mission and do that. Then scale it up or out. Shakespeare house? Maybe it's voice and dialect classes. New works? Maybe it's a local playwrights roundtable once a month.  

5a. "What small ordinary thing that you may find elsewhere can you make extraordinary?"
5b. "What sample pack can you give your customer?" These are related and both come from Asheville Brewing Company. We stopped in for lunch and had pizza and ordered a flight of different brews. First: you can find pizza everywhere, right? The ABC pizza had the best sauce I've ever tasted, and offered a variety of doughs for the crust. What one small thing about your product can you make extraordinary? If there are several theater groups in your area, what will be the element that sets yours apart? Maybe it's costumes, or the seats in your theater. Yes, your art should be the most excellent you can produce. What's the extra 1% you can give?
  The other one is the flight. If you're not a brewery regular, this is a [usually] paddle of 4 oz glasses that contain a sample of the breweries offerings. Depending on the place, sometimes you can pick what you want, others bring the 4-5-6 they have on tap. It's an inexpensive way to sample everything and pick what you really like**. Then you order a full pint of that. How can we let folks sample our wares? I think this especially applies to the organizations that offer a variety of performing arts, but may be even more important for traditional theaters. Maybe we need to add/rebrand subscription packages to "sample packs": buy 3 tickets, come to any three shows of your choice from the season or first three months or whatever works for you. Then tell us what you like and we can make sure you don't miss it next time around. This is doable even in one-person shops; even a simple CRM database can let you log that data and sort for "comedy" next time one rolls around.

There are five more. Part 2 is here

*I say almost because I believe there is always room for improvement in customer service. Until someone can read my mind. 

**Especially when there's 2 different IPAs on tap! There is a reason Asheville is known as the Beer City of the South. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Existential Creation Problems

My problem has always been wanting to immediately jump to the end result without mucking about with the messy hard tasks needed to get there.

Apparently this is quite normal. I'm finally getting around to listening to Daniel Kahneman's 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. I'm not very far into yet (only listening in the car and driving has been on hold with the snow recently), but early on Kahneman points out that our brains are wired for the path of least resistance. Thinking requires effort and those tasks which require more thinking are less desirable because of the effort required. 

That hit me rather hard. I had typed that first sentence two or three days before listening to the piece in the book, as a place holder on a blog idea. When I listened to Kahneman's research and theories, I realized that what I had been doing all along was human nature and not a specific Devra defect. (I have lots of those, but another time.)

I decided to write about this now because I'm having that itchy feeling of "this is hard and I don't want to do it any more" constantly these days. Having just stepped out of a position I'd held for 6.5 years into a job that I'm having to pick up new procedures and make long-range strategies myself is definitely requiring slow thinking. Researching and writing my thesis (new content) and creating a monetized platform for an individual artist's techniques (entrepreneurial endeavor) is pushing my brain to the max. Talk about new pathways: it's like trying to run a marathon through molasses. 

I know all  some of the tricks for moving forward on projects: breaking the project down into smaller steps, having accountability partners, setting non-negotiable deadlines, etc. Occasionally I get those moments of flow that make the task seem almost manageable. Mostly right now, though, I'm having to will myself every day to take one more step up the mountain of creation so that I don't lose precious time. 

Here's the arts admin tie-in: changing the way our arts institutions are being run requires slow thinking. It requires purposeful, effort-full, hard, lengthy slow thinking. Added to the inherent abhorrence of change, this is a losing proposition for all but a handful of administrators or organizations. Why do we laud Michael Kaiser's work? Because he makes these two things look easy. Why is Nina Simon such a rockstar in the museum world? Because she does these two things every day. The way forward for the arts is not black and white. It's not a fast-thinking fix. Making our field relevant and sustainable (chicken-and-egg) requires the slow thinking of our researchers and academics and the change tolerance of our leaders and creators to build something new. 

In the theater world (which is the world I inhabit, so there are points about visual art or other performing arts that I can't speak to), the act of theater is as old as humanity, but our current system of theater is only 60 years old or so. Same age as television, when you think of it, and look at all the changes that medium is undergoing now. Commercial theater didn't die when nonprofit theater started. The consumption of theater in exchange for a monetary medium had been happening for thousands of years by that point. The hue-and-cry that is now being sounded for the nonprofit theater model was the same one sounded for commercial theater when that model started. Examined from afar, in fact, the two models are not that indistinct: the same basic stocks (plays, playwrights, actors, directors, techs, venues), the same feedback loops (money in some form or fashion), and similar rules to the game (largely thanks to Equity and the NEA). I'm going to go way out on the limb and say their purpose is actually the same: to use the theatrical art to extract a change of demeanor in another person.

The theater system, as a subsystem of the arts, is not broken. It can't be, otherwise there would be no theater. The arts are not broken, otherwise there would be no dance, no song, no comedy, no sculpture... Relevance is a, well, relevant term: there are millions of people for whom making and consuming art in some form is a daily necessity, a Maslow bottom-level (and I know folks who would argue that that is actually true of everyone, some just don't want to admit it or call it art). So what needs to be relevant to whom? And sustainable by who's definition? Arena Stage looks an awful lot from the outside like any performing arts center in any major city. Zelda would argue with me, as would Molly, but for the casual live-entertainment ticket-purchaser, there isn't a difference. So is a large building, multi-million dollar endowment, 10% return on capital investment, recoupment in a short time span, critics loving every line and direction, audiences signing up for season subscriptions, people beating a path to your door, 24-7 lines sustainable?

"To get to tomorrow, Theodore, you have to dial one number higher." We're not looking high enough, broad enough, long-term enough. Most of us can't: we're too mired in the daily activities of doing the business of art to really see the system for what it is. Our national organizations try to do what they can, which is commendable. Fear of change, lack of time and energy, though, still keep the varying subsystems plodding along as they have been. Changing goals, or paradigms, or the very system itself, will require someone who is comfortable trudging through the messiness.

The molasses is thick. But the finish line is sweet.