Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sometimes more isn't better

I've always loved that line from the Sabrina movie (the remake, thank you, not the original, oddly enough). "Sometimes it's just more." 

Problem: we don't have enough audience to fill our shows. 
Problem: we need to run three weeks because the first weekend is just for marketing, we won't sell out.
Problem: the local paper(s) is cutting theater coverage. how are people going to find out about us now?
Problem: we post it on social media but the only people who see that are people who already know about the shows we do.
Problem: there are so many different calendars/event listings/blogs. we don't need/can't afford another one. (Yogi Berra, anyone?)

The REAL problem: we haven't a clue who our audience is or who we want our audience to be

Those other things aren't problems. At best, they are marketing tactics that aren't being done correctly or efficiently. The first one listed is a metric, a data point that doesn't have any relevance because most theater companies aren't sure what "enough" means anyway, or how to correctly price their product. 

You can have audience churn, in which case the solution is advertising saturation. 

Or you can have raving fans, in which case the solution is to hone your art and message and service. 

But unless you have gobs of money or time, you can't have both. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who are you serving?

Do you know who your theater's customers are?

No, seriously.

Your customers are anyone and everyone who comes into contact with your theater.

-mail carriers
-media critics
-independent contractors
-board members
-anyone who calls your phone number
-people on your social media channels
-people who drive/walk/run by your venue

Make sure ALL your customers are being served.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Playing a different theater game

"Change isn't made by asking permission. We have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible." --Seth Godin

I am going to change the way people think about theater. From outside and from inside. When the nonprofit theater movement started, all it did was replace the business model. While this was genuinely revolutionary sixty+ years ago, it isn't any longer.

We all know the days of "if you build it, they will come" are over. Even leaving out all other forms of entertainment, there is simply too much noise in the theater industry, too much spectacle in our own backyards to hear or see everything.

But that's no reason to quit creating.

Artists make art. If they are equally good at marketing, or have someone willing to help, they find the tribe willing to support the art.

Let's change the rules about theater. Let's find our tribe.

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)."