Sunday, November 30, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 30: 10 Things I'm Thankful For

"Perspective" by Flickr user Justus Thane, licensed
under Creative Commons
It is the end.

Wait, that's not one of the things.

But it is the end of this blogging month. I remarked to a friend, "I was surprised to find out how much energy it took to write, being unaccustomed to it any more." Said friend, a writer by trade, chuckled and agreed.

I didn't hit my daily goal, but I did blog more than I have, well, ever. So I'm calling that a success.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, 10 Things I'm Thankful For:

1. Live theater 
2. A job in live theater 
3. My family who make possible my job in live theater 
4. My friends who encourage my job in live theater 
5. The interwebs, which make working in live theater something immeasurably different than it once was 
6. The best graduate program ever for those of us working in live theater who also have families 
7. Coming to terms with how I can best support live theater 
8. Learning how to advocate for live theater 
9. The donors and patrons with whom I've built relationships around supporting live theater 
10. All of the experiences and decisions I made (or didn't make) that led me on this particular path into live theater

I love what I do. I hope to be able to do it for more theaters, more patrons, and more artists.

Thanks for sticking with me for the month. I've still got six or seven (or more) writing prompts. So who knows where we'll go next?

Monday, November 24, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 24: The Most Important Lesson from Graduate School

I recently graduated with my Masters in Arts Administration from Goucher College's MAAA program. 

I'm not writing today to talk you into or out of applying for a graduate program in arts administration. I could espouse either side at length. 

I would like to tell you, though, my personal most important lesson learned from graduate school. 

Keep Asking Questions. 

As time- and people- and resource- strapped arts organization administrators, we get caught in the mundane tasks of answering daily business questions. Did the press release get written? Did last week's box office receipts get deposited? Did we ever look into that children's programming? 

Graduate school gives an arts administrator space to ask bigger questions. Questions like:
--What if?
--Why do it this way? 
--What came before that I can learn from?
--Who cares?
--Why isn't there [insert idea here]?
--Why now?
--What happens if we don't do [insert action here]?
--the 5 Whys (my personal anathema but so so helpful)

Mundane questions require a yes or a no; answers that don't necessarily lead anywhere (unless there happen to be severe negative consequences). 

Graduate school (the good ones, anyway) set up space for the provocative questions, whose answers could potentially shift not only a particular student's course of life, but the very foundation on which our arts world sits. We never know where the next Nancy Hanks or Hallie Flanagan may come from. 

I did not graduate with all the arts admin solutions. All I have are more questions, and a daily desire to live into the answers.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 22: What is failure?

This post was ostensibly about "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"

But I don't believe in failure. At least, not in the way this question means it.

Dictionary definitions of "Failure":

1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success:
His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.
2. nonperformance of something due, required, or expected:
a failure to do what one has promised; a failure to appear.
3. a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency:
the failure of crops.
4. deterioration or decay, especially of vigor, strength, etc.:
The failure of her health made retirement necessary.
5. a condition of being bankrupt by reason of insolvency.
6. a becoming insolvent or bankrupt:
the failure of a bank.
7. a person or thing that proves unsuccessful:
He is a failure in his career. The cake is a failure.

So, what is "Success"?

1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals.
2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.
3. a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors:
The play was an instant success. (I find this context example humorous.)
4. a person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.:
She was a great success on the talk show.

Most of the time, when "failure" and "success" get bandied about in arts organizations, they are meant in the 2nd definition of each. That is, they are pegged to tangible, data-driven metrics.

Was the play a success? Yes, we sold out each house.
Was the marketing campaign a success? Yes, we sold 20% more season subscriptions over last year.
Was the donor meeting a success? Yes, they wrote us a check for $1000. 

Was the play a failure? Yes, we only sold 30% of the house. 
Was the marketing campaign a failure? Yes, we spent more than we earned.
Was the donor meeting a failure? Yes, they said no when we asked for a donation.

But what if, instead of thinking about these in the second definition, you think about "success" in the first definition and tweak your goals?

Was the play a failure? No, we learned that we putting a heavy drama on during this particular month of the year means not even our semi-regular audience will come. While we didn't recoup, we can make better scheduling decisions for next year. 

Was the marketing campaign a failure? No, multiple ticket buyers told us they didn't want to switch to subscription because they worried about being locked into a date. While this single campaign didn't earn much, if we run a campaign highlighting ease of switching, we can easily make up the margin.

Was the donor meeting a failure? No, because even though they said no to a donation, they said they would gather a large group to attend the next production. How can we engage all of those people and turn them into donors? 

Failing is easy. Don't sell tickets. Don't ask for donations. Don't tell anyone about your productions. Don't even start.

So let me instead ask this question: If you redefine your goal, what would you do if you knew you would succeed? 

Friday, November 21, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 21: Stop, Start, Continue

When it is organization reflection time, what criteria do you use to make sure you're doing what you want and need to do? (This is assuming you have reflection time. If you don't, I suggest you start that right away.)

One of my favorite guiding questions is a triplet: What should I stop doing? What should I start doing? And what should I continue (and/or increase) doing?

These can be macro or microcosmic.

Maybe your organization needs to stop.

Maybe you need to call one donor every day just to say thank you (2 minute call, tops).

Maybe you need to continue paying your artistic staff as much as you possibly can.

Here are some of my organizational things for the next quarter:

-doing the technical design work myself.
-talking about payrates in a negative way
-leaving strategic work for after the mundane

-varied networking to grow our audience
-working the shiny new fundraising plan
-find a pro-bono pr agency

-providing excellent customer service/work on bringing box office in-house
-saying "yes and" to performance projects that push our artists and community
-working to pay myself consistently

What could your arts organization stop/start/continue? Or you personally? 
And check back with me in Feb to see how mine are going.

Join the conversation and you could be the lucky recipient of something really super awesome. 9 days left! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 20: Advocacy Emails

Since I'm covering the Orange County Arts Commission office today to accept Fall Grant Applications, I thought I'd write a little about advocacy.

A lot of people get nervous when they hear the word "advocacy." Maybe it has to do with a fear of public speaking or of being rejected. Maybe it's about being scared of a perceived power imbalance. I think people are scared of "fundraising" for the same reasons.

But no one should be scared of advocacy. The verb "advocate" means simply "to speak or write in favor of." Advocacy isn't rocket science. It's communication.

Here are 3 tips on starting advocacy emails:

1. Know who you're emailing.
The best connection is with your local representative, be that a municipal or county commissioner, or state district legislator. Start your research with where they stand on your particular interest area (the arts, obviously). Then expand to their other special areas. There may be unexpected ways to discussing the arts through education, agriculture, business development, or tourism.

2. Start simple and upbeat.
A handwritten letter to begin is always a good idea, but start with an email if necessary just to get going. Introduce yourself and that you're in their elecorate, state simply that you're an arts supporter, mention one cool recent arts thing that they may be interested in, and that you're looking forward to working with them on this topic.

3. Repeat often.
Schedule an email to them every so often, every couple of months at least. These can riff on "this arts thing happened and thanks for your support" to "this arts thing is going to happen and will draw x number of your constituents." The keys here are brevity, consistency, and connecting the dots on how the arts help the community.

Eventually, the topic will be "we want this arts thing to happen and need your support." When the need for that email arises, it won't feel odd for you to write and it won't be out of the blue for your representative to receive, because they know who you are.

Do you have email tips? If you already advocate for the arts, how often do you write your representative?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 19: Rituals

A local theater acquaintance posted about her daily rituals and Forbes magazine recently published a list of 20 top-of-their-game-women's morning routines. At home, I am all about these things. At work, not as good.

In order to be successful, arts organizations should build routines and rituals into the work day/week/quarter/year. Especially for smaller organizations, where employee(s) must juggle multiple work task hats: deliberate, consistent routines can help ensure that the work actually gets done.

There are so many places to start or things to consider about setting up routines. Arts leaders need to have:

-clear short and long term goals
-strategies and tasks for achieving them
-strategic thinking and professional development time
-networking get-togethers
-donor touches

And other things to consider include:

-which 8 hours out of the day are you really/do you need to be working?
-familial commitments that require a flex schedule
-personal "best" working times
-when vendors/clients/customers need you to be available
-what tasks are "must do" and "now" vs "want to do" and "later" (hint: not everything is high priority/urgent)

As a solo leader, it's been helpful for me to designate weekly routines. That is, rather than trying to hit marketing AND development AND planning AND etc etc every day, I designate each item to a day in the week and try to go deep into that area on that day. And those tasks that I've earmarked as ritual--the things that need to be done every day in order to keep the ship moving steadily forward--get plugged into my daily schedule before and as breaks in between the other work.

Do have a daily ritual or weekly routines? Share them here! 

Monday, November 17, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 17: Returning to Passion

I found my way into theater a little later than other colleagues, according to informal conversation. I had "theater" friends in middle and high school, but I was never intrigued enough to want to join them on stage.1

Until, that is, my local pro-am theater2 produced the Finn/Lapine musical Falsettos. Through a series of poor teenager life choices, I served community service time at the theater while the show was going on. Luckily. Fortunately. Serendipitous-ly. If you don't know the show, it's the story of a Jewish family and their friends, many of whom are gay. Themes include being true with yourself and loved ones, growing up and the pain of adulthood, loving someone through good times and bad, and the importance of family. 

I'm not Jewish. I didn't know any gay people (out, anyway). But I was moved to tears by every single performance I saw (including returning on my night off to actually purchase a ticket). I saw a story on that stage that not only connected to my personal life's quest at that time but also showed me how small my own world really was and how much larger it could be. 

Which is why we "do" theater, right? Why we participate or attend. For those with the "bug," it's a compulsion to understand ourselves and our world. It's not like escapist television or movies. It's about illumination. 
I got into theater because I want others to feel the same way I felt during Falsettos. I want to be a part of something that could so move another person that something in them would change and be better. Comedy or drama, contemporary or period, life writ large or small, theater that compels is what I'm passionate about. 

What's your theater passion? What is it about this field that keeps you being a part? What is your compulsion?

Join the conversation and you could be the lucky recipient of something really super awesome. 13 days left! 

1. Because I thought you had to be on stage to be a part of the theater. This is a gross injustice that should be corrected in lower schooling. 

2. Can I coin that term? It wasn't community theater but it wasn't a professional-day job theater. Boom, done. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 15: Ladies of Triangle Theatre

Ladies of Triangle Theatre (LoTT for short) is a loose network of women in Triangle area of North Carolina who work in any aspect of theater. The short goal of the network is to say "Yes, And" to each other whenever possible. 

All the statistics about national and regional productions by/led by women can be found elsewhere, as well as the ongoing dialogue/argument about why those numbers are low/aren't changing. 

Here in the Triangle, we are blessed with an incredible number of talented women on both sides of the stage. LoTT exists to support these women in their theatrical work, through various means. 

One is behind-the-scenes, much like a "support" group. Everyone needs that kind of safe space to work through problems and this is a difficult field to navigate by itself, let alone with family responsibilities and day jobs etc etc. 

Another is through informal gatherings. These have been brown-bag lunches, attending a member's show as a group, or drinks after a show. 

While it's not a producing entity per se, LoTT has branched out into doing shows "in conjunction with" a producing company. Our first was Crooked by Catherine Trieschmann at Common Ground Theatre. Since I'm a member of LoTT and the Executive Director of Common Ground, it made sense for LoTT to help out with the production. 

There is no application process to be a member: are you self-identified as a woman and do you work in theater in the Triangle? Are you interested in supporting other women and making the Triangle a great place for theater? Come join us!
We have nifty buttons! Logo design by the amazing Sylvia Mallory.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 12: Theater Parent Emotions

(This post is a little more personal than usual.)

I'm a mom.

I know that doesn't come as a surprise; it's listed elsewhere (and I've written about it) on my blog and one of the things in my elevator speech about myself.
I missed this because I was
at an AFTA conference.

I wish that I could list that on my resume under "experience." Because it is the main reason why there aren't more bullet points. Opportunities or jobs or positions or speaking engagements that I turned down or didn't seek out because I needed to provide hands-on support for my family at home.

Because it's hard to do both at the same time. I've had to take my child to rehearsal this week for a show I'm producing/designing, which means she's up past her bedtime and seeing material that probably isn't appropriate for a 2nd grader (it's not R-rated, but definitely PG-13). I chose an online graduate school program specifically so that I could be at home as much as possible. I've asked family and friends to babysit because I had a show or a rehearsal or an arts-related meeting/conference far more often than any other reason.

I could move farther faster in my career if I gave up time with my daughter.

I could support her more in many different ways if I gave up my career.

But instead, I cobble together the work experiences I can and hope that I don't screw her childhood up too badly.

Are you a parent in the performing arts? Need to vent? Go ahead.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 6: Please do not ask me if I act

The single most common response to the "What do you do?" "I'm the [Insert Arts Admin title here] of this theater" exchange is:
"Oh. Do you act, too?"
I loathe* this question. For three reasons.

1. It stems from a baseline assumption that there is nothing else of value worth doing in a theater except for being on stage. Whether this assumption is rational or is simply inherent from years of mass media infused celebrity and bad sitcoms, it doesn't really matter.

2. It also questions whether I have enough work tasks to fill my day. Like, I must not have enough to do running the business aspects of the organization. (NOTE: this does not negate the idea of 168 hours and that one couldn't theoretically have acting as a side gig or hobby.)

Me: College Freshman,
Assistant Stage Manager. 
3. It stops the conversation. ALWAYS. Yes, I have a pat, gracious response I give, but most people do not know what to say after that. I don't fall into the presumed role of "if I'm standing in a theater I'm one of two people: an actor or an audience member." If I'm lucky, the conversant may follow up with, "well how did you get into this job/field/position?" as one would with any small-talk conversation. But once it's clarified that 1) I'm not pining to move to NYC and 2) I don't know any Broadway/Hollywood/Local television stars, that's pretty much the end of it.

Maybe it's a front line thing. Nearly everyone I know in theater management that deals with audiences as some portion of their job (so, like 99%) get this, too. I think it goes back to our troubled dramatic (no pun intended) high school days when the drama kids on stage were all vaunted but the techie folks were left, quite literally, in the dark.

I imagine there are a lot of arts administrators who got into their work position directly because of a love of doing the art form (fine arts museum director who paints or sculpts, for example). But I'd lay even odds that for every one do-er manager, there is someone else like me, who got into it because we were passionate about supporting the art form.

Am I being sensitive? Or does this question hit a nerve with you, too?

*No, I do not use the word lightly.
Join the conversation and you could be the lucky recipient of something really super awesome. 24 days left! 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 4: My Top 5 Personal/Inspiration/Business/Leadership/Creative Books

So, obviously, these kind of fall across categories. But if you're looking to start down the path of leadership in a creative sector OR expand on your knowledge from sources that cross all kinds of industries, I'd suggest these books/authors.

Jim Collins, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Ken Blanchard, Laura Vanderkam

1. Good to Great and Good to Great in the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins.

This was one of the books Dave Ramsey said he gave new employees when they started work at his company, and is probably the single book responsible for kick-starting this section of my leadership journey. I know some people who put down Collins' work, that some of it doesn't hold up to longer scrutiny, that he contradicts himself between books, and other arguments. But there is rarely a day when I don't reference ideas of his like "The Hedgehog Concept," "Turning the Flywheel," "Getting the Right People on the Bus," and "Confront he Brutal Facts."
"Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline." --Jim Collins

2. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell

Again, recommended by Dave Ramsey, so that's why this particular title is listed, but I've lost count of the number of Maxwell's books I've consumed. He writes about all aspects of leadership in an easy, anecdotal style, and I've filled more notebooks with the tidbits and exercises he includes in almost every book. His "you can always be better" personal motto drives his own development and spurs him to write to help others.

3. Raving Fans et al by Ken Blanchard (and others)

I don't recall how I stumbled across this title, although I know I'd read Blanchard's The One Minute Manager well before this one. And by now I've [again] lost count of the number of his works I've read or listened to. This one, though, holds a special place in my heart for its sheer simplicity of message on the best customer service. All of his works are told parable-style and the best thing to do is consume them with a pencil and paper beside you so you can write notes (maybe I should offer to do a Cliffs Notes style reading guide for him!) that you then just post up around your office so you can reference them every single day of your life.

4. everything by Seth Godin

Ok, I swore to myself that I wouldn't do this. "Self," I demanded, "You can't say every book. You have to choose one to recommend and then say there are others." But it's my blog post so I can break that demand.

I thought I was going to write about  Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? which was mind-blowing in its depth of questioning of how you look at the real work you do. But then I thought about Tribes and The Dip and Purple Cow and Permission Marketing and the fact that I've pre-ordered his new book coming out late '14/early '15 and I have literally NEVER done that before. So, just go grab every Godin book you can, follow his blog, and prepare for your life to change.

5. 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

Copyright 2010, so I'm fairly certain this was either a magazine or blog article I stumbled upon as I was all "what am I doing with my life and how do I move forward" spazzing. The core idea is that we all have 168 hours in one week, so rather than having a jumbled hope of getting things done and making progress towards "success," one can plan, prepare, and achieve goals. Time tracking, people. Try it for one week: spreadsheet your week by the half-hour and ruthlessly write down what you actually do with your time. Does it line up with what you want to be doing?

She also wrote "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" and "... On The Weekends." Short books, imminently readable and doable.

Alright, those are my Top 5 Authors, I guess I should say, since I've read multiple books. I'd add Malcolm Gladwell in there if I had a Top 6 list.

Have you read any of these books/authors? Did you have a similar response or completely the opposite?

Reminder: You could win a copy of each of these books (well, only one where multiples are listed) simply by commenting on this post! At the end of NaBloPoMo (November) I'll be gifting 1 of 3 prizes to one lucky commenter! Good luck!

Monday, November 3, 2014

NaBloPoMo Day 3: Giveaway!

Seriously! At the end of this month, one lucky commenter will receive one of the following:

1. A free stakeholder service checkup from yours truly! This will be my combo package: examining your theater's customer service points with both outside patrons and internal employees and members. (This combo will be priced at $400, fyi.)

2. A season pass to Common Ground Theatre. That's right: 2 tickets to any show every month for the entire year. ($300-400 value)

3. "My favorite books" package: a copy of each of my favorite leadership/arts books. More on these in tomorrow's post.

There you have it! Leave a cogent comment on as many of these posts as move you, and you could be the lucky winner of one of these amazing (if I do say so myself) packages!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My love affair with Facebook

Why am I starting off NaBloPoMo with a post about Facebook, you ask? Shouldn't I be writing about theaters or grad school or something less, well, trivial? I'll get to those things. This is about a core idea and I'm using my Facebook relationship as an example.
Yes, that is me with Miss Piggy.

I love almost everything about Facebook because of this one thing: it is a platform that engenders building relationships. (I'll get to the one thing I don't like in a bit.) Building relationships is what I do for a living; it is my special gift to this world.

Facebook is designed to connect you with people you have a lot in common with (sometimes IRL, sometimes just online) and then make that relationship deeper by having a conversation about those things/people/ideas. It can happen anytime (unlike Twitter) and across facets of your life (unlike LinkedIn) and with words AND images (unlike Pinterest, Instagram, and Flickr).

I have my current job because of Facebook: both the hire-er and the connector knew me IRL but the relationship grew on Facebook. My husband has his current job because I forced him to post that he was looking for a new gig in his passion and a friend responded they had an opening in his company and it was kismet. Could both of those things have happened outside of Facebook? Probably. As quickly as they did? Unlikely.

People like to hate on Facebook, much like they hate on any organization that changes often and has become the biggest player in its niche. The look or privacy settings or the way posts show up all change. In fact, that is the one thing I Don't like about it: the algorithm underlying the way posts show up isn't helpful, for anyone, really. I wish there was a setting that could I could change to "see everything." As it is, I make judicious use of lists and news feed changes and visit folk's pages when I think I haven't heard anything from them in a while.

Just like we do in real life.

Building relationships--whether online or in the theater--takes time, curiosity, and a penchant for both listening and remembering. Do I have close relationships with the several hundreds of friends on Facebook? Do I have close relationships with the several hundred patrons who attend my theater in a given quarter? The point is that I want to and taking the time every day to connect in a small way helps make that want a reality.

Of course, Facebook doesn't really allow me to do this kind of writing, which is why I'm attempting to work over here more over the next month. I'll be cross-posting, so join the conversation wherever feels most natural. Which, right now for me, is on Facebook.

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)."

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. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Being a Theater Parent

Parenting is tough. I'll put that out right up front.

Parenting when you work a job that is not necessarily during traditional "work" hours is even tougher. 
Parenting when you are doing this as either a single parent or in a relationship with someone who also juggles a non-traditional work schedule is even tougher than that. 

I'm not writing this to get into a spitting contest. It's not a pity party either: a career in arts administration was my choice, much like my husband chose a career in retail management. We both knew what those choices meant as far as schedules and child-rearing before we had children. 

I'm writing this to shine a light on what it is like to be an active parent working in theater management. Mass Media gives us a disjointed view, if any at all, of a career which resembles a luxurious soap opera. Much of what is written about our field in either scholarly or journalistic blog posts is written about the million-dollar companies with staffs and commensurate budgets so a mom could actually afford a babysitter rather than bring her child to the theater to clean before and run the box office of a show. 

And all too many of us know parents who simply dropped out of the scene when they had kids of a certain age, entirely avoiding the struggle to both honor their artistic need and be an emotional support to their family. 

Every year, the theater field loses amazingly talented people--men and women--who cannot continue working for a pittance with no health insurance or childcare benefits. My hypothesis is this is the very reason why there are no longer more women at the helm of regional theaters: the feminist movement opened more lucrative doors for them in other fields. What was once a power position to run a theater in the 1950s and 60s became a low-wage job in the 1970s and 80s. And we have not recovered from this. 

My hope is that by sharing my story about being a theater parent--not the stage-mom of current lore, but an adult, a mother, who is making a career in theater--talking with other theater parents about their experiences, and shedding light on the situation for the rest of us in America who are called to theater even as we have another job (or partner) to pay the bills, we can stop being ashamed of our artistic needs and instead find ways to support each other and our communities in sharing them. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Year in (p)review

As I've done for a couple years now, I take an hour or so and do a review of the prior year's work and think about what I'd like next year to be like. Many thanks to Rosetta Thurman for this practice and the  thought - provoking questions.

2013 was a tough year, but looking back I still made a lot of progress and started putting things in place. I did a great job developing the brand of Devra, so much that it netted me a new job. Although, one of my goals for next year is for said job to pay me a living wage (insert ongoing discussion about artists/startups/small Org mgrs here).

I loved being asked and serving on grant panels. There is a tremendous amount of art and artists in my community. It's difficult to parse who gets funding when sitting around the table. One of my goals for 2014 is to be more visible in the community as a funder. Most of these artists or smaller organizations are flying by the seat of their pants, and a caring face may go a long way. At least,  that's what I hope.

One of the things I feel I didn't do as much of as I wanted was developing relationships with my female friends and colleagues. Partly because we're all so busy, sure, but we can try harder. I really want to see Ladies of Triangle Theater have an active presence. Figuring out how to do that will be a constant slow simmer project.

The thing I'd like to learn more about in 2014 is living "yes and". I've already blogged about my improv experience, and I want to build on that brief introduction.

Lastly,  here's my ideal day, sponsored in part by Daniel Goleman's new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. (This is not in order of time, btw.) Inner: exercise,  reflection, reading. Outer: focused time on theater and school/learning. Other: quality family/friend time. Less driving.

May you all have the 2014 you desire!