pleasure, populism, & the public // thoughts on the future of arts institutions with twenty pictures of swans
ted is currently working as assistant artistic director at the stratford festival with support from the metcalf foundation and theatre ontario. this article started as an interim report for theatre ontario and then it ballooned into its current state.
it should be acknowledged first and foremost that this piece owes a great debt to diane ragsdale, whose work brendan healy first pointed me toward. as much as anything, this is an attempt to process some of the thoughts i've had in response to her work.
because the piece got so long i thought it would be helpful if i included some nice pictures of waterfowl to keep your visual interest.
1. the frightening question of fun
of all the strange situations i didn’t know i’d find myself in as a practicing artist, this one ranked among the strangest.
—and i’ve been in some strange ones: changing into a dance belt behind a parked car in trinity bellwoods park. wandering onstage in a 1000-seat theatre in stuttgart with pizza dough draped on my face, doing my best to speak two sentences of german in a russian accent. sitting in the crypt of a ruined monastery between a bucket of plastic fish and a giant latin tablet, zipped up to my neck in a burlap sack, waiting for my entrance. perfecting a recipe for edible stage placenta at midnight in the workshop of a theatre in milan (i’m happy to share if anyone needs help—it hinges on a mix of grape and cherry jell-o).—
but a few weeks ago, i found myself sitting at my desk late at night, alone in the director’s office of one of the largest theatre institutions in canada, preparing for the next morning’s strategic planning session. i was squinting at my screen scrutinizing a definition of the word
“of course the definition of ‘fun’ is subjective for every individual, and what may be authentically ‘fun’ for one organization may not make sense for another ...”
the definition was supplied to help contextualize some stats from culture track’s first canadian study. (culture track is an american-based cultural innovation engine that has been collecting data on cultural engagement since 2001).
maybe i was reading too deep into it, but the report seems as though it’s trying to reassure readers that “fun” is not as terrible as it sounds. you see, counter-intuitive though it may seem, 81% of canadian cultural attendees rank “fun” as their top reason for engaging with culture in the first place.
maybe the most absurd part of it is that i’ve been reading so many cultural policy reports and audience studies lately that it took me some time to actually recognize the absurdity of an artist sitting alone in a dark office trying to understand what a cultural think tank defined as “fun.”
2. down the sideroads
actually, this has been one of the most exciting aspects of the work i’ve been doing at stratford.
it’s been a varied portfolio: supporting the day-to-day goings-on in the directors’ office, helping with programming for next season, and collaborating with several others in management to plan the launch of the new theatre in a couple years. but the real gift of coming to the festival this year has been being invited into the strategic planning process the festival is undertaking.
when most artists think about artistic direction, we think of the day-to-day work and the curation. the part of the role we tend to think less of is long-term strategic visioning. as artists working for institutions, we often see the way organizations manifest themselves and their work as having to do with an aesthetic, curatorial taste, personal philosophy, or maybe evolving as natural responses to shifts in a broader landscape, rather than a result of strategic processes.
the luxury of my role at stratford is that it has never existed before. i’m not directly necessary, which has given me the opportunity to be quite useful (i hope). among my other tasks, i also get to be something of a scout for the company—the festival keeps barreling down the highway, as theatres on production schedules must, but i have the freedom to wander down sideroads and report back about what i find, and offer it into the mix of strategic thinking. and at the same time, i benefit from participating in the workings of a very well-oiled machine that has created efficient processes through 70 years of R&D.
3. canada's audience problem
i have been interested in artistic direction for a long time. at first, i think it was primarily an attraction to the glamorous aspects of programming and curation that attracted me. i also had a sense that i had a good enough mind for systems to cope with the more unglamorous aspects of running a building like toilet-cleaning schedules. (you can read lyn gardner’s recent interviews about garbage disposal with several british ADs here).
but what has recently made it feel urgent for me to become involved in organizational leadership is my growing conviction that arts organizations, and by extension the work they/we produce, will fade into irrelevance and extinction if we continue to do “business as usual,”* but that our cultural moment contains a real opportunity to reverse this trend.
last year while in berlin i wrote a piece for buddies’ blog about canadian theatre’s audience problem. i looked at radical democratization, shifting cultural values, and how major arts institutions are likely to go the way of sears if we don’t react to the a massive paradigm shift digitization has caused in our relationship to culture, art, and liveness. it owed a great debt to a killer keynote speech given by dr. steven tepper at zocalo public square.
in a way, it’s this audience problem that continues to pull me away from canada at times, and also pulls me back.
i moved to berlin (again) a few years ago because i wanted to be in a city where the theatres were vital, well-attended, and valued civic institutions. where it felt like people looked to their theatres as a place to ask critical questions of their culture, and who they wanted to be as a people. not only that—but people want to be there. not because they feel like it will make them better people, but because going to the theatre is pleasurable. it’s something they’d legitimately consider on a saturday night when they want to have fun. it’s a relief to be somewhere where artists are valued, and even contracted as a kind of civil servant.
and i keep coming back to canada because i feel deeply convinced that some aspect of this must be possible here. and i feel like the skills and experiences i’ve acquired over the years could be put to service of achieving that. because i don’t think we canadians as a whole have quite sorted out our civic relationship to arts and culture, but that it is possible for art to be essential to how we understand ourselves, in an active and ongoing way. that this could be a pleasurable exchange. that we might actually be able to reposition ourselves as fun, rather than a moral obligation, or a pastime of elites.
* i’m using “business as usual” as an intentionally generalist catch-all for the philosophies, values, and structures that have governed how not-for-profit benchmark arts institutions have operated since the end of the last world war, and in particular in the last 40-some-odd years.
[the “benchmark arts” being the traditional ‘high arts’ (i really don’t like that ‘high’ designation): theatre, opera, museums, galleries, ballet & dance. not my definition, i’m just borrowing it. generally speaking these are the arts that suffer the most from people’s desire to have ‘fun.’]
4. audience barriers
so when did the arts stop being ‘fun’?
i have spent a lot of time on this question. i’ve tried to sift through western history looking for the moment when the arts community made the fatal mistake that has led to the present moment, where we’ve** found ourselves shouting into an echoing void telling an increasingly unhearing public that they don’t know what’s good for them.
it’s hard to parse, but the shortest version of how i see it has to do with a gradual attempt on the part of artists to elevate the importance and social function of our work, and the social capital earned through consuming it, to the point where it has become viewed as a vaguely moral obligation, irrelevant to the daily experiences of most people.
between 2006-2012, the wallace foundation provided funding to over 50 arts organizations to conduct audience building experiments with dedicated resources. in a summary study, the road to results, most of the organizations reported that the biggest barriers they had to overcome to reach new audiences were indifference, unfamiliarity, and a perception of the organization / work as elitist.
it’s maybe not a popular view, but i have a growing hunch that we artists are historically at least partly responsible for having created this perception of elitism. not only in how we have cultivated the social and economic value of what we do, but also the sociological value of the arts.
** by “we” in this case i’m talking most specifically about the north american institutional arts sector. there’s a variety of historic / political / sociological / cultural factors that are common between the US and canada that other arts sectors don’t share.
5. valuing the arts
since modernity, artists (and gradually, the ‘arts sector’) have been in the business of arguing for the value of what we do. initially it was easier—we were trending high as ‘innovative’ in the renaissance, when thriving cultural life emerged as a sign of a powerful state (alongside military might, wealth, and piety). royal patronage became standard practice, and supporting the most in-demand artists became a status symbol. the groundwork for what became publicly funded cultural institutions was laid through the renaissance and enlightenment, and liberal humanism simply took over responsibility for these under a new regime, after much decapitating and defenestrating across europe.
in colonized ‘north america,’ settlers started from scratch (after widespread and brutal violence directed toward eradicating any pre-existing culture settlers encountered). rather than taking over institutions from an old regime, new ones would have to be consciously constructed. europeans settled this continent primary under the ideologies of protestantism and nascent global capitalism, and pouring money into extravagant cultural centres wasn’t a high priority. the arts have never had a particularly efficient return-on-investment. and they were full of damnable sinners.
(liberal democracy isn’t all bad, but maybe there’s something to be said for being born into a historical moment when a whimsical king like frederick the great wants some of that enlightenment mojo and gets voltaire to just come and help him spend buckets of money erecting massive palaces of culture. except for the lack of penicillin and decent sewage.)
for new countries like the US and canada, arguments had to be made for the importance of such institutions. with museums and galleries the argument was somewhat easier—investing in material artefacts was an easier sell, since they’re less ephemeral. investments could be amortized. canada has had a national gallery since 1880. but for live performance, especially theatre (which always had a whiff of the immoral about it) governments have been slower to bite.
in fact, many of our publicly funded theatres through the years have been started as either entrepreneurial endeavours, and/or with initial investments from wealthy benefactors with a love for art, ROI be damned. the massey family, for example, are responsible not only for creating massey hall but also hart house, one of the longest-running theatres in toronto. the stratford festival started as an economic redevelopment initiative for an ailing railway town. it wasn’t until the 1950s that the canada council was created, and the national arts centre wasn’t built until the late 1960s.
6. the elites and their galas
“i think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV, and see a gala of a bunch of people, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough—i’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”
(stephen harper, defending his government’s $45M cut to arts and culture funding at campaign stop in saskatoon, september 24 2014.)
perceived elitism is not so difficult to understand. the most-cited barrier to participation in the culture track study was “it’s not for someone like me.”
when you think of opera-goers, the image that comes to mind is likely not an intercultural group of hip, young people in swoopy t-shirts. they’re probably white, heterosexual, in their 50s or 60s, and wearing black tie with a glass of champagne in hand. and it’s not a completely unfair stereotype. but—it is not a bad thing that this demographic takes pleasure in attending the arts: in fact, it’s a great thing. (at least somebody thinks benchmark arts are relevant to their lived experience.)
that the upper middle class finds value and meaning in what we do is no accident, either. it’s a question of where we’ve directed our energies. since the rise of international capitalism, and especially in the wake of the french revolution, artists attached themselves to the bourgeoisie. at several points artists have even consciously created a divide between those with taste and the vulgar classes, increasing the value of art-as-commodity and arts attendance as social capital. and it made good business sense, for a time: we invested our time and energy in building meaningful relationships with people who would invest in our sector and allow us to continue working. we focused on creating personal value where it directly mattered to us.
for a long time, artists and politicians alike have operated under the premise that “highbrow culture” consumers act as social multipliers. they tend to be politically-engaged centrists, fiscally conservative and socially liberal, likely to be a swing demographic, and highly networked. here’s a link to an interesting analysis of this phenomenon, looking at how german politicians invest in opera when seeking re-election. it seems to me that the arts sector has relied on this assumption as well, hoping that in seducing members of our upper classes, a growing upwardly-mobile middle class would appropriate their values and their buying habits. it seems to have backfired.
7. articulating value
“what i never expected, in a lifetime in this field, is that with each passing year, no matter what you accomplish, or how many artists that you work with go on to do massively significant things, is that you will spend a very significant percentage of your personal time, and your professional time, defending why art matters in society and culture. how many times can i invent new words to say the same damn thing?”
(kristy edmunds, curator for the center for the art of performance at UCLA in a 2014 interview on the “compared to what podcast”).
beyond an appeal to a class of taste-making multipliers, artists have also come up with a vast and inventive list of the various benefits the arts provide to society at large.
frustrating though it may be for anyone who has had to squeeze out an “impact” statement at 11:38pm before submitting a grant, it’s actually not unreasonable that publicly funded institutions demonstrate value to society at large.
throughout modernity, artists have generated a number of value-based justifications for support of the arts:
aesthetic: encounters with beauty improve the self
humane: the arts develop our empathetic capacity
aspirational: exposure to genius allows us to wonder at humanity’s achievements
spiritual: transcendent experiences help us generate meaning in existence
moral: the arts teach us to know right from wrong
educational: the arts are a tool for public education
marxist: depicting social conditions as they truly are motivates change
activist: the arts are an effective tool of advocacy for marginalized experiences
nationalist: art creates narratives of national identity and strengthens society
economic: the cultural sector stimulates local economies and creates x dollars annually in GDP
humanist: artists advance culture and have a civilizing effect on society
societal: coming together around a collective experience builds communities
the list is by no means exhaustive, and i have a range of feelings about different points on the list. some of those points are really central to why i still work in theatre, others strike me as self-important or outright naive.
but there’s a conspicuous and intentional absence on the list: pleasure. perhaps more commonly known as ‘fun.’
8. the "crisis of legitimacy"
in his 2006 paper, cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy, john holden provides a useful framework for 3 categories of value:
intrinsic—relate to the subjective experience of culture, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. (section a of my above list)
instrumental—relate to the ancillary social & economic effects of culture. (section b of my list).
institutional—relate to the processes, techniques, and experiences organizations pioneer and adopt. (section c).
these correspond to his three categories of stakeholders in the arts: the public, politicians & policy-makers, and professionals (john holden apparently appreciates alliteration as much as i do).
it’s notable that the institutional section of my list isn’t terribly flushed out. it’s an underdeveloped aspect in public discourse of the value of the arts. diane ragsdale, in her 2014 keynote for creative new zealand, transformation or bust, elaborates on this crisis of legitimacy.
“we seem to be experiencing what chip ward calls the 'tyranny of the quantifiable,' and what dougald hine calls 'a crisis of measurement.'"
the arts are seeking legitimacy through primary and secondary effects, quantifiable metrics, when the greater value the arts offers is less direct, though no less important. the case for intrinsic values having become passé, the arts have shifted to describing their instrumental values, and the question of institutional value† hasn’t been satisfactorily made.
† i’m actually not a big fan of the term ‘institutional’ value, and i suspect that john holden’s affinity for alliteration is clouding the core of what he’s trying to get here: that creative processes have a lot of value of their own.
9. pleasure and guilt
artists have excluded pleasure from the forefront of their justifications for the social value of art and art institutions for so long that it seems to have been utterly forgotten.
i’m sure it has more than a little to do with what max weber assessed as “the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.” in early protestantism, especially in puritanism (its more extreme british manifestation), pleasure was not just highly suspect, it was outright condemned. many of the first colonizers to settle on the continent now known as north america were puritans, and viewed the theatre as inherently immoral.
it was against this status quo that those who wanted to see live theatre began making many of the value-based arguments i listed above. and gradually we became entrenched in them, and have been highly wary to return to the argument of pleasure.
perhaps in the increasingly deregulated market there was also an assumption that if something was pleasurable enough it ought to be commodifiable for the masses, since value=demand. or that it would at least have enough appeal in the private sector that the market would preserve it (i.e. through private sector funding). so we have continued to make our argument to the state that we have some intrinsic moral quality, or instrumental economic function, since we have not had a great track record at creating widespread demand.
as we’ve stayed the course on those justifications, i’ve found myself feeling as though we are trying to force feed over-steamed broccoli to whatever unwitting public is foolish enough to come through our doors, wagging a finger at the populace saying “eat your vegetables! they produce empathy!”
and as we just saw with kathleen wynne’s recent rout, you can do as much good as you like to build a healthier society, but no one wants carrot sticks and hummus from a schoolmarm when you can get a buck-a-beer around the corner.
even among my friends who don’t work in theatre (yep, i have a few, i think it’s healthy), when the subject of theatre comes up, the verb they use most to describe their relationship to theatre is ‘should.’ i.e. “i should go to more theatre but i just don’t have the time.” or “i should go to more theatre but i don’t know what to see.” or “i should go to more theatre but i just don’t.” i’m not sure anyone should go to the theatre. but i wish more people wanted to.
because when it comes down to it, artists are not doing the work they do just because they think it has a moral value to society at large. we’re not missionaries or charity workers. most of us know that art—and especially live performance—is not a very efficient way to effect direct political change, advocate for marginalized identities, drive the economy, educate the public, or reform pathological narcissists. nor do many of us have illusions that it’s a good get-rich-quick plan. we’re in this line of work because somewhere, somewhere, we experienced the powerful pleasure that art can offer, to both audiences and makers of art. because we built a meaningful relationship to art forms, art works, and artists. because we had a personal encounter with the arts that we actually enjoyed. because it’s fun.
(and i suspect we feel a bit guilty about this).
10. the changing landscape
“the fine arts are facing a society that is markedly different, and a consumer that is markedly different, from those faced 40 years ago—in the US this is due to cuts in funding for the arts in K-12 education, generational shifts and economic divides, increasing diversity in cities and towns across america, a trend towards anti-intellectualism, changing tastes and aesthetics, the culture wars, increased competition for people‘s leisure time (as a result of both many more direct and substitute competitors), urban sprawl, and the decline in the quality and quantity of arts coverage in the mainstream media.”
(diane ragsdale, in “surviving the culture change,” another of her brilliant keynote speeches)
in our strategic planning sessions here at stratford, something that has come up repeatedly in our environmental scans is an anxiety about the rise of digital media and dissemination. many people have identified netflix & co. as competitors for our audience’s attention. i’m not entirely sure that netflix is as big a competitor as we think. people have had TVs for decades, and before streaming it was still easier to rent VHS tapes at blockbuster (RIP) than drive down the 401 to stratford. people have had home-screen narrative experiences available since the 50s.
more importantly, i think that netflix is emblematic of the culture shift that has accompanied digitization, a trend toward ‘disrupting’ established industries (i.e. blockbuster) in favour of creating a new order of radically democratized start-ups that make use of crowdsourcing, and allow for more engaged personal participation. where i suspect large institutions might be feeling a greater pinch is in what steven tepper calls “the curatorial me” and the development of personal brand, particularly through the culture we document ourselves consuming.‡
the result is that people are taking greater agency in selecting the culture they participate in. they are looking for extraordinary experiences that can become part of how they represent themselves, and offer not just the cachet of exclusivity, but also create a sense of belonging to something larger.
both the farther-left and farther-right ends of the political spectrum share an anti-elitist ethic characteristic of populism. our larger arts institutions are being caught up in the balkanizing campaigns of the (ongoing) culture wars, and maybe we’ve been betting on the wrong horse by investing so much energy into building relationships with the centrist multipliers that german politicians believe to be sitting at a performance of tosca right now.
just as people are losing faith in the workings of liberal democracy, it seems that the general public is less willing to implicitly trust the value of the cultural institutions liberal democracy upholds. so how do we pivot?
‡ i expand on this in much more detail in the article from last year that i mentioned earlier.
11. the stats on fun
i’m going to come back to this frightening notion of ‘fun’ for a moment. before we members of the highbrow arts sector start dismissing the canadian public as frivolous, vulgar, anti-intellectual philistines, it’s worth looking at the questions people were asked.
i think it’s important to note that “having fun” was one of the only two motivators on a list of sixteen options that did not fit into the categories of either intrinsic or instrumental value. the other was “feeling less stressed” and it came in third place at 71% of respondents.
i’m pointing this out because i think it’s notable that respondents weren’t given options that included the words “pleasure” or “enjoy.” “fun” in this case seems to be the catch-all option for “i participate in culture because i enjoy it.”
culture track provides a nice earnest attempt to break down what “fun” means for canadian cultural audiences (in case we arts leaders are struggling to wrap our heads around it). “for cultural consumers, the top three characteristics of their ideal experience are “social,” “lively,” and “interactive”—indicating that a “fun” cultural experience is, at its core, participatory, dynamic, and rich in social connection.” (for reference, the list of possible options was “virtual/digital, hands-on, interactive, social, immersive, personalized, lively, calm, active, reflective, intense, and other-please-specify.”)
finally, the report qualifies their finding by noting that “of course the definition of ‘fun’ is subjective for every individual ...” take for example, yesterday’s strategic planning session. we were talking about how to change the public perception of stratford from ‘old, white, highfalutin’ to ‘accessible, hip, fun.’ 25 leaders and administrators from one of the country’s foremost theatres had a very lively, social, and interactive discussion about whether “highfalutin” was spelled with two o’s, two l’s, if it was a compound word, or if we should consider spelling it with a ph. (see, we can have fun too.)
funnily enough, strategic meetings and oh-god-next-season-is-way-over-budget meetings are where we laugh the most around here. and i’m not being ironic about this: that kind of lively engagement is what happens when a group of people come together around a shared passion—it’s fun.
12. "the tech lag"
“yet despite its ubiquity, the role of digital technology within the cultural sector continues to be one of the field’s most perplexing issues. in a moment of growing interest in (and funding for) increasingly high-tech digital solutions such as virtual reality or wearable technology, canadian audiences in 2018 remain relatively low- tech.”
(culture track canada)
the other significant piece of data in the culture track report is around integration of digital technologies. only about a quarter of those surveyed indicated a desire for digital experiences at the centre of their cultural engagement. nearly 40% preferred analogue experiences. the rest didn’t have a preference.
on top of that, those who did indicate an appetite for digital integration offered the following top 4 ways digital enriched their experience:
access to more detailed info
ability to revisit the experience later
deeper understanding of the content
makes activity feel new
those who preferred analogue experiences selected the following reasons for their preference:
feels more authentic
more focus on the activity
13. when even arts doubt the arts
i actually find all this data very hopeful.
i see that pleasure, enjoyment, and fun are big motivators. when we aren’t utterly riddled with crippling self-doubt, we artists know a fair bit about how to have fun.
i see that live performance is not competing with the netflix market, and we’re still under the same old threats that came with the advent of cinema over a century ago.
i see that people look to cultural experiences for many of the exact things live performance does best: creating authentic, dynamic, engaging, social experiences. what steven tepper would call a “bigger than me” experience.
i see that liveness is a potential antidote for digital alienation, but that digital media offer an opportunity to deepen the audience’s ancillary experience.
what all this points to for me is that a potential answer for the future of the arts sector lies not somewhere beyond our reach, but right at the core of what we do best.
what i’ve been (very gradually) getting at with this whole piece, is that it seems that john holden’s ‘crisis of legitimacy’ runs deeper in the arts sector than is immediately apparent, causing us to doubt our processes and products on their own terms.§
so what is the way forward?
§ it’s worth noting that holden’s paper is from 2006, before social media and netflix gained their current monumental presence in our daily lives.
14. the hardest sell
“there is a nervousness about art and culture in our political discourse that results from a democratic deficit. ... the answer to the question ‘why fund culture?’ should be ‘because the public wants it.’”
(john holden, cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy).
we’ve invested a good deal of time in convincing politicians, policy-makers, and private sector donors of the social and economic value of the cultural sector. this is important work and must continue. but the work that feels most essential to me right now is building meaningful, connected relationships with the public.
most discourse on audience development breaks down the tactics into 3 main categories:
deepening (strengthening relationships with existing audiences)
broadening (reaching out to people who are interested but experience practical barriers such as price, mobility, etc.)
diversifying (connecting with audiences who aren’t all that interested, who experience perceptual barriers; “it’s not for people like me” “i wouldn’t enjoy it” etc.)
all three of these are important, but i’m going to focus here on the latter. it’s certainly the least efficient of all the strategies. marketing wisdom estimates that it takes 5 times the resources to reach an unfamiliar (potential) audience member than it does to convert a one-time buyer into a returning customer. so the ROI is maybe not initially as high. but the work of diversifying canadian theatre’s audience base and convincing the broader populace of our value is the most important work our sector can do if arts institutions are to survive.
15. trusting artistic process
“arts professionals are often accused of not running their operations like a business or of not understanding the bottom line. in fact, the artistic process is an endless series of unforgiving bottom lines. an 8:00 p.m. curtain is an unforgiving bottom line. so are the production budget, available artistic team and the production schedule. presenting art in front of an audience and critics is a particularly unforgiving bottom line.”
(arts action research, a NY-based arts think tank and consulting group, in a series of blog posts published under the heading “the elegant process”)
many of the most innovative corporations have moved from pyramidal, corporate organizational structures to borrowing creative, even dare-i-say-it artistic processes from our sector. and yet in the 20th-century not-for-profit model arts organizations seem to attempt to demonstrate rigour and stability in institutional structures, which create departmental silos.
a few things we could afford to bring into our institutional structures:
encourage cross-departmental collaboration. innovation most often occurs at the boundaries between disciplines. often the most exciting results i see in rehearsals come at the intersection between different experts’ work: projecting video on a moving set piece creates impossible magic, or a costume ignites an actor’s work because it creates limitations of movement and the character suddenly emerges. in strategizing deepening, broadening, and diversifying audiences the collective genius is where the best ideas will come from. education might spark an idea with digital media, a board member might find an opportunity with wardrobe—suddenly a gala is an open-invite costume ball, or an educational tool can become a relationship-building mini-series.
leadership that focuses on synthesizing different points of view. one of anita gaffney’s (stratford’s executive director) most shrewd choices in the strategic planning process has been to involve a substantial team of 25 members of the festival’s operating staff (the aforementioned collective who debated the spelling of hi-phallootin). she sets the agenda, launches a conversation, listens a lot, and then returns to the next session with a sharp synthesis of the various ideas that emerged at the last session to push the process forward.
build a culture of R&D. embrace failure as a chance to refine the idea. a few years ago, while working on all’s well that ends well, i had a moment that i was really sure needed a remote control helicopter. mary spyrakis, the endlessly brilliant props master at canadian stage had her team on the project from the first day of rehearsal, trying to figure out how to fly one through high park. two helicopters were casualties, and our props budget was shrinking, but she pressed on. finally, the day before first preview she came to me with helicopter number 3. it would probably have been fine in an indoor theatre, but in a windy park there were just too many variables. it wasn’t going to fly. the bottom line loomed and we made a quick decision: “i don’t know, like, i guess just put it on the end of a stick and get the ASM to cross the stage with it and we’ll just play some absurdly loud chopper sounds?” andrea baggs in a pilot’s headset with a helicopter on a stick was a hundred times funnier than a flying one would have been. most first ideas aren’t going to work. you might find that you’re accidentally engaging your target audience through an unexpected side project. be dextrous, and prepared to pivot.
16. the engaged public
beyond emphasizing artistic process as part of how we structure our organizations internally, we need to see it as a valuable and valid way to connect with the public.
rather than reproducing a producer / customer relationship within our institutions (i.e. “we have made you a product please consume it”), institutions need to be more rigorous about including the public in the way we work.
as in many industries, there is real fear around the implications of radical democratization. along with professional taxi-drivers and hoteliers, professional artists and critics fear being pushed out by ‘amateur’ engagement with the art. with access to cost-efficient platforms for dissemination, more than ever before people are making their own music and films, self-publishing writing, and blogging their responses to work.
rather than feeling threatened, arts institutions should be taking this as an exciting sign that the public is more engaged than they have been since the last world war. this is an energy we need to capture and run with—finally, the public want to be more than passive consumers of work. and one of the things that institutions can do is gather these people together, and offer them a perspective of what this loos like on scale.
how can we structure our working models in a way that allow the public to feel involved in the creation of work? how can we give them a glimpse of the artistic process? how can our processes be opened to include the audience, and allow them to build a relationship with a work as it is created? how can we make people hungry to engage with the product by giving them access and ownership to the work we do?
when we were writing the first grant for LULU, helen yung challenged me to think about what made the idea of creating that project at buddies so exciting. what’s buddies’ greatest asset?—an engaged, game, hungry, and thoughtful community. what would it mean to create the piece not just for them, but with them? some people followed the show through all its instalments, others dropped in for just one. one audience member who came back through several instalments commented “it felt like i had access to a secret world i was re-encountering”—they felt a part of a community and a conversation that was evolving. buddies serves a specific constituency with a specific mandate, but i can't help but wonder: what would it would be like if every theatre's community was its greatest asset?
as an audience member, i’m deeply wary of participation in theatre—my worst nightmare is being “participated at,” when i feel like my involvement is meant to serve the performance, rather than the audience, and it feels like there’s a right answer or a wrong answer. at the fever at luminato this year, i was dubious (ok maybe hostile). i knew we were going to be asked to help perform the show, and i feared the dreaded “participation at.” i spent most of the show trying not to get called on. obviously i got called on. obviously if was for one of the biggest sections. and in the end any initial quibbles i had about the show or the script became irrelevant, because running through a crowd in the dark with one of the performers leading me offered me a physical transformation. my heart rate was up, it changed my relationship to space, i was sweating—it moved me, and asked me to invest, and the performers’ ask was focused on giving us ownership over the piece, not serving their ends—even though they were clearly guiding us somewhere. and as the audience walked out after, they were praising each other—“i though you were so great.”
one of the things i find most hopeful in the dark world of social media clickbait is the love of the flashmob. be it wedding proposals, bhangra at a metro station, or the austrian volksopera taking over a train station in vienna with the carmina burana. i don’t think it’s just the element of surprise, or the change of location—it speaks to a yearning for moments of collective creation, something bigger than the individual, the moments when art engages a whole community.
17. civic spaces
“what if art centers everywhere understood their mandate to be: ‘ignite the public imagination of your community’?”
(deborah cullinen, CEO of yerba buena centre for the arts, in a medium article titled “what if arts centres existed to promote radical citizenship?”)
a question that comes up often in my collaborations with susanna fournier is “what is the theatrical contract with this piece?” audience members joining an arts event enter into a kind of mock-up of a social contract: what behaviours they are prepared to adopt in return for certain protections and experiences.
in many ways the rehearsal process and the performance event create their own micro-societies, with decision-making structures, communal goals, and an order to everyone is included and where they fit into the collective. one of theatre’s pleasures has always been in its ability to offer a subversive space for an alternate form of civic participation, building temporary communities that establish shared processes.
theatre’s stakes are usually extremely high, but they’re also imaginary, which makes it an ideal space for unpacking important, high stakes problems of who we want to be as a culture, and how our personal and political values intersect.
western theatre’s civic-political function dates to its inception in ancient athens, when the core scene of the drama was the agon—argument, struggle, contest—between the two main characters, i.e. when kreon and antigone have their scene. a comedian like molière enjoyed a kind of fool’s license in france as one of the only people in the state who could (mostly) get away with criticizing louis xiv.
if we’re going to make an argument to the public and to politicians & policy makers for the continued support of and even existence of larger arts institutions, we need to make an effort to blow open our doors and make our buildings civic spaces for public engagement.
in germany (ok i know, but guys i made it this far only mentioning germany once or maybe 1.5 times if you count frederick the great so indulge me¶), the state theatres are fundamentally that. artistic directors are government-appointed, and theatres belong to the city and/or province.
in 2012, when armin petras left the maxim gorki theater to take over the theatre in stuttgart, the berlin cultural senator made the inspired choice of shermin langhoff and jens hillje to succeed him. together, they had been running an indie theatre in kreuzberg as a post-migrant theatre and they brought that mandate to a state theatre right on unter den linden.
under their tenure the gorki has become a critical gathering place for berlin’s rapidly-growing migrant population. not only are half the acting ensemble non-german, they host debates, culturally-focused festivals, throw parties, and while i was there in june for their ‘pugs in love’ queer weekend they had a barbecue and screened the world cup game in the kantine. they also threw a killer new year’s party last year and we watched the fireworks from the rooftop while a dj alternated between balkan music, turkish music, and deep dirty german electro. the gorki has become a vital centre for civic participation, and is actively engaged in anti-AFD art projects and advocacy. but it has taken vigorous outreach, meticulous relationship-building with a generally disinclined target public, and an ongoing interrogation of ‘who are we doing this for?’ to maintain the success of this mandate.
¶ ok i miscounted i talked about it in the introduction too but really all things considered i’ve done pretty well.
18. codes of conduct
“if we want to keep theatre alive and keep our patrons, as well as attract new ones—old and young, white and “of color”—we can’t be afraid to push our older white patrons past their comfort levels and dismantle their supremacist and privileged worldviews, not just onstage, but in the culture of theatre that we are creating. we need to say that, just like in church, you are welcome to come as you are in the theatre. hoot and holler or sit quietly in reverence. worship and engage however you do.”
(NY playwright dominique morrisseau, in an article for american theatre called “why i almost slapped a fellow theatre patron and what that says about our theatres” that was widely shared in 2015)
the other day i passed by a woman with some kids (i assume her grandchildren) making sure their cell phones were turned off. the kids were dressed up in some secular version of what may once have been called their sunday best. there was nothing aggressive or strict in her delivery, but it served as a reminder of the complex social codes that have evolved around theatre attendance in the west.
almost daily in the show reports here we hear about patrons who exit the theatre before intermission who refuse to wait in the seats we’ve reserved for re-entries in the back row, rushing past ushers to their seats. they're not playing by our rules.
part of me is very much of the “what’s the big deal?” mindset—after all, shouldn’t we be thrilled to be bringing people in who might be unfamiliar with the rules of the theatre? they could have paid a lot fo those tickets. and shouldn't we cultivate theatre spaces that people feel ownership over? and isn’t part of the act of entering into the theatrical contract negotiating coexisting with a whole auditorium full of other humans?
the question also brings to mind the primary perceptual barrier to cultural attendance: “it’s not for people like me.”
on the other hand, every time i’m teching a show and the question of cuing the cell phone announcement comes up i’m irritated—shouldn’t people just know better? and most directors i know wouldn’t want a lobby door opening and flooding the theatre with light during a moment of silence and low light that we fastidiously teched to be magical and transportive.
but if stratford is to break through 500K tickets a year, we’ve got to make our theatres more welcoming to those who experience perceptual barriers around attendance, and decodify our spaces from the white bourgeois status quo. certainly a big barrier for BIPOC audiences is not seeing themselves represented on stage (culture track reports 65% will stay away for this reason). and progress is gradually being made in this area||, but a larger shift in the audience culture we foster is essential to giving a broader demographic a sense of ownership over our spaces.
|| there is still a huge amount of work to be done, and whole other huge essays/blogs/articles could be and have been written about this. i'm going to focus more on the audience than representation on our stages for this article, because i'd rather not be cursory about an important issue like content and representation.
19. "radical hospitality"
so how do we reconcile these two competing questions? can we avoid greeting new audience members with a laundry list of do-nots while still ensuring our audiences who have internalized those codes for years aren’t angered to the point of writing yet another etiquette article? can we dismantle the bourgeois, white hegemony of our cultural spaces without alienating the demographic that actually seems committed to us?
i myself have been a violator of these elaborate codes, even as someone who comes from a privileged enough upbringing to have learned them very early. and i suspect feeling like i knew how to belong in these spaces had a lot to do with choosing to spend my life working in them.
one of the few operas i’ve actually really enjoyed was calixto bieito’s stuttgart production of der fliegende holländer. a short-list of things onstage: a rubber dinghy, a doghouse entering on 3 pairs of showgirl legs, 16 refrigerators filled with meat, plastic babies, pearls, and champagne, 32 blonde wigs, a strobelight orgy consisting of 70+ people, 9 smashed computer screens, and a naked dude standing stock-still in the middle.” bieito is like the pedro almodovar of opera, big, queer, campy spanish provocateur. and the most surreal thing about it was the audience, and their disapproval of my laughter and engagement. i was wearing jeans and a tshirt, while everyone else had come in hardcore black tie. i laughed through the whole thing—yes it was very serious wagner music but it was a wild staging. and not a single other opera goer laughed. if i weren’t so resiliently committed to theatre, i think the audience’s attempt to shame my ‘disruptive’ behaviour might have made me think twice about re-engaging.
diane ragsdale offers the idea of “practicing radical hospitality” as a possible answer. steward all patrons through the experience. “if we want to reach non-traditional audiences, then i believe we need to consciously practice radical hospitality in four areas: where the art happens, what’s programmed, how much we charge, and how we approach people to tell them about our work.”
now, this may come as a shock, but i don't spend a lot of time going to sports games. in fact, i think i was five the last time i had a ticket to a professional sport-something-something. i would even go so far as to say "i'm not the sort of person who goes to sports things." maybe the second thing i would say is "it's not worth the price."
luckily for pro sports, they're not suffering from an audience problem. but if they were, i wonder what they would have to do to get me in there? reduce my perceptual barriers. use outreach to make it seem less intimidating. show me other art-fags enjoying it. build relationships with people in my community who love it and can advocate for it—i trust word-of-mouth from people i know above all else. prime me to understand the rules (i still don't understand how football gets scored). do something to reduce my perception that a bro-culture i want nothing to do with dominates those spaces. help me find me way to the event, through the event, and if i really liked it, give me some ways to engage with it after—maybe somewhere i could follow up on who the people were who did the sports-thing and how they got to where they are, and also how good baseball players look in those pants. facilitate me developing a relationship to it, on my terms. more than anything, make it seem like something other people like me are really enjoying, that i'm missing out on. it's not as far-fetched, ridiculous, or impossible as it might initially sound. and if they were facing extinction, it would be worth the work to extend their reach beyond their diehard loyalists..
another example of radical hospitality is the emergence of “relaxed performances,” which stratford and many other organizations have taken on in recent years. they are not money makers—prices are reduced, and they may not sell as well as our usual matinees. other patrons may be wary about attending these shows. but there is a less measurable, qualitative value that they offer—they bring new people through our doors, they allow us to form partnerships with new organizations, and they create individual meaning for families and caregivers who are happy to see their loved ones thought of in the daily operations of a public institution.
in comparison to the wagner, stratford’s production of rocky horror has been pivotal in the audience shifting their behaviours. already the title carries with it a different kind of cult expectation in audiences. but i wasn’t so sure the stratford production could carry it. donna feore has worked with FOH and digital media to create some playful short lobby videos (i’m pretty sure they also go out in the pre-email). they help set up some terms of engagement (discouraging toast-throwing at live actors) and teach them donna’s variation on time warp. donna’s audience plants help to rev up call-outs from anyone who might know them—and lots do.
but the audience are stepping up their game too—i’m seeing tons of middle-aged dudes in full drag and fishnets, and you can always tell when rocky has played from the boa debris wafting through market square. it’s exciting to see the audience taking ownership over a stratford theatre in a way i’ve never witnessed before. it feels like their space, and they have dismantled the codes (with some encouragement from us). and it’s not disturbing our traditional audiences either: my mom sat behind a ninety-year-old white woman at a preview who got up after and said it was the most fun she’d ever had in a theatre. in 90 years, that’s something.
20. cultivating demand
“we believe that culture precedes change. indeed, the great societal strides — those that have produced positive and powerful forward movement — have inevitably resulted from some cultural shift, a momentous collective motion that sparks the public imagination and builds a kind of energy that cannot be diverted or denied.”
(deborah cullinen, “what if arts centres existed to promote radical citizenship?”)
the interesting thing about the current cultural shift we are facing is that it wasn’t led by the cultural sector—rather by a tech sector who adopted creative process to produce the tools and techniques of the new culture. it has left us scrambling to keep up and fearful of its implications. it has birthed new economic paradigms and whole new modes of human interaction. the traditional relationships upon which we have relied have suddenly acquired new etiquette. (these days it’s polite to text before you call so that colleagues don’t have the immediacy of your realtime presence inflicted upon them.)
sure, to some extent, it’s made narcissistic selfie-chasing monsters of us. in an ever more polarizing culture, the media one consumes and one’s likes and dislikes have become tied to personal brand and even identity. whole industries of organized labour have been disrupted and replaced by draconian open-sourced services that bypass long fought-for collective agreements. the internet is the new wild west, such deregulated stuff as margaret thatcher’s wet dreams are made on.
but——. it’s also created a means of developing and strengthening relationships like never before. it’s created new generations of consumers and cultural participants who want more than to just be marketed at. we want to be actively involved, we want to know a brand or institution’s values and mission, and aligning themselves with those missions becomes a part of how we identify ourselves.
rather than fear the spectre of the digital revolution as disastrous for the live arts, we should seize on it as the opportunity we’ve been waiting for since the advent of cinema and mass-production. digitization represents a chance for the arts sector to actively connect with the public and rigorously promote our institutional value.
the pendulum may initially have swung hard toward me-centred experiences, but it’s swinging back to bigger than-me experiences. there is a craving for authenticity; for artisanal, hand-crafted, GMO-free, grass-fed communal experiences with culture that capitalize on liveness, interactivity, and our ability to offer cultural spaces as places of belonging.
the greatest advantages digital media offer us are aligned with the ones the public craves: deeper, richer experiences, easier access to tickets, and new ways to participate. we have the tools now, more than ever, to design events and experiences, rather than just delivering productions as product. we have the ability to shift the status quo of how audiences expect to enter our spaces and engage with them.
there is no one size-fits all approach to creating meaning and engagement with an untapped audience. it takes thoughtfully targeted outreach, and relationships can only be built one at a time. for most of the industrial age, relationship-building with the public was not efficient, and we have relied instead on politicians and multipliers. it still isn’t our most efficient means, but organizations now have the ability co-ordinate and collaborate on audience-building efforts with hitherto unimaginable efficiency, share resources to create large-scale works, and connect with touring partners. it will only work in canada if it is a sector-wide, cross-disciplinary, collective effort. we have the potential to organize conversations and mobilize networks to activate emergent movements.
but in practicing radical hospitality, embracing our role as civic spaces, improving access, and decodifying audience behaviours, there’s another critical shift arts organizations need to make. we need to make sure that we balance organizational inclusivity with a perception of exclusivity. we need to manifest ourselves in the world as sexy, fun, subversive spaces. spaces where all are welcome, but if you don’t come you’ll regret missing out. this key ingredient is how we create audience desire, hunger for the work we do. for too long we’ve sat like desperate dates, texting back too quickly, killing the mystery with our eager over-availability. how each organization manifests this in the world extends beyond some graphic design and lobby music—it’s in the entire public presence of the institution. we need to start acting like we’ve got something to offer, build relationships we can trust, and in a certain regard, make the public want to come to us. if this sounds like a contradiction to everything else i’ve said, it is. and it’s on arts leaders to find a way to embrace this contradiction, cause otherwise nobody’s going to be calling on saturday night.
none of this will be easy. we’ve been complicit in constructing some of the perceptual barriers that are keeping the audiences we need away. and as owais lightwala commented at the canadian summit for the arts, we need to be honest that we need them more than they need us. now it is incumbent upon us to dismantle these barriers. shifting operations and processes will be a gradual transition—disruption might work in the tech sector but the free-market isn’t kind to public arts institutions. careful, deliberate steps must be taken. organizational change requires not only opportunity and incentive, but also capacity, which must be cultivated organically.
“taking artistic risks, increasing attendance, fostering access, improving quality, deepening engagement, and hitting earned and unearned income targets do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. we can kid ourselves into thinking that we can pursue these goals simultaneously and without compromise, by separating into different departments the functions of making the art, selling the tickets, raising money, balancing the budget educating patrons, and understanding the community, but the compartmentalization of mission is only a short term alleviation of the genuine philosophical struggle to reconcile these competing goals. and prioritizing and balancing these goals is only likely to get more difficult, given the current economic climate.”
(diane ragsdale, “surviving the culture change”)
i like a good puzzle. this might even be fun.