New blogger request for forgiveness, the original post needed more before I moved on. All updates, made 1/24/15 appear in this fetching orange.

A Google search of audience engagement yields a bevy of infographics:
Audience Engagement Confusion

And many definitions… (underlining all mine)

From Doug Borwick’s blog Engagement Matters:

“Audience Engagement is a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. Also internally focused (artcentric), it may result in new modes/venues of presentation and means of illuminating/explaining the arts to the public. Typically, ‘outreach’ is an example of audience engagement.”

From Trevor O’Donnell’s blog Marketing the Arts to Death(link updated)

“Development professionals are unusually adept at initiating, nurturing and sustaining relationships with community members so the fit is ideal: engagement is merely an extension of the work that development departments already do.”

From WolfBrown’s Report Making Sense of Audience Engagement:

“Audience engagement is defined as a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant. Others refer to this vein of work as ‘enrichment programming’ or ‘adult education.’

Is it a “marketing strategy” as Mr. Borwick suggested? What does that mean for measuring success–ultimately only in numbers of people and dollars through the door?

Is it more relationship cultivation akin to development as Mr. O’Donnell suggested? If we embraced this, might it dramatically alter arts funding practices?

Is it essentially an organizing principle + strategic thinking framework as WolfBrown suggested? Why look outside of arts organizations’ artistic programming to do that; why not radiate from the artistic experience outward? Engagement as artistic imperative?

#thisdefiningaudienceengagementshitcanbesuperconfusing

SO WHY DON’T YOU TAKE MY WORD FOR IT!?!

Slide3

You caught me: I launched another definition into the blogosphere. But the intention of doing so, as an artist-administrator obsessed with integrating artistic and organizational advancement work, is to simplify and personalize, and stop the “whose responsibility should it be” back-and-forth that many definitions of audience engagement result in.

Points of clarification:

  • “Artcentric”: extending Mr. Borwick’s definition, audience engagement is driven by our role as artists in our community; therefore, our sweep of activities is going to be driven by our work (a.k.a. the art).
  • Mission Oriented (or even driven!): audience engagement should be an extension of your raison d’etre. Work within the enabling constraints of why the organization exists and what it seeks to accomplish.
  • Organization Curated: at the most basic level, someone inside the organization originated the audience engagement program idea or is saying “yes” or “no”; organizations can provide tremendous leeway and agency to collaborators and partners but audience engagement is selected and “held” by the organization.
  • Different from Community Engagement and Audience Development: these all have different outcomes. (More on IMHO the difference in a future post).

In addition to knowing why your particular organization (based on its mission) is embarking on this “audience engagement” thing, a baseline of shared values must exist and woven into the fabric of every activity.

Slide4

And that seems as good a place as any to stop, and step away from the keyboard. 

Do you have a preferred definition of audience engagement, whether it’s your’s or someone else’s?

We at A Big Eyed Fish would love to hear it!

Are we being honest with ourselves about audience engagement work?  Let’s take a second look…

 

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time-for-a-change-pic

 

 

Seems par for the course that I would start out 2015 blogging about the use of jargon-y words and then jump right in the following week using words like “meme-ification” and “authenticity” and referencing “Walter Benjamin” (pronounced Ben-ya-mean because, of course, Germany,) but here goes nothing.

I had never heard of #BlackBrunch until someone brought it up in the office the other day. This particular form of protest is simple, non-violent, and (I think) packs a punch. A group of African American protesters walk into a restaurant during peak brunch hours and read off the names of victims of police brutality, those we’ve heard of before and those we haven’t. In between each name, the group will say “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba term that translates loosely as “amen” or “so be it.” They then called on patrons to stand in solidarity (to varying degrees of success, I imagine). This ritual from start to finish takes four-and-a-half minutes; this time is specific to reflect that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours in Ferguson, MI.*

This phenomenon appears to have started in either Oakland, CA or New York City, NY — which came first is unclear and probably not important. What is of note is that due to Twitter presence, this #BlackBrunch protest/ritual has been copied, even “gone viral” (the byline that the LA Times wants you to tweet out) and has already been seen in DC, as my friend was explaining.

The conversation that ensued in the office became one about authenticity. When an act of protest like that is replicated so many times, does it reach the intent of the proto-action, the very first time it was enacted? Does it echo it? Does it honor it?

One hand of the argument would say it doesn’t, and with each imitation it loses a level of sophistication, the complexity involved with the action itself. Like taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, which will not, and never be, the real live Mona Lisa with its two-hundred-plus year old paint on canvas and dust and all of that.

The other hand of the argument would say it does and it can.

I managed to catch the end of a morning program on NPR, listening to some folks talk about Hashtag Activism, which I feel like is coming up more and more in conversation as of late with #JeSuisCharlie — the women on this program were speaking specifically on the tag #BringBackOurGirls. “What is hashtag activism really doing?” the host inquires. It is no surprise that a hashtag won’t make the Boko Haram return kidnapped young girls, but it will, one expert mentioned, “make (Boko Haram) a name that can be said in households.” It raises consciousness.

Meme-ification has its perks. It means that the thing (the idea, behavior, or style [x]) being replicated or imitated can easily be replicated, and therefore has a shot at becoming a widely adopted belief.

This idea of meme-ification got me thinking on the subject of authenticity and art, which I explored a lot in a Visual Anthropology course in undergrad. We read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (remember: Ben-yah-mean) which you are welcome to read all of here if you have an afternoon.

So, following the logic that ritual is the root of performance, which would then make the #BlackBrunch protest a kind of art…. what would our BFF Benjamin have to say about meme-ification of protests/rituals like #BlackBrunch?

In this article, Benjamin’s big theory is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I’m just going to include this excerpt from section two of this essay for you:

“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated… In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”

He goes on to refer to this sensitive authenticity nucleus as an art object’s “aura.”

So it sounds like #BlackBrunch is screwed, right? “…the historical testimony rests on the authenticity (…) what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” Yikes. Authority jeopardized doesn’t sound great. Until he starts talking about performance.

Describing the reproduction of an actor’s performance in film (which to him, film is one big mechanical reproduction) he sums it up:

“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.

Okay, so, “aura” tied to the “sensitive nucleus” of authenticity… this could then substantiate an argument that #BlackBrunch is an authentic, meaningful form of protest, yeah? I think Benjamin would agree (and Brecht would probably love it too, as a concept.)

I think I land on the side of Benjamin here. As long as live human beings are connected to the center of the protest, they will be authentic. They will be heard, even if they are dismissed, ignored, or stood up with in solidarity. I think as far as non-violent and meaningful protests go, this one is beautiful.

*Thanks LA Times for breaking down what happens during #BlackBrunch so simply, since I’ve not witnessed it yet myself. You can read their article here.

 

Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.

Prologue

I am following up on recent DC theatre community hullabaloo and this New York Times piece about Oscar nominees.

Cannonball

This is a Helen Hayes Award:

It does close to nothing to advance individual theatre artists or arts organizations. Being nominated or receiving one. That is not meant to be an ungracious statement in the least. But really: let’s dispense with this belief.

#1

I was over the moon ecstatic for my husband the year he was first nominated for Outstanding Lighting Design. It was one of his first shows at a larger regional theatre, early in his professional career. I was even more ecstatic when he received his first award. Both designs, in my hyper-critical-but-also-super-biased opinion, were high caliber. In subsequent years, regardless of the quality of the production, designs of his that were truly outstanding were looked over and functional designs which looked like lights on stage or were just nothing earth-shattering were nominated for awards…. and nominated in “competition” with one another.  My husband has been nominated over 10 times and received 3 HHAs. He has received ONE (1) gig as a result of the award. (Which is a long story.)

#2

Matt Wilson, J. Argyl Plath & Jon Reynolds from 2011 premiere.

I was shocked, like scene-from-a-movie said “did they just say Beertown?” shocked when dog & pony dc received its first and only HHA nomination for Outstanding New Play or Musical for Beertown. Making the show had nearly broken up the ensemble, and to have made it through the 14-month devising and production in one piece, have the show critically well received, have decided to remount a show for our first time ever, then suddenly be heading into the remount with either an HHA nomination or an HHA winner felt like a triumph for a barely 4-year old company. More importantly for us, a company no one seemed to understand, we got to the the first ensemble to be nominated for this award: 17 of us were “the playwright.” 17 of us attended together with significant others and sat together and had a lovely reunion. When they didn’t say Beertown had received the award, we breathed a strange sigh of relief. When they showed the Beertown artwork last in the coming-soon montage, all of us agreed this was the Awesomest Night Ever. Because we were there with each other.

Yes, d&pdc lists the HHA nomination as an accomplishment because it gave us street credit and matured us slightly in the eyes of some larger funders, out of town producers, etc. However: no one locally sought to hire any of us, book any of us, or give any of us money. No one who saw Beertown in summer 2012 reported on our audience survey they came because they heard about the HHA. Most reported they heard it was a great show that they missed the first time around.

And so…

The largest thing Washington, DC’s theatre service organization, theatreWashington, does for theatre companies and artists is to produce an annual awards ceremony and party. Instead of questioning that fact, the community always seems to be questioning the way tW is coordinating and producing the awards and party. In every sub sector of our community, at every budget scale level.

Radical inquiry, but are we experiencing a tension here between service priorities and community needs? Possibly a tension DC theatres and artists are unable to see because we just accept the status quo of service?

tW exists to:

  • Create and invigorate audiences
  • Strengthen the regions theatrical workforce
  • Celebrate the excellence on Washington stages

tW’s first goal is to ensure its own operational stability; second is to heighten awareness of the theatrical landscape; third is “TO UNIFY AND STRENGTHEN THE PROFESSIONAL WASHINGTON REGIONAL THEATRE COMMUNITY THROUGH INNOVATIVE AND VALUED PROGRAMS AND SERVICES.” (emphasis mine)

Once I start meditating on tWs “about us” information these questions come to mind. And so I leave them with you:

Who is in control of the service–needs narratives in our personal and professional lives? 

How can providers be responsible and accountable to their communities? 

How can communities see beyond a set needs or a sphere of interests to one that is more broad or limited, more strategically short or long term?

How can a community leverage agency?

Being “Unplugged”

Bed View

My husband and I sit side-by-side most mornings here drinking coffee in bed, staring at a gorgeous rising sun and reading the newspaper. On our devices. I read the backlog of blog entries from the last 4-11 months. Sometimes I tweet them. I’ve been accused of not really being on vacation, because I’m using my iPhone. [sigh] No, I’m not disconnecting myself from the rest of the world while on vacation. I spend so much time disconnected from it as is on a daily basis. It’s a pleasure to have the time to re-engage with it. In fact: last year after vacation I attempted to carry forth the morning coffee and news reading ritual throughout the year (mild success). This year I’m experimenting with not bringing my phone, also my camera, with me everywhere. No access to anything, happy haters?, BUT, no picture taking. Gotta tell you: not missing it. Don’t need to document every day at the beach. Even tested a theory that no one would notice and posted a photo from two years’s ago vacation on Facebook:

A picture from Jan 2013!

This all reminds me of the study/project I was a part of at Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History’s Museum Camp 2014 about whether the use of technology allows you to enjoy nature more. At first I was on the “screw you anti-technology people, let us Instagram if we want to” side of the debate (impartial in the study, obviously). Now, definitely not so sure.

Privilege

On my mind a lot these days (read: years) but nothing like being on the beach with your spouse and good friends in January to bring it to the forefront. It’s also primary in my thoughts because of my work on Squares. (which has been in development since fall 2013 but kicks into higher gear in 2015) and an upcoming dog & pony dc ensemble meeting to review year one of our diversity and inclusion initiative, and plan for this year’s work (year one significantly changed our landscape). I’m in the privileged position of being able take personal and organizational-based action in myriad ways to raise awareness of privilege, seek to educate myself and others, create space for dialogue in which I can listen and be heard, promote intersectional thinking, and increase the spheres of people who are openly conversing and acting for equity. (Check this recent HowlRound post, I dug it.) So, no, I am not feeling guilty or bad (ok, maybe occasionally a little) In the midst of all this sunshine, sand, and surf, but this vacation allows me important reflection time. It’s vital amidst all the upcoming activity to remind, to reinforce that this work is a journey. There is no final destination we to reach. But we must always keep moving toward it.

Work /Life Balance

Cairns on the beaches of Vieques

Two colleagues mentioned they’re working on this in 2015, one who is trying to weight “life” more and one who is trying to weight “work” more. If I asked them, my guess is both–hell, everyone–would say I weight work too much…to the point of having almost no “life.” As a person with no children, though, and who currently manifests her passion in her job, my “work” and “life” are complicatedly intertwined. But let’s pause for a moment: what does this phrase “work/life balance” mean? Life means: friends? pets? significant other? children? going to happy hour? working out? binge watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? taking a figure drawing class? all of the above?

A friend/collaborator and I were talking about another mutual friend who’s spouse is very into cosplay. If I worked at a bank, but spent all my free time and disposable income on costumes and travel to conventions, would I have a work/life balance problem? No, we determined. “dog & pony dc is your cosplay.” she declared. Yes. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t seek out relationships with others and go for drinks, hit the gym, binge watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or expand my horizons. I like doing those things, and they make my work and life richer, more vibrant. They balance my scales.

Multiple Intelligences

For the first time since high school I am actively trying to learn another language, American Sign Language. It terrifies me. I’m known to utter the phrase “I barely speak English,” and I don’t think people understand how much that’s actually true. I’m highly insecure about my understanding of parts of speech, grammar, syntax, and my inability to spell. I eschewed formal classes, knowing that environment didn’t serve me in the past, finagled a most excellent ASL tutor and have excellent, understanding friends and collaborators who are Deaf or ASL interpreters. None the less: I’m petrified that it won’t actually take me years upon years, it will take me never. Is it possible that I’m too old to acquire a new language? Or is my brain not hardwired to learn languages? Yes, I am doing my ASL homework on vacation but I’m also obsessing about multiple intelligences theory and the diversity of mine.

Nothing

Which is to say I thing “the ocean is beautiful,” or “am I going to fall asleep,” or “rum is good,” or “I love my husband” for extended periods of time.

Approaching Navio beach, my favorite on Vieques.

I resolve this new year, two-thousand and fifteen, to use words with meaning.

As in, not to use words without the idea that is being represented by the aforementioned word.
As in, not to use words to describe something and then not do it.
As in, to attempt to mean what I say and say what I mean.

In the early Fall of 2014, Rachel and I were crafting a 2.0 version of our National Arts Marketing Project pre-conference (Playing in the Deep End of Audience Engagement) and she asked what I thought we needed to cover this year that we did not cover the previous. I love these conferences and the way they bring people together, but for me, industry conferences can also be a hotbed of jargon.

jargon print screen merriam webster online

Merriam Webster.com (the source from which this except was Print Scrn’d from above) goes on to define jargon as:

1

  1. confused unintelligible language
  2. a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect
  3. a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech

2

  1. the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group

3

  1. obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words

In my opinion, jargon is a poison. Once the word crosses the threshold into jargon, it is almost certain it will not be able to recover its soul, its authenticity, or its respect in the eyes of those who employ the use of the word. It will suffer a fate similar to terms such as “buy-in,” “synergy,” and “best practices. ” It loses its actual meaning, and is therefore subject to empty usage. This is my fear for the term Audience Engagement.

Type this term into Google and you’ll get 13,600,000 results, ranging from the WolfBrown study Making Sense of Audience Engagement, to articles on blogs with titles like “Innovation Insider” and “Life Business Integrity dot com” where they show you 12 Powerful Audience Engagement Tools (which are actually all just different kinds of survey platforms), to word clouds that include “value” and “brand” and “follow.” This to me is a broad (but accurate) representation of how Audience Engagement is viewed in the arts field — some really digging in to make sense of this term, engaging in critical thought and discussion about it, and some tweeting a link to buy tickets and ticking off their “audience engagement” counter.

It is hard to take jargon seriously — easy to tack jargon on to the end of a business plan or grant report to appear impressive to a panel of experts.

My fear is that Audience Engagement, real, authentic, face-to-face interactions and reciprocal conversations with audience members, is becoming an effort that is hard to take seriously and easy to talk big about.

All that I am asking is that you really dig in, make sense of what Audience Engagement means for your organization or your art form. How can you make it feel true to you and what you’re doing? What are small steps you can take to not just release content, but create dialogue and conversation? See beyond your outputs?

 

Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.

Prologue

Wave Tension by Dale Witherow

“Do you sense a tension…”

“I’m hearing a tension…”

“Let’s explore that tension…”

The “t” word appeared many of my sentences last year as I attempted to more closely examine the relationship between beliefs or practices with conflicting implications, rather than my opinion of a particular situation.

What do I mean by “tensions”?:

  • the Narrative – Experience tension
  • the Impact – Reach tension
  • the Privilege – Responsibility tension

However: it isn’t until months later that I feel I’ve gotten enough distance on a particular event of 2014 to be able to clear my vision and articulate the tensions in spite of my opinions. I knew that when I jump started A Big Eyed Fish that I needed to force myself to tackle this topic in the first few posts.

There’s a laundry list of disclaimers I could go into, but instead I ask everyone to know that I am writing with the best intentions, writing solely from my personal perspective, and writing with the purpose of prompting reflection… and possibly dialogue.

Cannonball

This fall, Virginia-based theatre company WSC Avant Bard jointly produced the world premiere of Visible Language with Gallaudet University.  The show told “the true story of the 1890s culture war when two powerful and egotistical men—Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet—clashed over how the Deaf should be taught to communicate. The outcome of that contest…changed the life of every Deaf person in America.”

Tension: Hearing Production – Deaf Story

Visible Language was written, directed, featured, and publicly produced predominantly by hearing people. And I want to emphasize publicly produced; I was surprised to learn after see the show that it was a “joint production” (the phrase on WSC’s website) with Gallaudet University’s theatre department (addressing this next). The dominant language in the show was spoken English. The show was 100% captioned and a handful of scenes (regretfully I don’t know an exact number) transpired in American Sign Language (ASL). A number of the characters engaged in “Sim-Com” or simultaneous-communication, speaking English and signing at the same time, which is technically speaking two languages at the same time and still privileges the spoken word over the signed.

What responsibility does a company have to be aware of its own privilege when producing a show that features the history, stories, language, people, and voices of a non-dominant culture and community? What responsibility do the hearing artists who wrote and directed the show have to turning over the reins of artistic leadership of this project to their Deaf artist collaborators? Who was the most appropriate company to produce the show? Should it even have been finished in the first place, after having initially been commissioned numerous years ago by another company for which it may have been stewarded with more care? I am not suggesting that Avant Bard should not have tackled this project. I love that they did. But I question whether the privilege the hearing artists held, because they are hearing, prevented them from realizing the tremendous responsibility they were shouldering with this endeavor and the amount of capital they withheld from their collaborators.

Tension: Professional Production – University Production

 While Visible Language was a professional theatrical production, it was also the student production at Gallaudet. What is the responsibility of the producing organization to serving the needs of students when in partnership with academic institutions? The needs of the faculty and alumni? What was the impulse behind the partnership for the producing organization? What did Avant Bard provide the students of Gallaudet as far as professional training? How is that being extended beyond this one experience?

And, because Gallaudet is a higher education institution dedicated to the “advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals” and Avant Bard is a hearing theatre company…where was the imperative from Avant Bard to uphold and forward that mission through Visible Language?

Tension: Promotion of Inclusion – Maintaining Critical Standards

Washington Post closed out its review thus:Visible Language makes you want to lean in and understand.”

Washington City Paper with: “There’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems….The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.”

DC Metro Theatre Arts noted the show “moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.”

Which is AWESOME!

But these quotes were drawn from reviews that also commented on the production as being under-rehearsed (e.g. actors dropping large sections of lines), songs as “insipid,” script as “expository,” “moving forward with blunt strokes,” and “leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction.” Read all the mainstream reviews for Visible Language in full, and one gets a feeling of cheerleading an underdog.

Broadwayworld.com remarks: “Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a ‘unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing,’ and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. “ How does the reviewer, who I am guessing is hearing, know this?

A Twitter conversation on #OccupyVL (a hashtag initially started just for the group I attended the show with to discuss our reactions) revealed:

@jrscoyote Yes, and the pacing and staging is driven by the music, so the signing seems ‘shoehorned’ in and suffers accordingly #OccupyVL

@DrKVG I see it as driven by ENGLISH not by music. The ASL had no connections to music in terms of beat, handshape, motion etc. #OccupyVL

Also shared on the hashtag from the blog Surdus Explores:

“Most songs are given the SEE [Signed Exact English] treatment, which renders them fairly meaningless. A poem closes the show; it receives the same treatment. While SEE can help us perceive the English side of a poem in writing, it doesn’t lend itself to the performance of meaning.”

I share all this not to debate or debunk the critics, or to say the production was not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary—the exact opposite. However: what is the balance of critical review and promotion of inclusion, of equity, on DC stages? What role can the media play in this? How might the critics, writing for audiences not artists, encourage mainstream population (i.e. hearing) attendance at productions like Visible Language but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate cycles of inspiration porn?

And so…

Still, three months after seeing the show, I remain disappointed in my hearing peers’ decisions with this production. While I don’t believe they acted with any ill intentions, I believe they acted with the paper bag of hearing privilege over their heads. Who knows whether it was the scope of the project, the notoriety, the possibility for notoriety, or just the simply not knowing, and with some education, thinking you know all?

Not knowing the full story, I can only surmise based on what it felt like from the outside.

The tension in the tangled

But I am left with these questions, and so I leave you:

  • What is the producers’ responsibility in carrying conversations forward that their productions begin, once the show is done?
  • What is the tension between the privilege we have as non-profit arts organizations and our responsibility to the communities with which we collaborate? the communities we serve? the greater communities that support us?

Temporary food artwork. Click to learn more.

E. B. White was quoted in a 1969 New York Times interview:

If the world were merely seductive that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

The amazing Lisa Q. Mount share the bolded part with me recently, and since then I’ve been massaging it like a worry stone and drawing great comfort from the reflection.

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