Archives For theatre

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flesh colored crayonsIn honor of February, I propose an official ban on the phrase “I don’t see color” and derivative phrases of this sentiment used in the non-profit theatre community like “color-blind [___fill in the blank___].”

Who’s with me?

Not convinced already.

/sigh

  •  Watch part two of Jane Elliot’s The Angry Eye, starting at 10:00 (ps found one #withcaptions). Sharing not as an endorsement necessarily, but at 10:15 she asks a student if he identifies as male and black; he confirms he does. She asks if it is important to him ; he confirms it is. Why would we want to deny this of him by “not seeing” it, she asks.
  • Did anyone hear about Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of “colored people” in an interview with Tavis Smiley, referring to black actors? (what he said at bottom of article) Yes, the phrase “People of Color” is widely used, abbreviated to POC. I have also heard POC referred to as “People of Culture” which I both am interested in (gets away from “colored people”) and uncomfortable with (moves us in the #allLivesmatter direction). This is a roundabout way of saying, let’s check our vilifications and generalizations.
  • In December Lavina Jadhwani (Artistic Associate, Silk Road Rising and Oak Park Festival Theatre) shared her thoughts on color conscious casting in a HowlRound journal article. She details the process she and her design team went through in casting The Dutchess of Malfi at DePaul University. Getting a thorough look inside their decision making—fascinating. But what I loved was how concisely she summarized “the issue” in her opening paragraph: “I can’t think of an environment, in real life, where race doesn’t factor into relationship dynamic….I prefer the term ‘color conscious casting,’ by which I mean that race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.”

While my undergrad theatre instruction was narrow, it taught me that “to ignore” is not an active verb tactic. The same is true of white people when it comes to negotiating conversations about race.

If you too decide to ban “color-blind [___fill in the blank___]” from here on out, I recommend starting with reading Jadhwani’s HowlRound piece and these two articles. The first one (shared with me by the amazing Natalie Hopkinson who you should also follow because, well, she’s amazing) eventually introduced me to the word “unbalanced” to describe the feeling people of privilege have when discussing or navigating situations that spotlight their privilege. It’s not something we’re used to seeing. But it is a part of our identity, and there’s humbling strength to embrace it.


FWIW, Benedict Cumberbatch said:

“I think as far as colored actors go it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.”

“We’re not representative enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up apace.”

How long have I been percolating on engagement and the arts? At least since 2006.

In cleaning my office, found these notes from the 2006 TCG Annual Conference in Atlanta. The topic? “Building Future Audience”

Thought I would share some notes from Kevin McCarthy’s “Understanding Arts Participation as a Behavioral Process,” a panel entitled “Who is the Audience of the Future?” with Guy Garcia and Wendy Puriefoy, moderated by Susan Booth and a closing address from TCG’s former executive director, Ben Cameron.

Enjoy (if you can read) and THANKS TCG for being awesome.

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

 

 

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?

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.