Friday, January 12, 2007

Inducing Sneezing

In response to my post below, "On Purple Cows and Sneezing," Don Hall has posted "Controlling the Controllable," which takes my comments and extends them to practical suggestions. I think his #2 and #3 suggestions, in particular, are good: 2) Face to face marketing is more effective. Get out of the little black room and go where people go to have fun (if your show is fun) or to think (if your show is thoughtful) and market to one person at a time. 3) Start with your own personal "sneezers." Who do you listen to when they recommend a movie or a new CD? Chances are others listen to them for the same thing. Get them in your theater and make sure they have a phenomenal experience.

I'd like to make a radical suggestion for inducing sneezing. First, follow Don's #2 suggestion: hang out at a place where the kind of people you'd like to have in your audience hang out. Talk to people, talk about your project and find a few people who seem intrigued. Then follow Seth Godin's (author of Purple Cow) approach to selling his book. The first run of his book was sold for $5 a copy -- but there was a catch: you had to buy 12 copies. What he was counting on was that 1) sneezers, who are often first adopters who like new ideas, would want to be among the few who got a copy of the book, AND 2) by buying 12 they would be encouraged to distribute them to people they thought might also like the ideas. Thus, the ideavirus spread. After the first run was sold out, the rest of the books were released for public consumption at the usual price. The innovators and early adopters were already talking up the book, and with that network already working for him, the early and late majority wanted to get on board. Result: the book shot up the best seller list.

So, you've found your sneezers: offer them a full price ticket -- say, it is $20. And THEN offer them a $5 if they buy five more tickets at $5 each as well. The sneezer does the math: if I wanted to see your show and bring a date, it would cost me $40 -- but if I take them up on this offer, I can bring my date and four other people for $30. What will he do? But what is to stop him from buying the six tickets for $30 and then simply throwing the unused four away? Figure out some way that all six have to come to the box office to pick up the tickets. In addition, like Godin, limit the offer: the offer is only good for the first weekend. Result: your sneezer, who you identified as someone who would like the kind of stuff you want to do, will most likely bring along five other people that he also thinks will like this kind of stuff -- so already you have six people who might come back to a later production. In addition, you have a house of sneezers who will be spreading the word about your show all during the next week to friends of their's who may also be intrigued enough to show up. The audience grows, and fills with the kind of people who will like your stuff.

But what about the cost? Well, how much does it cost you to buy ads, do mailings, and put up posters? Take some or all of that money, divide it by the cost of the cut-price tickets, and determine how many sneezers you can afford. You're in control of the process, just like Godin was in charge of how many copies of his book were sold for $5 each.

I think this is worth a try, particularly for a newish theatre that hasn't yet established an audience base.

My Thoughts

Isaac, commenting on the previous post, asks "What are your thoughts, Walters?" I suspect that this question arises because most of my previous post was a link and a quote. But let me respond to that question in a broad sort of way.

To put it bluntly: I'm mad as hell. I am 48 years old, I have a doctorate in theatre history, and I have read a LOT about theatre over the 30+ years I've been doing theatre. Anyone who has taken a class with me, and anyone who has read this blog, knows that I believe that artists should be part of their community, and have a responsibility to improve that community through their art. Over and over, I have engaged in knock-down, drag-out battles with other bloggers about these issues.

So what am I mad about? Because despite all my reading, it wasn't until last summer when I attended a conference on Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed that I found out that there was an entire field out there of people who shared my orientation: community-based, grassroots theatre people. I am willing to admit that this oversight may be my own -- it is possible that I simply ignored references to this large and dynamic group of theatres and theatre artists. But I write Instructor's Manuals for several prominent Intro to Theatre and Theatre History textbooks, and while I remember contemporary ethnic- and sexuality-focused theatres mentioned in these textbooks, I also seem to remember that most of them are NYC based. What about the rest of the country? What about theatres like Roadside Theatre and Carpetbag Theatre, both of whom have been producing theatre since the late 1960s and early 1970s? Why has theatre history always been focused on the NYC scene?

At the end of the film Whale Rider, the grandfather prays to his granddaughter, who has just been revealed as the new prophet, "I am a fledgling new to flight." That is how I feel right now, as my middle-aged mind tries to catch up with decades of history and theory that didn't enter my consciousness. I had come to reject the NYC-centric view of theatre, but I was so stuck that I didn't see that there already existed an alternative that was brilliant and strong.

A 2004 Gathering of leaders of this movement, which took place without my even knowing it about 15 minutes from my home in Asheville, NC, discussed the need for the dissemination of information about this approach to theatre. I have taken that directive to heart, and I am using this blog to alert my readers to the work of these impassioned, creative, and caring artists. Meanwhile, I am personally trying to absorb all I can by reading the hundreds of articles on the Community Arts Network website, and the books that are listed in the bibliography of the Gathering's final report. And I am trying to communicate to my students that there are other ways to live one's life as an artist, and that the NYC-centric myth is just an ideology.

Most of the great playwrights of the past have written for a specific community. The Greeks crafted plays for a very specific group of audience members; the medieval mystery plays were written and performed by the members of the community; Moliere wrote for Louis XIV's court, and thew Restoration playwrights made a career out of thinly disgusing the courtiers of Charles II's court in their plays; the best plays of the Abbey Theatre, and of Synge, O'Casey, and Yeats were those written about their fellow Irish. But somewhere we grabbed onto the misbegotten idea that art is "universal," and that it doesn't really matter who is in the audience, and it doesn't really concern us whether what is written speaks to those people, or is what they need to hear at that moment -- playwrights write "for the ages."

Well, personally, I have lost interest in that ideology. And I am excited beyond measure to find myself, like Dorothy after her house crashes into Oz, exploring a new world that has assumptions and ways of doing things that are very, very different from where I come from.

And those are my thoughts, Mr. Butler!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who Is the REAL Avant Garde?

In 1982, Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard published in Art in America (Vol 70 Number 4 April 1982) an article entitled "Grass ROOTS Vanguard" in which they argued that the REAL avant garde artists were not the seemingly alienated experimental artists identified by the art world, but rather the "neighborhood artists" who step outside the marketplace to create art. They write:

A neighborhood artist (sometimes called a community artist or an animateur) is someone whose work consists of placing artistic skills at the service of a community (neighborhood art thus also requires the skills of a community organizer — the ability to explain, assist and to learn from others). He or she abandons the old idea of the artist as a person who is set apart from others. "Artistic alienation" then takes on another meaning. It is alienation from the values of the marketplace and the snobbery of the academy, from the pabulum in commercial culture and the bland acceptability in government art.

The conventional idea of the avant-garde equates alienation from the values of the marketplace with alienation from all aspects of society: if the artist refuses to assume the values of the official culture, the only alternative is to be an isolated individual, a law unto oneself. But neighborhood artists are not alienated from their communities. They have chosen a role which demands that their work be valued for its utility to those communities. This is a standard of value which is completely separate from the question of marketability or acceptance by critics and agents. But how have members of this new avant-garde come to their work? Certainly a few have simply followed the logic of innovation, moving by increments outside the gallery or theater and into the life of a community. But most have acted deliberately to avoid the circumscribed role to which artists in our society are consigned.

We have spoken with many groups of young artists — in art school seminars, panel discussions, and in workshops designed to offer "pointers" on grants and marketing. These meetings tend to be suffused with powerlessness and desperation, and for good reason. Often, the lot of the young ambitious artist is to be a kind of Sleeping Beauty, one who must wait to be "discovered" and whose mode of life is to prepare for this discovery. The artist then alternates between fond hope and despair — and frustration at enforced passivity and the capriciousness of "success."

The new avant-garde — the neighborhood arts movement — is not waiting to be discovered. Justification and gratification are inherent to neighborhood art; they are not postponed until the verdict of arbiters of success is given. Neighborhood artists want their work to have impact, to have meaning to others. Each day they are able to see that art can help transform the experience of the members of a community. Their work is thus not the expression of a single sensibility, but part of a continuing dialogue among the members of a community.

Read the whole article by clicking on the above link, and then think hard about your categories...

Inspiring Interview

Michael Fields, artistic director of Dell Arte Theatre, interviews Dudley Cocke, Donna Porterfield, Ron Short and Tamara Coffey, the artists of Roadside Theatre in Kentucky. These people have such a solid sense of who they are and what they do and why they do it that it cuts through the murk like a beacon. Roadside Theatre has been in existence since 1975, and is part of Appalshop, a "multi-disciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books."

Enjoy the interview!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On Purple Cows and Sneezers

Tom Loughlin over at Poor Player finds himself daunted by Don Hall's (Angry White Guy in Chicago) recent post "The Shit Hitting the Fan." Tom, who harbors a desire to start his own theatre, wonders whether anyone would come. Don's post draws our attention to the closing of many storied theatres around the country, and concludes that "The 'business' is kicking the crap out of the 'show.'" Tom worries that Buffalo is already over-supplied with theatres, and that they are "essentially split[ting] the traditional theatre crowd: upper-middle-class educated aging baby-boomers and beyond." Don proposes a series of measures to make the theatre more financially viable in the areas of real estate (tax breaks for those who rent to arts organizations, rental vouchers for artists to use to rent performance spaces, and a NEA grants for living museums), marketing (less money for rent means more money for marketing), and education (all artists should provide free performances for schools). All valid worries, all interesting proposals.

To my mind, though, the most important sentence is Don's quotation from a story about Lisa Kron, where she says: "We keep working at something that's become totally economically unworkable." The tendency, when reading this sentence, is to nod dourly while focusing on the final two words of the sentence. On the other hand, I think we should look at the first part of that sentence -- "we keep working at something" -- and add in another phrase to clarify it: "We keep working at something in the same way we've always worked at something..." We haven't changed the way we do things in decades (I had to stifle the urge to type centuries). Our business model is old fashioned, and we seem to unwilling to risk imagining a different way of doing things, much less putting a new way into effect.

Take marketing. As Don says, less money for rent would lead to more money for marketing, which "
will simply be easier because marketing takes dime." And this is most certainly true: advertising prices go up and up, whether it is newspapers, radio, television, or posters. But as Seth Godin says in Purple Cow, "we've now reached the point where we can no longer market directly to the masses. We've created a world where most products are invisible. Over the past two decades, smart business writers have pointed out that the dynamic of marketing is changing. Marketers have read and talked about those ideas, and even used some of them, but have maintained the essence of their old marketing strategies. The traditional approaches are now obsolete."

He goes on to discuss the periods before, during, and after advertising:

Before advertising, there was word of mouth. Products and services that would solve a problem got talked about and eventually got purchased. The best vegetable seller at the market had a reputation, and her booth was always crowded.

During advertising, the combination of increasing prosperity, seemingly endless consumer desire, and the power of television and mass media led to a magic formula: If you advertised directly to the consumer (every consumer), sales would go up. A partnership with the right ad agency and the right banker meant you could drive a company to be almost as big as you could imagine.

After Advertising, we're almost back where we started. But instead of products succeeding by slow and awkward word of mouth, the power of our new networks allows remarkable ideas to suffuse through segments of the population at rocket speed. As marketers, we know the old stuff isn't working. And we know why: because as consumers, we're too busy to pay attention to advertising, but we're desperate to find good stuff that solves out problems.

He concludes, "Among people who might buy your product, most will never hear about it. There are so many alternatives now that people can no longer be reached by mass media. Busy consumers ignore unwanted messages..." He proves this by running an experiment with the Wall Street Journal, where a full-page ad "costs more than a house in Buffalo" (Tom, you'd know how much that is). "One morning," he writes
with time to kill at a fine hotel, I interrupted a few people who were reading the Journal over breakfast. I waited until they had finished the first section, and then I asked them if they could name just two of the companies that had run full-page ads. Not one person could." For me, this rings true -- I rarely pay attention to the ads in my morning newspaper. Now, if people can ignore a full page ad, what chance do our 1/16th-page ads have of getting attention? Well, what about direct mail advertising -- that's better, right? Think about how many solicitations you dump in the garbage unopened every day of the week. Which ones do you open? The ones you already were committed to anyway, usually."

Godin's solution is to focus efforts on creating a remarkable product (a "purple cow" -- something that is "worth talking about"), and then put that product in front of what he calls "sneezers" -- sneezers are "the key spreading agents of an ideavirus. These are experts who tell all their colleagues or friends or admirers about a new product or service on which they are a perceived authority. Sneezers are the ones who launch and maintain ideaviruses. Innovators or early adopters may be the first to buy your product, but if they're not sneezers as well, they won;t sperad your idea...Finding and seducing these sneezers is the essential step in creating an idea virus."

Theatre sneezers are not "the traditional theatre crowd: upper-middle-class educated aging baby-boomers and beyond" -- those are the early and late majority who will not attend your theatre without it being recommended by a sneezer. Sneezers are people who are on the lookout for something new, something different, something cool, something remarkable. Most theatre are none of these. We create very few Purple Cows. We think the safe way to make money is to be conservative, when actually that is the most dangerous, because sneezers have nothing to talk about. The old theatres have already snapped up all the traditional audience members (Tom's concern), so if you are a new theatre you need to focus on the new audience. And if your theatre isn't cool, isn't remarkable, it offers nothing to the sneezers. No wonder our audiences are greying -- they're the early and late majority that was motivated by some sneezer years and years ago and, typically, just stayed afterwards. Is this the audience we want to attract? What about people who aren't middle class, white, educated, and Baby Boomers? How do you reach those sneezers? What makes a play remarkable to an African-American working stiff in his early 20s? How do you reach those sneezers? (Hint: I doubt that it is by using the same marketing methods as the traditional theatre crowd.)

The point is that we need to wipe the slate clean and think about this from the ground up. It's a new world, and we can't do things the way we've been doing them for the last hundred years. We have to know our audience, and then take the risks necessary to create a Purple Cow. Risk doing something different.

Because if we don't, then there really is no point to opening yet another theatre, in Buffalo or anywhere else, that will just go ignored. And if we don't, other theatres like those that Don lists will close their doors. And it will be sad, and we will blame it on the Great Unwashed who don't appreciate Good Art. And we'll never see that these theatre have stopped being remarkable, and consequently have stopped being sneezed into coolness.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Robert Gard:

"Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America" by Robert Gard

As the book description explains, "Robert Gard’s timeless book is a moving account of one man’s struggle to bring his dream of community-building through creative theater to citizens around the country. He traveled across America—from New York’s Finger Lakes to the prairies of Alberta, Canada, to the backwoods of northern Wisconsin—discovering and nurturing the folklore, legends, history, and drama of the region. He talked to ballad singers, painters, the tellers of tall tales, and farm women, whose poetry and painting reflected the elemental violence of nature and quiet joys of neighborliness. Grassroots Theater reminds us that an individual’s creative vision transcends technology, current events, and changing demographics." Originally published in 1955 and re-released by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999, this book still has the power to inspire and refresh. Gard's vision of a theater rooted in a community and committed to works created by citizens who live within that community was realized through the Wisconsin Idea Theater housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and the Wisconsin Rural Writers' Association. This very personal and engaging book gives insights into the trials and victories, and the people and ideas that Gard encountered as he brought his ideas into existence.

A few quotations that I found inspiring:

"It seems to me that a stream of fine new community arts leaders should be issuing from the University of Wisconsin and, indeed, from all universities and colleges of the nation. The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theater departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater. The young person graduating from the university has little concept of the scope of te theater to be developed, of the delicate social problems of fitting himself and his talents successfully into community life. He is too frequently a failure when he attempts it."

I am reminded of a 1995 article by Richard Schechner entitles "Transforming Theatre Departments," in which he makes a strong case that theater departments are deceiving their students by pretending to prepare them for a profession that has no need for them, and giving them skills that will not be valued by the profession. He proposes that theatre departments create three different tracks: "performance studies" which would look at performance braodly in preparation for positions in other fields; theatre as a lifelong amateur activity, reminding us that it is the amateur theatres that are best able to contribute to theatre history through the creation of a theatre of classics, new work, and experimental work, all of which could be undertaken because one's livelihood would not be contingent on the box office; and finally a professional track that would focus on the skills needed for today's professional theatre: "emotive acting for soap operas, mugging and 'sincerity training' for commercials, training in two-minute auditions and quick character studies suitable to the four-week rehearsal periods common in regional theatres." Right now, theater departments teach the values and skills of the second track, while plying students with the Myth of Broadway of the third track. Surely community-based theatre offers a viable and creative alternative to the commercial theatre's siren song of plastic fame.

In order to overcome the Myth of Broadway and the Siren Song of New York, what first must be confronted is the defensive elitism that typifies many artists who, in response to a feeling of being undervalued, strikes an aggressive attitude toward the general public, particularly at the local level. Gard quotes a "gentleman involved in the organziation of an art show in Milwaukee" who "expressed his opinion of popular art and mass participation":

"Frankly, I'm a snob. I believe shows like this are for a minority and the people that come to shows like this are a minority. Do you realize that less than 5 percent of the people of Milwaukee are interested in art? But the door over there is open. Anyone can come in. But it makes no difference to me what 95 percent of the public thinks about this show, whether they think it's crazy and artists are all nuts. And I wouldn't go out on the street to try to convince them to come in here. It makes no damned difference to me."

Gard explains:

"Such a statement shows plainly to me the breakdown of communion between the artist and the public. Many of the modern artists aggravate the breakdown of rapport between themselves and public by failing to make clear the nature of the new developments in art. If the average interested art show audiences were told 'why' Mondrian painted rectangular planes of pure color which 'don't look like anything' or 'why' artists cannot simply go on repeating the styles of the past, they would undoubtedly become more receptive to experimenatl and abstract work. And, of course, more attention by the community to the whole question of public taste would help in many ways."

But unfortunately, our theatre artists and playwrights are given no encouragement to consider themselves rooted in a specific community, and instead they hold onto an abstract notion of the elite audience members who ought to attend their plays. "He is willing," Gard writes, "to observe but not to put down roots. There is no education at present to teach the aspiring playwright [and, I would say, actor/director/designer] that he must grow with a community, that community roots must become his roots, and that only through such merging will he have any value to that place and consequently to other places as an individual and as an artist."

It frustrates me that, throughout my education, nobody ever mentioned Robert Gard or any such other theatre artists and pioneers, so focused on the New York scene has theatre history been. He provides a different view of theatre's role in the life of a community and of our society. I encourage you all to read Grassroots Theater as a source of inspiration and new ideas.

If you would like to read a 1969 interview with Robert Gard, read "Running To Catch Up with the People: A Conversation with Robert Gard, Ralph Kohlhoff and Michael Warlum, 1969."

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...