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The Untenable Whiteness of Theater (Audiences)
May 12, 2013 8:58 AM   Subscribe

A variety of Bay Area data sources are combined to highlight a problem common to many of the performing arts in the US. The good news? There is a healthy and vigorous discussion in the community around this issue.
posted by Dr. Fetish (51 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I haven't followed all the details of this discussion but has anyone suggested that the "whiteness" comes from the arts organizations they chose to sample?

Whenever I've been to, say, the Lunadas at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, it has been *packed* with latinos.
posted by vacapinta at 9:11 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


vacapinta: The more I look into this, the more it's unclear that reliable data sources for arts participation even exist. I think you may have hit the nail on the head.
posted by Dr. Fetish at 9:22 AM on May 12, 2013


I can almost guarantee you that this excludes performing arts in churches. Gospel choir, anyone?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2013


I think there is a succession of issues here. One of the first is that most American theaters have absolutely no idea where there audiences are coming from to begin with. They can't get audiences of color, because they aren't even sure how the white people showed up. There is a chronic and spectacular lack of understanding of audience and community development in American theater; they can't even get young white people to show up for plays.

There's a book called Marketing the Arts to Death that discusses the failure of American theater to reach audiences, and the author, Trevor O'Donnell, posits that arts organizations are working with an outdated model of why people go to the arts. People who are in the arts believe the arts to be a status event, and seen by the larger population as being so inherently worthwhile that all you need to do is put on a show and people will show up, or, if you are to do any outreach at all, all you really need to do is tell people a show is happening and they will be there.

But contemporary audiences don't see a lot of the arts as a status event anymore, and do not share its makers belief that it is inherently worth supporting. Instead, theater is competing with an increasingly large and diverse variety of entertainment choices, many of which are more aggressive pursuing audiences. So it is not enough just to hang up posters with a picture of a guy holding a skull -- you have to actually market the arts. You have to tell people why it is worth attending, and what they get out of it. Failing that, you're relying on an increasingly aging white population that shares your presumption that theater is just worth going to, and, frankly, they are starting to die off.

Couple this with the fact that most theater, for all their back patting about being progressive, actually tends to be a decade or so behind whatever trend is happening in America. It's populated by people who proudly don't know how to use social media, producing plays that had some minor success off-Broadway five years ago and have been touring playhouses ever since. There is, of course, some bleeding edge theater in America, but the not-for-profit system has, for the most part, had the unfortunate effect of making theaters more conservative, instead of more experimental. It created an entire class of theater administrators and edifices that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and so a great deal of the energy in a theater is spent maintaining the administrators and the edifices, to the degree that the art has suffered. Actors, directors, and playwrights get paid a pittance, if they get paid at all, and the administrative staff spends a lot of time programming stuff that will keep their subscribers happy, even though their subscribers tend to be aging white people with increasingly bland and out-of-touch tastes.

All this conspires to create a theater that isn't particularly inviting to anybody except, on the audience side, those who share the tastes of the subscribers, and on the artistic side, dedicated hobbyists who can spare five says a week for eight weeks to put on a play. That excludes a huge portion of the population; unsurprisingly, people of color, who demographically tend to have to work more for less income, don't put this sort of theater at the top of their list. Obviously, as vacapinta points out, there are theaters with active minority audiences, but these are theaters that have often addressed these issues -- Penumbra, as an example, pays its actors pretty well, and so can rely on a stable group of African-American actors who know they can make a percentage of their living on the work. Other theaters address the cost of tickets (Mixed Blood, also in Minneapolis, doesn't charge for any of its shows), the way theater is made (many theaters use a collaborative structure that allows people to participate at the level that they can offer), how it reaches out to audiences, and what sort of shows it programs.

I am glad theaters that mostly appeal to white audiences are starting to discuss this fact, but I am a bit worried that their essential benightedness might lead to more problems, rather than less. I am working with a program right now that was conceived as a way of reaching out to a substantially African-American community of Omaha. Unfortunately, the program was conceived in an almost-Colonial, missionary way -- an established organization is going in to a neighborhood, dictating the sort of show that neighborhood must produce, providing neither the resources nor the time required for the development of this show, set the show to happen on a holiday when most potential performers will be unavailable and audiences will be unlikely to attend, and is promoting the show almost exclusive to a mostly white audience that comes in from out of town. Their goals may be noble, but they have instead created a program when black people in a neighborhood that this program has never done significant work with is now providing essentially free entertainment for white people from out of state. I have been brought in to basically mop up, but I feel like telling everybody that this is essentially misconceived and should be dropped.

There is an undeniable importance and specialness to live performance -- in a world where prerecorded work is becoming cheaper and cheaper to the point where much of it is free, live performances are one of the last arts business models actually based on scarcity. And live arts programs that do proper audience building and outreach have no problem finding audiences. The real problem is that this requires radically reconsidering how me make, sell, promote, program, and develop art, and theaters instead are going to reach for band-aids that they can slap on the problem, and then will point to the band-aids, say "We did what we could and it didn't work," and wash their hands of the whole thing.

And so be it. The truth is, people of color are completely capable of creating their own performance spaces and opportunities, and don't need to rely on confused old white folks to help them. The best thing these mostly white theaters could probably do is find these performance spaces and opportunities and say "What can we do to help," and then really listen, and then really help, without any expectations beyond the fact that they are now going to the audiences and the artists of color, instead of waiting for the audience and performers of color to come to them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:37 AM on May 12, 2013 [75 favorites]


This problem runs right across the cultural sector. It's not an artifact only of the sample, though there are significant institutions/groups who draw excellent audiences - that sector remains really small across the vast number of arts organizations in the US.

This research - well, the Diversity Index - is done by Americans for the Arts, the biggest and most powerful arts advocacy group in the US. The report isn't out yet, but their data is going to be better and more comprehensive than anyone else's.

In a discussion about white domination of the cultural sector on one of the museum LinkedIn groups I frequent, a black theater director offered some really interesting perspective on how his company, which began in the 70s and produced plays and musicals for a black audience in a major Southern city, died the death of a thousand cuts as formerly "white" theaters began to borrow from his programming and even counter-program things likely to be of interest to the same audience. They drew some of his audience away, enough to make the budget eventually fail, but didn't program solely black-themed performances. SO their audience grew slightly in diversity, though not enough to become a majority or even a double-digit minority over the course of the year, while his organization was killed. Places like that cultivate arts interest and draw in in new participants. Without them engaging and catalyzing audiences, audience demographics don't budge too much.

I don't think that's the sole issue. So many arts and culture institutions are so dominated culturally by their history of white leadership and often their relatively recent history of open segregation that they are still making it clear "This isn't your place" to people of other backgrounds. As a sweeping generalization. Institutions founded more recently may be a bit better, but this is one reason that so much arts participation today is taking place in informal contexts - "pop-ups" in bars and parks, storytelling events in cafes, theatre and poetry in unconventional locations, site-specific dance in venues other than theatres. The old institutions are inflexible and entrenched enough that arts practitioners are just not engaging with them. And they find participants where they can, in informal community settings. That kind of participation will usually not be captured in this kind of report.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on May 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic, Bunny Ultramod.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


What Bunny ultramod said, except for this bit:

There is an undeniable importance and specialness to live performance

Well, I guess. I'm not really seeing it though.

I do realize there is a romantic notion about how live is somehow a more authentic experience, but in my actual experience most live performances end up being a quality crapshoot. This goes for music as well as theater, which is why I no longer bother to go to live performances even though I can afford them now more than I ever could when I did.

I'd actually much rather hear the best take than the 300th-time-and-I'm-sick-of-it performance and in reality I think people confuse the energy of a gathering with the actual, typically mediocre, quality of live performances. Some performers do add unique value to their live performances (David Sedaris and other similar live readings are great) but that the further you get from structures favorable for improv, the less this applies, and theater is about as far as you can get.

Also - non-classical theater seems to broadly break down into bad musicals (ALW and Wicked, looking at you), concept "wouldn't it be funny if" comedies that fail to actually be more than an overly drawn-out punchline ("Urinetown"), and navelgazing (TVM, etc.).

The navelgazing is tedious. If you can be bothered to read even a single book by a minority author you have already had ten times the experience.
posted by rr at 10:14 AM on May 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do realize there is a romantic notion about how live is somehow a more authentic experience

I wouldn't describe it as more authentic; I think authenticity of one of the more pernicious myths in the arts. Live performance is just its own thing, and special for being that, and I respond to live performance that highlights the uniqueness of the fact that it is live. There is a lot of theater that tries to be film, in that there is a sort of idea of a perfect version of the show that can be reached through rehearsal and then must be duplicated every single night. I see a lot of the sort of shows you are talking about, which feel like waxwork version of whatever fun stuff happened in rehearsal, and are beset by technical problems.

I see no reason to make theater that is just a crappier version of what you get in other forms of performance. My focus in making theater is increasingly exploring the question of what makes theater theater, and I have been trying to work the spontaneity and possibility for on-the-spot invention and discovery into my work.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:20 AM on May 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Most wealthy people are white hence most of theatre audiences are white. I really don't think its any more complicated than that. Theatre just is more expensive than most other forms of evening entertainment.

I just bought tickets to the theatre in London for tomorrow night. £33 each (~$US 50). These were mid-priced tickets - but even the cheapest tickets in most theatres here (with restricted view) are more expensive than a movie ticket and the good seats for a "mainstream" production could be more, £50+ perhaps.

And in most respects the costs are entirely justified. It is a scarce product, people have to be paid for every single performance. It can't be so cheaply reproduced as film so it will cost more.
posted by mary8nne at 10:25 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


black rep
posted by robbyrobs at 10:35 AM on May 12, 2013


I have to say that as a theatre person, I felt proud that the field is as a whole more diverse than America is, on average.

It absolutely doesn't surprise me that the audience is even whiter than America is. And it's no fault of people in the Profession - the theatre company I work with is out in Brooklyn and the Bronx every summer doing theatre in the park for for mostly non-white audiences.

The trouble is that it's extremely hard to reach these demographics. There simply aren't very many theatre spaces any more in minority communities (which is why we end up working in parks).

> The truth is, people of color are completely capable of creating their own performance spaces and opportunities, and don't need to rely on confused old white folks to help them.

No one needs confused honkies to help them, but I don't think what you are saying is entirely true.

The idea that you can just up and stage a play without anyone's permission is not at all obvious without examples to go on.

Heck, my parents met at RADA and yet it was a big realization for me when I first came to New York in the 80s and found all these people just doing plays and musical theatre without being part of any official "organization".

Once you see people doing it, once you go through that process, you realize that you can do it quite cheaply, and that people will actually show up for your auditions and come out and see your plays.

But without an example, without knowing how to find rehearsal spaces, how to organize a cast, how to rehearse in general - it's going to be hard for you.

If you exclude purely liturgical things (that is, religious music or religious pageants performed in a church), it's fairly sparse on the ground for role models. New York City is about as good as you get for this in the USA, and it could be a lot better. But in most American cities with an "urban" population, you have very little.

There's the secondary issue that a lot of kids today are hooked - hooked on media. I had an interest if sad experience about four years ago - I was off at an electronic music show out in Queens on a summer evening and I stepped out for a smoke. I walked past the wide open door of a lovely, brand-new gym - all lit up, a nice basketball court, a few kids on it, you could clearly just walk in - but it was basically empty. I wondered where the kids were - and then I had a sudden image of a lot of kids sitting in front of video games and the 'net....

As a vaguely on-topic anecdote, we just did a run at La Mama in New York. Their original founder, Ellen Stewart, died a couple of years ago at 91. In one of the back stairwells, there was a poster about some event she was at not long before she died... and someone had grafittied a neat title under her picture: "Angel."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:59 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most wealthy people are white hence most of theatre audiences are white. I really don't think its any more complicated than that. Theatre just is more expensive than most other forms of evening entertainment.


It's true for the Metropolitan Opera, but it's really not true for theater. I live in a second-tier, post-industrial, blue-collarish city, and we have three places to catch plays. One tiny little black box place does 5 plays a year and the ticket price is $15. One is a Shakespeare project and plays are free. The other is the state college's theatre and ticket prices range from $20-50. All of this is completely in line with what it costs to see a movie and have snacks with it, go out for a burger and beers, pay the door fee at a club, or a catch a live music show. These low prices for theater do not translate to rampant attendance amongst underrepresented demographics.

It's not the price. Of course it would be great if everything were free, but making everything free doesn't mean people of color and young people will start flocking to shows. There are other factors in the decision not to attend.

Familiarity, the arts-participation "habit," has something to do with it, as lupus_yonderboy notes. So does the prevalence of home-based entertainment, something no previous generation of arts organizations has had to contend with.
posted by Miko at 11:12 AM on May 12, 2013


£33 each

This.

We need more white, black, brown, rainbow, purple, sparkle, live theater. Live performance. Live music. But how? How to afford to produce? Attend? Subsidize? Kick?

The only profitable live events are extreme, Circque du Solie, a few disineyfied productions in the big city, Bierbized stadium events.

Some of the best shows I've ever been to have been tiny, intense, amazing, but always short lived as no one can make a living. The world needs to get it's priorities fixed. Maybe when robots do all the work they'll subsidize more artists to keep them from stirring up bothersome rebellion against our robot overlords? Well, it'd make a good plot for a circus-musical.
posted by sammyo at 11:15 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The last couple "theatre" events I've been to have been accompanied at the box office by a big heavy "your ticket only pays for x% of this production!" and, if I was unlucky enough to provide contact info, months of calls and letters pleading for donations.

I'm as WASP as they get, but I suspect that the audiences for these things start to select pretty heavily either to people who can give everything asked, or people who feel comfortable not giving.

(Meanwhile the rest of us head to living rooms in the outer Sunset, or basements in the Mission, or warehouses up in Santa Rosa, or even just bars with cover charges on a Thursday night to get our share of live performance from organizations that probably aren't covered in these statistics.)
posted by straw at 11:24 AM on May 12, 2013


One of Bunny Ultramod's points made me wonder: has anyone tried to use something like conventional marketing analytics on Youtube to try to work out which demographics watch which parts of clips of stage performances? I don't know that it would necessarily be particularly useful or insightful, I'm just wondering if it's been done.
posted by XMLicious at 11:38 AM on May 12, 2013


Bunny Ultramod: "Couple this with the fact that most theater, for all their back patting about being progressive, actually tends to be a decade or so behind whatever trend is happening in America."

"A decade" may be far, far too generous. Last time I checked, a grossly disproportionate portion of the the theatre world was still salivating over the 1920s, and most "modern" or "experimental" stuff being performed today is dated closer to the 1960s than the present.
posted by schmod at 11:47 AM on May 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


has anyone tried to use something like conventional marketing analytics on Youtube to try to work out which demographics watch which parts of clips of stage performances?

From the theater people I know, and I know a lot, you might as well be speaking Martian when you say stuff like that.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:54 AM on May 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Regarding "theatre costs a lot of money" - this is absolutely not the case in New York City. For years my friend would come to the city and go to see a play that was a cheap as possible. I think the most we ever spent to see anything was $7 (though this was a few years ago) - and the plays were, astonishingly, all good and some excellent.

And there's tons of free outdoor theatre in the summer, too...

> most "modern" or "experimental" stuff being performed today is dated closer to the 1960s than the present.

Not sure what you mean by "dated"? The company I'm with hasn't performed anything written since the birth of Christ in quite a few years, the director is in some ways pure Commedia del'Arte - but we're pretty "modern" by any standard you might like.

Theatre is quite different from any other performing art because the material stays around for far longer. I'm also a musician - I know one song from about a thousand years ago, "Sumer Is Icumen In" - but nearly all the music that people listen to today was composed within the last fifty years. By contrast, there are several plays that are over two thousand years old and still in the popular repertory...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:08 PM on May 12, 2013


There is an undeniable importance and specialness to live performance -- in a world where prerecorded work is becoming cheaper and cheaper to the point where much of it is free, live performances are one of the last arts business models actually based on scarcity. And live arts programs that do proper audience building and outreach have no problem finding audiences.

Yeah, some of those scarce performances should become even more scarce, like extinct. Programs that are notorious for sucking up a disproportionate amount of public funding, but serve an extremely small minority audience of exceptionally rich people, like the San Francisco Opera, are basically starving other arts programs. When your fundraising is targeted at getting elderly opera-goers to donate money in their will, your program is on life-support. Someone should pull the plug.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:17 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


And yet those institutions are important anchors for people to be trained in theatrical skills and to maintain certain forms and traditions, as well as to provide some of the few professionally paid skilled positions, including some good union positions. It's not that I think they shouldn't exist at all; they're important in the arts ecosystem. I simply think their operational model needs reworking.
posted by Miko at 12:21 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the theater people I know, and I know a lot, you might as well be speaking Martian when you say stuff like that.

An invasion of movie-industry-like marketing techniques would be a war between worlds, you're saying? I'm trying to imagine what a class called "Statistics for Theater Majors" would be like.
posted by XMLicious at 12:25 PM on May 12, 2013


All of this is completely in line with what it costs to see a movie and have snacks with it

A fair comparison of the cost of a movie and snacks would be a theater ticket and snacks. Theater usually costs more than a movie in my experience. For the professional Equity theaters in town, much more.

For me going to to the theater is a totally different experience than going to the movies. The movies are a very comfortable experience, with pleasant seating, a fairly anonymous experience, inexpensive, spontaneous, and, well, predictable. And anywhere in the world you get to see the very best content available.

Theater is different—seating is often unpleasant, I can expect to get hounded at the event and afterwards by mail and phone for donations, it's more expensive, getting tickets often requires advance planning, and I'm not very good at predicting which theater I'll enjoy or not. And not living in New York or London, sometimes the production itself seems substandard.

I like seeing a play or musical when I'm in New York, but usually don't bother here in Seattle. I still do it sometimes because it's maybe more interesting and edifying than seeing the predictable fare at the multiplex or even more esoteric films at the art-house. But the experience is not at all comparable to other forms of evening entertainment, and I don't think it helps theater advocates to pretend that it is.
posted by grouse at 12:30 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


One tiny little black box place does 5 plays a year and the ticket price is $15. One is a Shakespeare project and plays are free. The other is the state college's theatre and ticket prices range from $20-50. All of this is completely in line with what it costs to see a movie and have snacks with it, go out for a burger and beers, pay the door fee at a club, or a catch a live music show.

Though the people who are being priced out don't do those things you've listed, or do them very seldom. $20 is a lot of money for me to spend if I don't know that I'll enjoy what I'm going to, which rules out plays I'm not familiar with. Heck, I don't go to the movies because tickets run around $10 (you can find $7.50 tickets if you go to the first show of the day) and it's really rare for there to be a movie I want to spend $10 to see. I'd rather go to the coffee shop four to five times.

I guess I'm saying that there's a difference between having tickets people can afford in absolute terms and not pricing people out in relative terms. I don't know how this is fixable, given that theatres are often struggling financially. But I can tell you I feel priced out of the Guthrie, even if tickets start at like $24.
posted by hoyland at 12:37 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


. $20 is a lot of money for me to spend if I don't know that I'll enjoy what I'm going to, which rules out plays I'm not familiar with

Ah, good case study. This isn't a price sensitivity, it's a value sensitivity. You want a sort of a guarantee that you will value the experience enough to justify the price as compared to other things you could have for that price. And the quality of the unknown, the lack of familiarity, makes you risk-averse.

So what people value in entertainment is changing, too.

What would you say to a "pay what you want" theater experience? Or "pay as you leave," when you can determine what it felt like it was worth? Would you be more inclined to take the risk that you might not enjoy it?

As far as the YouTube data idea - Bunny Ultramod's right that it's like speaking Martian. The entire arts sector is pretty allergic to data and to the kinds of research strategies that other industries use routinely. It's a big problem, actually, as organizations who don't want to change can hide behind the fact that they don't have clear data pointing the way to a solution, and can't afford (so they think) to collect real data. In the world of museums, the IMA rocked the industry when it made its dashboard public. But even the dashboard doesn't tell you enough by itself. I personally believe this allergy to data and the use of what information systems we do have is not an accident, just a symptom of the embedded cultural biases of arts organizations.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on May 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Theater is different—seating is often unpleasant, I can expect to get hounded at the event and afterwards by mail and phone for donations, it's more expensive, getting tickets often requires advance planning, and I'm not very good at predicting which theater I'll enjoy or not

100x this. I have long thought the seats in "theater" are there to remind you that you're not a 5'2" underweight elderly woman. I am 100% average male height and the pressing-your-knees-on-the-metalbacked-chair-in-front-of-you experience makes airline seating seem luxurious by comparison (Orpheum, Kennedy Center, etc.)
posted by rr at 12:52 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have long thought the seats in "theater" are there to remind you that you're not a 5'2" underweight elderly woman.

I literally write my plays for the seating. Deciding to do a two-act play in a black box is typically like deciding to attack your audience's spine with a hammer. If it's a small theater, my plays don't go more than 80 minutes.

It has long been interesting to me that these smaller theaters rely on an assumed status cache of the arts when they have taken away the signifiers of status. Don't think that people are going to think of you as being the same as their local opera when you're performing in a storefront with folding chairs and they are performing in a thousand-seat, turn-of-the-century opera house where everybody wears tuxedos.

This may seem shallow, but, in fact, its been demonstrated that when audiences are confronted with new work, they often don't know what to think about it. It's not unique to the arts -- it's a sort of variation on social proof, especially since there is so much art that is intentionally ambiguous. If you're not going to give an audience clear social proof that the art is worthwhile, it helps to create an environment where there is a presumption of value. All those brass fixtures and terra cotta wasn't put on early theaters because they had berserk interior decorators. It was put there to signify that art was important. Now we dress like we just came up from the rail yard and put on plays in claptrap storefront with no fire exits, and we wonder why audiences don't think our art is worth very much.

Now, there is another status cache you can go for in these smaller spaces -- one of adventurous artistic integrity. But it's going to appeal to a smaller, more risk-taking audience. And when you're in the same space, doing a play by Edward Albee and asking $25? You have mismatched your play to your location to your price.

This happens all the time.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:14 PM on May 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod's comment is spot on, in my experience and understanding of this broad issue (and it was the focus of my doctoral research, though centered on music, so I've thought about it some). The phenomenon in play is called cultural omnivorousness and, while it's a better descriptor of aggregate behavior than fundamental changes in individuals' tastes, is a pretty apt characterization of the basic change in audience behavior and choices that we're seeing.

Contrary to rr's assertion that the live experience is less desirable than a recorded one (and the conventional wisdom that all the kids are at home glued to their computers), Americans continue to attend and participate in arts events in increasing numbers.

The simple truth is that organizations that present live arts events simply need to learn how to market effectively. What they offer is a product and no matter how much more special one may think that Albee or Beethoven or whatever is, the American cultural public sees it as one kind of experience among many available, with certain things it offers and certain things it lacks. A play has no more cultural cachet or prestige than a movie, a symphony no more than a musical.

As to the whiteness of theater audiences, I think the sense that we have incomplete data is certainly true, there are not many resources dedicated to understanding/analyzing this set of issues. But I also think that performing arts organizations need to seriously reconsider modes of presentation, including first and foremost venue. One must stop assuming that audiences will come to your temple and start maybe performing in spaces your desired audiences already know and feel comfortable in (as much as is logistically possible).
posted by LooseFilter at 1:17 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


It may seem like I would disagree with you, since I was just talking about the importance of making arts into a status event, but I don't. Especially when you're reaching out to an audience that is unfamiliar with you, the best thing you can do is pick a venue they are already familiar with a pick or create a project that fits well in that venue.

But, then, if the venue is popular, it's already developed some specific status as a performance venue. It is useful to figure that out when thinking about what you are going to do there, or there is the risk of having a poor match between performance and venue.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:20 PM on May 12, 2013


I didn't get the sense that we disagree on this, actually. I think that performing arts organizations should remain proud of the artistic integrity they bring to their work, and in the work they present. But the ideas of status and artistic integrity/depth/etc. do need to be decoupled some, I think. As a concert musician, I really believe that even the most esoteric music I present deserves to be experienced by everyone, that it has universal value, and that has led me to a much more democratic view of artistic value or status.

The challenge for me is to devise presentation modes that set an audience up for optimal reception, if you will, rather than to in any way dumb down what I present. This includes not just venue, but really thinking about every aspect of an audience's experience and what can be changed to make them as receptive as possible to the experience we're offering. (Fancy architecture, for instance, makes lots of people uncomfortable and may keep away more people than it attracts.)
posted by LooseFilter at 1:35 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm in my 30s, not white, live in the Bay Area, and I'm a supporter of the arts. I go all the time to things like classical music concerts or live theatre, particularly when ACT did a great Groupon package of 4 shows for $40 for nosebleed seats. It was excellent.

However, I'm a rarity in this area since I developed my habit from living in New York, ushering at Lincoln Center and knowing a lot of friends in the city who were also as passionate about the arts and worked at places like BAM or the Met. When you're in your 20s in New York City, it really pays to have friends who can get you in as a +1 to these kind of shows.

Here in the Bay Area, I'm inevitably the youngest person in the audience by decades, and usually one of the few people of color. During intermissions I'll amuse myself by counting up others who might be my age or not white--that number, depressingly, can usually be counted on my two hands.

I used to try to do these things with meetups and whatnot, but I found the others in the meetup (usually white, older) to be quite unfriendly and a bit weird socially. So I gave up and prefer to do these on my own instead or with the rare friend who I can persuade to come along.

I'm not sure what could get more people in my cohort to come. It's simply not on our radar--I have to make a real effort to find out about shows. One would certainly to create programming that was more relevant to our concerns and lives. When I lived in New York and developed my performing arts habit, there was a lot more programming that was geared towards younger audiences. Another, as mentioned above, would be to use marketing that would speak more directly to younger and more diverse audiences. I think a third would be promoting theatre as not only simply live performance for the sake of live performance, but the idea of community and meeting others--a social event rather than a status one.
posted by so much modern time at 1:42 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


> The challenge for me is to devise presentation modes that set an audience up for optimal reception, if you will, rather than to in any way dumb down what I present.

Rather than thinking about dumbing things down, perhaps the question is more whether the specific piece is intended more to entertain or to educate?

This is the issue I have with a lot of "serious" theatre - it isn't actually entertaining, just didactic preaching to the choir and hitting a lot of buzzwords.

My old theatre coach used to tell me of the three rules of Indian theatre (I have no idea if they actually exist):

* It must be pleasing to the drunk.
* It must answer the question: how is the universe put together?
* It must answer the question: how shall I live my life?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:49 PM on May 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod is a genius. Flagged as Fantastic as well!
What L_Y just said; I like your rules better-cause all I could come up with for a reason was, and I AM being sarcastic here-make no mistake-
"Why does everything have to be so God-Damned Queer?" says the old white people.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 2:00 PM on May 12, 2013


Rather than thinking about dumbing things down, perhaps the question is more whether the specific piece is intended more to entertain or to educate?

Agree completely, in fact I think if anyone is thinking of programming in terms of 'educating' an audience, the framing is completely wrong in so many ways. I also find it condescending.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:25 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also find it condescending.

Completely agree. I did an AskMe a few months back about community organizing, which I have increasingly realized is one of my primary tasks in theater. A book called Community: The Structure of Belonging came highly recommended, and one of the biggest points of the book was that if you're looking at a community as a series of problems, rather than a series of opportunities, you're coming at it the wrong way. You're not there to fix a group of people, you're there to help them take advantage of the opportunities that already exist but have gone unmarshalled.

This is how it is in theater. We see something like this as a problem to be fixed, not an opportunity to be seized. And so we end up with band-aids and a shrinking audience, because the audience doesn't see itseld as a problem, and doesn't appreciate getting addressed as one.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:49 PM on May 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


vacapinta, Dr. Fetish, I wonder about the provenance of the stats too. Galeria de la Raza, Bindlestiff Studio, the community-specific spaces may be small but they sure can pack folks in.

In terms of non-culturally focused spaces, Campo Santo (SF's Intersection for the Arts' resident group) is another theater group that consistently pulls younger, more diverse audiences, especially when staging the work of actor/playwright Sean San Jose (one of my top ten Bay Area artist crushes of all time - be still my beating heart).

Bunny Ultramod - preach it! (also that Peter Block book is fantastic) As a former arts organizer/arts agency grants hack, I was repeatedly disheartened again and again as groups would muse idly "we should really work on our diversity" and then barely get everything together in time to send out mailings/emails to the same old same old. I mean, sometimes this was even within the Asian Pacific American arts community. The "P" was super tenuous. And if by Asia you mean China...
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:14 PM on May 12, 2013


Ah, good case study. This isn't a price sensitivity, it's a value sensitivity. You want a sort of a guarantee that you will value the experience enough to justify the price as compared to other things you could have for that price. And the quality of the unknown, the lack of familiarity, makes you risk-averse.

So what people value in entertainment is changing, too.

What would you say to a "pay what you want" theater experience? Or "pay as you leave," when you can determine what it felt like it was worth? Would you be more inclined to take the risk that you might not enjoy it?


I think, personally, that while pay-what-you-want is the obvious solution, it opens up this whole can of worms about social norms that I find really stressful, and pay-what-you-can even more so. Spending $24 to go to the Guthrie (or one of the 17 other theatres in Minneapolis) is totally achievable for me. Not every month and maybe not regularly, unless I were to adjust my other spending, but I could go way more than I have (once in five years). So if it's pay-what-you-can, am I meant to give them $24 because I can or am I meant to give them, say, $10 or $15, which is more in line with my non-special occasion outing budget? And are they going to judge me no matter what I do? Maybe this is just crazy anxiety on my part. It might be related to back when the Art Institute operated on a 'mandatory donation' system. They really would let you in for a quarter, but they'd do their best to make you feel bad about it.

Maybe it's helpful to note that I didn't know about Mixed Blood not charging admission until this post. I don't know that I'm really the demographic that's not being reached. Certainly I'm put off by the cost of tickets, but my parents' idea of a family vacation was a road trip to the Stratford Festival and I've been to the opera, so I'm not in the group of people with the 'theatre is for rich old people and they'll look at me funny' barrier (though I definitely have sort of felt that way at the opera).
posted by hoyland at 5:36 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the theatre, as does my son. When he was little, we always has season tickets for the children's theatre, but he's just outgrown those productions, and we are in a gap period where a lot of theatre is too old for him, and those shows that I think will be ok often cost more for two seats than the entire season pass at the children's theatre. We thought about symphony tickets too, but good god, $100 to take a kid to 90 minutes of music just isn't often in the budget. The last theatre tickets I bought were $110 a seat and when we got there, our seats were blocked by scenery, so we did didn't see half the production. Now, if I want to see Shakespeare I'm much more likely to buy a cd of a famous troupe than I am to waste $300 to dress up, drive an hour, pay to park, and then stare at scenery from expensive seats.
posted by dejah420 at 5:56 PM on May 12, 2013


Maybe this is just crazy anxiety on my part.

I think it's at least in part a result of the processes and structures and traditions of arts institutions that you even have to wonder. Creating any anxiety at the barrier kind of kills it from the start. It's like the recent flap that happened when the Met's admissions policy (which has always been that way) got blown open to a new audience by a lawsuit.
posted by Miko at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2013


I have friends who work in theatre in London and they are not earning the big bucks. Even these small barely breaking even shows are more expensive than going to see a movie at the cinema.
Movie + snacks you say? - oh well then shouldn't that be compared with Theatre + obligatory pre-theatre drink, and maybe another during the interval and then the supper afterwards .. woah now we are looking at 50 quid a head for even a cheap play. That's the typical evening of theatre.


Theatre just costs more to put on. So its more expensive to see. Saying that they should adopt pay-what-you-want systems to open up to wider audiences or that they should put on more accessible plays that appeal to wider audiences is rubbish. Its the arts! Artists should make what they want to make.

To me these suggestions are as absurd as telling a Michelin starred chef that he should lower the prices and start serving, say hamburgers and pizzas to appeal to a broader demographic.

Under capitalism some things just cost more money. Get over it or get over capitalism.
posted by mary8nne at 3:49 AM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


My two great loves for most of my life have been theater and writing - so much so that I studied both, and have sought a career in each. However - I've had to pretty much retire from theater, as it's just plain not economically viable (the competition for well-paying gigs is really tight, and the only working stage managers I know are being supported by wealthy families and/or spouses). I may just have been too late.

And as for writing - well, everyone says print publishing is dead as well.

Combine that with my yen for "old-fashioned" things like canning and knitting, my fondness for vintage stuff and my older tastes in music and I think my only option left is to take over a small island and found my own country and name it "Retro-stan". The national anthem would be by The Beach Boys.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:10 AM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


. Saying that they should adopt pay-what-you-want systems to open up to wider audiences or that they should put on more accessible plays that appeal to wider audiences is rubbish.

Setting aside your tone, it's not "rubbish." Many arts organizations (and restaurants, actually) are adopting such systems either permanently or for individual events/programs. The rationale is not that the overall operating budget should drop, but that other avenues for revenue (membership, private fundraising, granting) will be pursued to make up the difference - or, in fact, exceed the former budget - because of the increased democratization of access, which is a value many want to support. This strategy was recently and famously developed by the Dallas Museum of Art, for instance. After a lot of analysis, they killed off the basic membership, made the lowest support level "partner" at $100, and allowed everyone else in for free and ask for volutary donations.

The truth is that the old financial models do not make an operating budget work for almost any arts organization. We need to experiment with new and more creative models and build arts participation across the board.

Its the arts! Artists should make what they want to make.

Hahahaha. So should I. It's funny that you are all "it's capitalism, get over it" without recognizing that the small percentage of artists who are working for wages right now are making exactly what the market thinks they should make. That'll continue dropping in the future, and those percentages will keep getting smaller, without re-envisioned models.
posted by Miko at 7:47 AM on May 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Under capitalism some things just cost more money. Get over it or get over capitalism.

Well, that's a little like saying get over breathing, isn't it? We can't exactly step outside of capitalism. But more saliently, I think any historian of western art would agree that capitalism has been mostly bad for high quality, substantial art. In music, anyway, art music in the west has flourished best in a patronage system.

In fact, the very tenets of capitalism are antithetical to making substantial, challenging art, so it's more than a little facile to say that artists need to embrace capitalism and make whatever kind of complicated art we want to. Said art must be paid for, and in capitalism one must persuade people to part with their money willingly, and challenging a person has never, ever been a successful and sustainable way of making money in the arts.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:06 AM on May 13, 2013


In fact, the very tenets of capitalism are antithetical to making substantial, challenging art, so it's more than a little facile to say that artists need to embrace capitalism and make whatever kind of complicated art we want to.

/ponders Shakespeare, the Globe Theater, and the amount of money the crown gave to both
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:18 AM on May 13, 2013



/ponders Shakespeare, the Globe Theater, and the amount of money the crown gave to both


This is actually what I'm after, and I think is possible today, substantial art that people will pay for (but Shakespeare and the Globe Theater are sort of the exception that proves the rule, no?). I was responding to mary8nne's comment that artists need to just "get over it" when capitalism presents very definite, specific challenges to making substantial art of any kind that can't simply be ignored.

(Also, making brilliant art with populist appeal is sort of a once-in-every-few-generations talent, it seems, so if you're hiding any Shakespeares or Mozarts we'd like to have them please, we could really use their work.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:34 AM on May 13, 2013


Shakespeare and the Globe Theater are sort of the exception that proves the rule, no?

The exception that throws the rule into relief, definitely.

I was responding to mary8nne's comment that artists need to just "get over it" when capitalism presents very definite, specific challenges to making substantial art of any kind that can't simply be ignored.

I think you two actually agree on this point. mary8nne is pointing her "get over it" at anyone worried about the homogeneity of theater audiences, not at artists. I don't think I can say what Miko said better than Miko, so I'll duck out at this point.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:18 AM on May 13, 2013


/ponders Shakespeare, the Globe Theater, and the amount of money the crown gave to both

Shakespeare wasn't "challenging art" back then in our sense of things people might not immediately enjoy or which they aren't certain they're going to like. It was mass entertainment and really popular, more akin to today's movies.
posted by Miko at 11:34 AM on May 13, 2013


That's true. I focused on LooseFilter's "substantial" and ignored the "challenging." I remember that some contemporary of his acknowledged some obscurity in his style, maybe in the First Folio, but it wouldn't have been as big a deal at the time. I take your point.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:00 PM on May 13, 2013


Incidentally, I think it's possible for one work to challenge a narrow audience while appealing to a broader one. These aren't mutually exclusive categories.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:06 PM on May 13, 2013


I do too - Shakespeare was good at the "Sesame Street" trick, giving the more sophisticated viewers things to chew on while keeping the less sophisticated viewers engaged at their level. Even so, he's a playwright who stuck pretty close to a few formulaic genres. He was great at it, but he wasn't exactly experimental.
posted by Miko at 8:45 PM on May 13, 2013


As it happens I do think that capitalism is a poor system for maintenance of the Arts.
I was actually addressing the suggestions above that are mostly about how to make certain Arts practices more marketable.

And this I believe is wrong. We should not necessarily be trying to broaden the audience for theatre if that means "dumbing down" theatre / the arts.

I think that its time developed nations moved towards a UBI system (universal basic income). Which would probably improve the heterogeneity of the arts because no artists would necessarily be subjected to market forces - except by choice perhaps.

I was saying that you marketing focused spectators and advisors need to "get over it" - not the artists.
posted by mary8nne at 5:38 AM on May 14, 2013


We should not necessarily be trying to broaden the audience for theatre if that means "dumbing down" theatre / the arts.

It doesn't. That's a false dilemma usually used to justify continued exclusivity.

...Until you justify your organization right out of existence.
posted by Miko at 5:48 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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