Thursday, February 5, 2009

Engaging Our Core

You don't have to be a top-notch economist to know that we've all managed to get ourselves into a dilly of a pickle of late. To be fair, I think we can all agree that this storm's been a-brewin' for quite some time now. And you can blame the polticians. Or you can blame the bankers. Or you can blame us all and our good ol'fashioned greed. I don't want to talk about my personal debt load, for example. But the fact is that here we are, in the middle of the mess, and now we have to figure out what to do about it.

Because of my artistic home and our chosen focus for this season, I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past few months that could be boiled down to, simply, "Now what?" Now that we're here, what happens next? And it seems like a lot of folks are having similar thoughts. The time is ripe for reflection - not just in the World Writ Large, but in the theatre community in specific. Add our current conundrums to the other factors we were already bemoaning before the global mountain of money started melting like an ice sculpture at Lollapalooza (just take a moment and picture that) - conundrums like: the "graying" of our audiences, the theatre's perception as an "elitist" art form, the competition we face from movies, TV, the interwebs - and suddenly we're right in the middle of the dark tunnel, wondering from which direction that next gleam of light will come.

I'm not going to pretend I know the answers to these ever-mounting, increasingly-daunting questions. But I had a brief yet inspiring tweet-versation (conversation via Twitter. see what I did there?) with Mr. Mullins the other day, and I think it's time we consider a paradigm shift in how we raise our money and how we interest, entice, build, and keep our audiences, and our artistic communities.

The good people at the League of Chicago Theatres (smart cookies, all) recently posted this message about the latest news from the front, the results of the fiscal survey they've been sending out to member theatres. Note the part where it talks about how 1/2, sometimes less than 1/2, of theatre's revenue is coming from ticket sales. Remember the non-profit model that talks about 60% of revenue should come from ticket sales, 40% should be contributed income? I remember sitting in an intern forum with a ground-breaking theatre administrator and hearing him say that as a member of the posse who came up with the non-profit theatre model "back in the day" (I think he said "back in the day." He might have said "in the seventies."), it's time for a new one. And then he looked at us a little like we should go ahead and get on that. Quite the challenge from someone who has already put his money where his mouth is once, and rightfully expects us to step up.

Similarly, as explored in a killer panel discussion (again, thanks to the League) that you can listen to here (thanks, WBEZ. If I ever start making a salary again, you bet I'm renewing my membership), the traditional ways in which we reach out to our patrons - established and potential - is changing. Print media is shrinking, social networking and the blogosphere are exploding - but what are the most effective ways to change with these times? Because, as we know, with stagnation comes certain death. Which is why dolphins swim in their sleep.

How do we learn to swim in our sleep? Or - perhaps this is a better metaphor - how do we keep our balance as the world continues to shift beneath our feet? Wouldn't it be delightful if we could wait for the fallout to settle and then calmly and rationally, with the help of perspective, distance, TIME, take a look at where we are and what might be the most prudent step forward?

See above re: dolphins. If we wait, if we try to keep still, we die. If we don't engage our cores and find our balance in the middle of all this mess, how can we hope to still be standing on the other side?

So what's our core? Is it our over-worked, under-paid (if they're paid at all) human resources? Is it our art? Is it our community? Is it the very communication-filled-anything-is-possible-hey-awesome-now-I-have-theatre-friends-in-Virginia-and Austin-and England-and Canada-interwebs? I don't know. But the times they done been changing for a while now. And we best scurry to catch up.

New ways to make our money. New ways to encourage people to get not just on-line with us, but in the room with us and share our art. New ways to find the people with whom art is worth the making. Are we ready to take a next step? I hope so. Are we already taking it? Then somebody help me catch up. I'd rather be the dolphin in the water than the ice sculpture in the earthquake.

What next?

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link to the WBEZ discussion. I've brought it to the attention of the readership of Austin Live Theatre, which covers the theatre in and around Austin, Texas. See:

    http://austinlivetheatre.blogspot.com/2009/02/conversation-newspapers-are-fading-what.html

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  2. Thanks, Michael! Even though the panel speaks specifically about what's going on in Chicago, I think the problem is a universal one and these folks had some good thoughts on the task at hand. I think it's just the beginning of the conversation, though, and the more voices and perspectives we can get around this stuff, the better!

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  3. Great work, Jessica. I found the WBEZ discussion interesting also. I'm hitting my "core" extra hard at the gym AND at work these days, and it's good to see that others are engaging theirs as well!

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