It's not the product, it's the connection
This past week I've spent a lot of time researching for two books I'm working on. Both are college textbooks, one on hospitality housekeeping management and the other on the world of spas.
Turns out they're married and have kids and are pushing 40. So even though they remain high on style and don't know where (let alone how) to draw the line between business and leisure, they've settled down and are looking to nest wherever they travel. That drive reflects the times they came of age, when many of their Boomer parents divorced and many of their Boomer dads lost their jobs. No wonder they value community, connection and connectivity. No wonder it's de rigueur to appeal to their need for the total experience. No wonder product-driven marketing is so 2000."
Community, connection, and connectivity. And they're talking about business marketing and not art?
Later, the article says:
Hospitality marketing rarely addresses Gen X's complicated approach, Rach suggests. It also doesn't take into account this demographic's fine-tuned, ironic sense of humor. "They don't want advertising that tries to fool them or promises things that can't come from that product," she says, calling a recent campaign for Sprite that ordered, Obey your thirst, a successful marketing effort. "The idea was that if you were thirsty you needed to drink something, not that by drinking it you would become something.
Marketing in this industry tends to be extraordinarily product-focused, when what this generation is looking for is an experience based upon relationships," she says.
As one of those Gen X members who is pushing 40, this resonated. I have a finely tuned bullshit radar. Marketing that lies simply doesn't work. My generation grew up on commercials and learned early on that our toys didn't live up to the hype. What we look for really is about connection and community. We want to belong and we want to have meaningful, authentic relationships.
Authenticity is a word they don't address, but I would add to the list. Neither art nor advertising is an excuse for lies. If you're not real, if you're not authentic, then you're not likely to get our ear for very long. Once we figure out you're fake, you're done.
We have had several new theater groups spring up in the past ten years in Lansing, most of them founded by members of Generation X or those on the border. The ones that have succeeded are those that are committed to the ideas of connection and authenticity.
This past season I was wowed by a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch done by a relatively new group called Peppermint Creek Theatre Company. Later, when I was talking to someone about the show, they expressed the opinion that there was a generational difference in those who liked the show. I'm starting to come around to the view.
In many ways, it comes down to the idea of connections. Why would I, a Midwestern, white, middle-aged mom who grew up in the suburbs feel such a deep, strong connection to a character like Hedwig? Perhaps it is because I ignored the character's self-created hype and looked at the heart of the person being portrayed. Sure, I've never had a botched sex change operation, but I (and every other person on this planet) have struggled with issues of identity and self-definition. I've taken extreme actions to escape what seemed to be an inescapable situation only to learn that a little patience would have mitigated the problem. I've been disappointed that others don't see me the way I see me. These are the things that Hedwig is about far more than the bitterness a transgendered performer feels about having been left with a mutilated penis.
Hedwig is a powerful musical because it makes those connections with individuals. It doesn't arrogantly preach to the audience telling them that they're too obtuse to get it. If you don't like us, don't ask us to join in the experience of your art.
The show's director and artistic director have a deep respect for their audience, a respect that shows in every production they do. They're not preaching to an audience they think is hateful and stupid. They're inviting people they respect to engage in a dialogue about the world we live in.
It's not about the product. It's about the relationship.
Take a look at their season last year. They did The Pillowman, The Goat or Who is Sylvia, 9 Parts of Desire, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The plays include the torture of children, bestiality, war in Iraq, transgender issues, and theology.
It could have been disastrous. Had they been preaching from a pulpit in a contemptuously dismissive attitude, it would have been a failure. The audience would have soon figured it out and stayed away. Instead, Peppermint Creek begins with respect, a respect that is obvious in every interaction with them. They trust their audience to handle challenging topics and don't try to make a controversy out of every brave choice they make.
The result is that their houses were packed last year and they reaped multiple awards from everyone who gave them out. Despite the subject matter of their plays, I was never shocked at what I saw. I was engaged. I saw things that mattered to me and that stayed with me long after the play was over.
Theater has much to offer that Generation X wants. So why aren't they coming to the theater? Perhaps there needs to be a change in marketing focus for the arts world as well. Quit hyping the product. Tell us about your true value--the connections that we will make with each other and with the art form. Don't tell us what we'll get out of theater, because you have no way of knowing. Tell us instead, that there will be a unique experience every night because we will be a part of the creation. Invite us to come engage our brains and hearts in our community and trust us.
Theater is unique in what it offers. If it can find a way to focus on these connections rather than the product, who knows what revitalization it might find?
It's a topic for another blog entry, but a case might even be made that this is why there is such a ground swelling of theater throughout the country even while it stagnates in its traditional homes. Could it be because theater that is local is communicating the message of connection and community rather than the really great product that they're selling on their stage?
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog