FlyOver: August 2007 Archives
I'm going to depart from both of the two planned entries that I have in partial draft for today's post.
Instead of talking about weightier issues, I'm going to tell you about a party I went to last night. And if you'll bear with me, you'll see that it's not totally off subject for Flyover as the party had to do with both art and journalism.
The soiree took place at the historic Gem Theatre in downtown Detroit, in a beautiful section of the city near the new field for the Lions. More than 200 people packed into the cabaret-seating style theater enjoying a cocktail reception, a show, and then a dessert reception.
The show was the Oscar Wilde Award Night, sponsored and produced by a Detroit weekly, Between the Lines, to recognize excellence in local professional theater. The newspaper puts on an excellent party and representatives from the theater community from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Lansing turn out to celebrate.
The three reviewers from the newspaper reviewed 96 productions from 31 different professional companies. When announcing the nominations, Don Calamia, staff arts critic wrote:
For despite the second worst economy in the nation that seemingly kept a noticeable number of paying customers out of the seats and a governor who reneged on several million dollars of previously promised grant money, not one theater that Curtain Calls reviewed over the past few seasons shut its doors for financial reasons - despite numerous rumors to the contrary.
Instead, the Williamston Theatre set up shop in a sleepy little town near Lansing, and Who Wants Cake? snuck into Fabulous Ferndale with The Ringwald, a renovated home all its own. And StarBright Presents Dinner Theatre doubled its venues, one in southern Oakland County and another in northern Macomb County.
Call them crazy - and you wouldn't be the first - but these brave souls reflect the attitude of ALL Michigan thespians who believe the mitten state is a great place to live, work and raise a family - despite some major obstacles. So they stay and struggle - oftentimes for little money and even less recognition.
The staff at this newspaper understand their community and the environment it works in. More than one person expressed genuine surprise at receiving an award because, as they said, they didn't know anyone knew them. There was an amazement and gratitude that someone saw them and recognized their work.
For any in the journalism world who might wonder whether the arts community has noticed the cutback in arts coverage, let me share a moment with you. The master of ceremonies asked the newspaper's publishers to come to the stage to give out the publisher's award of excellence. Before the two women arrived at the lectern, the audience was on its feet, giving them a standing ovation. They recognized the commitment this newspaper has made to its art coverage and were eager to express their appreciation for it.
Earlier in the evening when I was talking to those same publishers about how thorough their arts coverage is, one of them said, "We're gay, we have to cover theater." A nearby actor came back with, "No, you don't have to, that's why it's great that you do."
Between the Lines is a newspaper that recognizes how vibrant the theater community is and how much coverage matters. Earlier this year, Calamia went to the publishers and said, "We need to do more." This from the critic who reviewed more than 70 shows, outstripping the two Detroit dailies and every other newspaper in that town. The publishers agreed with him. So they're soon launching Encore Michigan, a Website that will contain daily updates with new reviews every Monday morning.
Between the Lines is a shining beacon lighting the way to what is possible for newspapers to do. They demonstrate how to be part of the community while providing outstanding arts coverage. They understand their role in the ecosystem. While the artists may not always like what they say, they're grateful that someone is out there talking about their art, letting them know that they were heard, and telling others what is happening.
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?
Last fall, my husband and I began playing a game with several diverse groups of friends. We tried to find five books that everyone in the group had read cover to cover (skimming didn't count)--and children's books were included. Most of the time, we couldn't do it.
One particular instance stood out to me. We were at a wedding reception and all of the people at the table were well-read, highly educated people who were involved in one way or another with the artistic community. Many of them had liberal arts degrees, a few were teachers. There was an age range of about 15 years, touching upon different generations but still close enough to expect that we would have similar cultural experiences. We were able to come up with only four books--most of them children's books though, oddly, the relatively obscure Maus was the one adult choice. (The others were "Tom Sawyer," "Green Eggs and Ham," and "Charlotte's Web.")
When my husband and I played the game alone, the list stretched longer that we were able to mentally keep track of. Part of what contributes to the strength of our marriage is that we have a huge foundation of shared ideas. We've spent most of our lifetime engaged in critical discussion about those ideas. This has given us a common vocabulary, a vocabulary that lets us share humor at life's events and to work intuitively together in times of crisis.
What's true for a marriage can be true for the wider society. It's part of the role that art plays. It gives us a common language to speak so that we can appreciate the admirable qualities of those we live with and enable us to work together when challenges are laid before the community.
I'd also venture an argument that it is why mass media has been so compelling. It brings people together and helps them form a commonality in experience and language. People easily slip into conversations about "Lost" or "American Idol" because they make the presumption that the people they are speaking to has seen it.
It's also the appeal of the Web because people can start a conversation by sending the link. It's far easier than buying someone a book, waiting for them to read it, and then having the discussion. It's even easier than listening to the radio, going to the movies, or watching television.
Art has struggled in recent years in part because it doesn't reach the masses of audiences that popular culture does nor does it have the easy accessibility of Web offerings. However, within its communities, it forms a far tighter bond because the experience tends to be of greater intensity. It also ties them more directly to people whose faces and voice they recognize.
Several years ago I attended an outdoor production of Shakespeare's Richard III at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. The scenes where Richard and Richmond extort their troops was done on opposite sides of the stage, switching back and forth between them. On this particular night, there had been a storm raging in and out. However, the audience stayed despite the pouring rain so the actors continued to perform. During that scene, while Richard talked of bad omens, the wind picked up and whipped his banner off its stick, blowing it away into a pile of water while Richmond's continued to wave proudly. Later, lightning cracked the sky above Richmond's troops as they marched in from the voms to the final, fatal battle. It was special effects by God that night.
Years later, anyone who was in that audience has an immediate connection to all others who were there. We may not know each other's names, but we talk about our shared experience with a passionate "remember when" that would rival any family reunion.
Also, those who hear the stories about live productions also get the chance to share in the experience and when the story is compelling and memorable enough, it becomes part of the shared culture that ties them to their neighbors.
It's one reason that I hesitate to measure art by the numbers. What happens with high art is important--even if it is not directly experienced by the masses or creating a profit that rivals other businesses or forms of entertainment. Art must be able to sustain itself because it, in turn, sustains the community and the people who live in it.
Our readers often inspire me as much as our colleagues. Something that resonated with me this week was Steve Durbin's comment on Joe Nickell's post. He said that "people work for their passions, as well as for money." I'd have to agree with him. I'm not sure there is anything other than passion worth spending one's life blood and precious time for. I know that one of the reasons I do corporate writing is to subsidize the type of writing that I want to do--including arts writing.
Someone whose work has long resonated with me is Dorothy Sayers. She once wrote a play dealing with the topic of work and why we do it. Given that she considered art to be her work, I find it particularly germane to the discussion that has been going on here. She argued that we need to "estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."
Certainly artists and journalists alike will often say that they are called to a higher purpose than simply a bottom line. I need to make enough money writing so that I can continue to write--which means feeding my family and paying my bills. I'm not writing so that I can get rich (I wouldn't complain if that were to happen, but that would be a pleasant side effect, not the end goal).
Many artists would tell you the same thing. They're not creating so that they can become filthy rich, they're creating because they have to. To not create would be to psychically damage themselves. There is economic necessity that must be met, but as Sayers promotes, payment should be that which allows people to continue doing the work that they're doing.
This is often at odds with the capitalist society we live in. It's certainly at odds with the exaltation of acquisition above all else. It's perhaps where art often suffers the most as it is difficult to "possess" a performance.
When I was very young, my father was careful to ensure that I could distinguish between political and economic systems--and, because it was in the midst of the Cold War and we attended what I later learned to be a very conservative church--that none of them were good or evil; they were just ways of doing things.
However, our culture doesn't always draw such fine distinctions and we often try to apply our economic system to our politics and our politics to our culture. Rather than allowing them to influence each other as part of an ecosystem, there is a tendency to force one system's philosophy upon the other, to believe that what works for one will work for all.
Art suffers when we force upon it the same economic model that businesses operate under. If their goal must be the making of money rather than the making of art, they're going to fail. This doesn't mean that artists can be oblivious to economic factors or lack in all business sense, but it does mean they must choose their model carefully. How they manage their finances will say something about who they are and whether their art will be sustainable.
Art has traditionally relied much on government support and money from individual and corporate donors. There is an understanding that not all art will be commercially viable and succeed only through the price paid by those who consume it. We've accepted this because there is a societal value that far outweighs the burden of cost that any individual can afford to bear.
Indeed, like education, society reaps the benefit of art even when it is not the direct consumer. My life is made better when my neighbor goes to the symphony, even if I do not. As a member of my community, I want to see our communal dollars support what benefits all of us. I want to live in a society where people share a commitment to creation and to connection. Those are things that will spill over into politics and economics. Those are the things that will bring about a better world.
At the NEA Institute last winter, Ben Cameron talked about how theaters make communities a healthier place. He quoted a study that said high school students who have been in a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not.
If arts were to operate on a purely capitalist model that encourages greater consumerism, it would miss out on its higher calling and the calling that makes it truly relevant and of value to the community.
The money has to be there, but it can't be the reason or the goal. Rather it is the set piece which makes the play possible, not the story itself.