I’ve had this completely wacky, unfounded theory of the production of art on a stage. It’s called, for lack of a better name, “Ren Faire vs Basement.”
The theory goes that “Ren Faire” art (art presented at a Renaissance Faire, Fringe Festival, or by buskers, improv groups, and standups) uses approximately the same process during respective creations. The key is: they don’t finish. They never really finish the process, even after an opening day or night. They continue to work the piece in front of audience after audience—testing ideas, improvising, and otherwise molding a never-hardening ball of theatrical clay. The writers/performers continually listen just as much as they sing, dance, tell stories, or otherwise perform. The crowd dictates the changes—sometimes not just one crowd, but over time.
In a few cases, this can happen in pieces that seem to have been “locked.” There can be quite a bit of leeway in the performance of a symphony, for example, by continually changing the beat, rhythm, and even the particular instruments that were intended to be played by a long-dead composer. Jazz and rock are not the only musical art that can accept improvisation and nonconforming choices on a performance-to-performance basis to hone the performance into something malleable.
In that sense, this kind of art is not unlike the beach. The waves continually hit the shore, sometimes with brute strength. The change is continuous, as is the placement, size, and relative erosion and re-packing of the grains of sand. It’s different every time we go, although the general structure remains the same.
The other kind of art, Basement, is constructed out of sight of anyone until an arbiter decides that it’s ready for an audience to experience. Strict rules dictate the presentation of this kind of art. And because it never sees anyone but that arbiter (the director, the conductor, etc.), there is but one manner in which any audience will see it, whether it is on night 1 or night 101.
They finish. It is done when it is done. It is a personal kind of art—personal to the creator, the director (and design staff), and the performers. In that sense, it is not unlike a 1914 Stutz Bearcat, one of the most attractive cars ever produced. Singular, sleek, and unchanging, save for perhaps a new coat of paint (exactly the same color as the previous color) every now and again.
Personally, I prefer (if forced to choose) the Ren Faire style. While never perfect, the goal is to establish a working relationship with the all the people in the space—including the audience. Far too often, Basement art can be precious, in a sense, and exclusive. For me, it’s the difference between rough-and-ready group aspiration and refined individual execution. In the latter, there is no need to participate, only watch and listen. In the former, there becomes a rooting interest in the outcome.
And that’s the case, in general, when determining why nonprofit arts organizations in the United States are either closing, in danger of closing, or in denial about what a charitable organization can do in order to make its community thrive. It’s a question of stakes.
Artists speak all the time about “raising the stakes.” Or, in actuality, the appearance of raising the stakes.
Because what is art but a pretense of life? A contextual odyssey of great thoughts, notions, ideas, and complex human situations that help us all discover what life is about, to be sure. But a pretense nonetheless, at least in the most elemental ways.
Art is a depiction, not the actual thing that is being depicted. So when Greta Garbo fatally jumps into a moving train in the 1935 MGM classic Anna Karenina, at no time was the actress in any danger. A few minutes after Romeo and Juliet die, they get up for their curtain calls. And when the third movement of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, otherwise known as “The Funeral March,” is played in a concert setting, it does not kill anyone in the process. All are moving, jarring, and meaningful. But they’re not real.
When cancer research develops a complete cure, no one will die of cancer ever again. Cancer charities will go out of business. But until then, millions upon millions of people will get, suffer from, and die from cancer. That’s why people give millions for cancer research. If that funding were eliminated, millions—perhaps billions—of people would undoubtedly die. That’s how high those stakes are. That’s what an essential organization means to its community.
When nonprofit arts organizations produce their discipline of art, no one dies. But then again, on the days they don’t produce art, no one dies. If nonprofit arts organization funding were eliminated or trebled, no one would die. No one would even sprain an ankle.
Nonprofit arts organizations are charities, just like the American Cancer Society. But they’ve proven, all too often in this Pre-Post-Pandemic Era in America, that they’re not only expendable, but often celebrate and appease the most toxic among us—those who donate so that they themselves can attend. Until these organizations make that “scene change” to become true, non-elitist, charitable organizations, the public will continue to defund them.
Those that recognize the advantage of separating themselves from their profit-making cohorts (rather than pretending to be them) have a better chance to succeed. They’re far likelier to make a real difference in the community—as opposed to receiving praise from a reviewer, something that means nothing to that guy living under the overpass.
Ultimately, they’ll be forced to decide whether to be a Basement organization that is self-contained, self-funded, and self-fulfilled; or a Ren Faire organization that, while never perfect, continually molds itself to connect with and include the most underserved members of their local communities. They’ll solve real problems, not pretenses of problems. And, after solving or mitigating, they’ll re-mold and move on to the next one.
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE.
A few more copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Let Alan know if you want bulk copies for your board!