Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight. — Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

Over at Arts Journal, they’re hosting a discussion & debate this week called Lead Or Follow? In their words, “Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they consume. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience.  So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?

Scanning the list of participants, there’s a good selection of arts administrators & curators. Out of fifteen invited participants, there’s one playwright and one musician.

Coincidentally, the TEDxBroadway event is going on this afternoon. The theme is, “What’s the best Broadway can be 20 years from now?” As Howard Sherman pointed out in his live-blogging of the event, “[A] number of tweets raised deeper questions. Why so male dominated (only 2 of the 15 announced participants are women), why so few artists (only 3, two slated as performances, not speakers), one speaker of color (Latino), why no (evident) speakers under the age of 35? Also, why so expensive ($100, limiting who can participate) and why during a workday (when younger professionals, if they can afford it in the first place, would need to take a day off to attend)? If this is about a vision of the future, can we vision a more egalitarian Broadway so that process enfranchises those who should, but largely do not, have stakes in Broadway? Indeed of the 13 speakers, only four appear to have direct connections to Broadway; the rest are experts in marketing, social media and customer service in other fields. So perhaps this is going to be more about how Broadway, whatever the product may be, will be connecting with its audience in 20 years, rather than what the work itself may be. But that remains to be seen.

(Note, I’m writing this post in the midst of the TEDx event, after only a third of the presentations, and only one day’s worth of the Arts Journal discussion.)

Their questions are slightly different, but the problem is the same. There’s a distinct lack of artists involved in either conversation.

In the Lead or Follow conversation, Diane Ragsdale and Chad Bauman put it best (so far). It’s not–and should not be–an either/or proposition. It’s a careful balance, knowing when to lead your audience and when to follow them. There ought to be a shared sense of community if you hope to build your organization and building into a social hub for that community.

Theatre as a medium is unique in its relationship to its audiences. With books and films, we have little say in the matter, we vote with our money. We don’t know our booksellers, our movie ushers, we don’t get to know the managers and we don’t ever have a say in what they program. Television is even worse. Thanks to the Nielsen rating system, we have to rely on the average score of a microscopic–but supposedly statistically valid–selection of the population. Those scores determine which shows are “popular” and which shows are cancelled. It’s educated guesswork.

In theatre, we have the opportunity to focus on our particular audiences and communities. We are all in the room together. A talkback can be more than audiences asking questions about how actors can remember all those words. Let’s have fewer question and answer sessions and more genuine dialogues.

Part of our #neverbedark crusade is to encourage more opportunities not just for artists but for audiences to come together. That’s a way for cultural organizations to have their cake and eat it, too. Maybe you produce the big, splashy, crowdpleasing hit while hosting smaller companies and artists from your own community. Bring all of their audiences together in your building and start to cross-pollinate. Lead by opening your extra spaces to these groups, follow by giving audiences what they want, thrive and grow by becoming a cultural & social hot spot week in and week out. If you have one or two big shows running for six weeks, then I only have one or two reasons to visit you in those six weeks. And if I don’t want to see either of those shows, I won’t be back any time soon.

Of course, this leads to the missing part of the equation above. The artists.

We need to trust artists more. We need to stop playing it safe and start following where artists’ inspirations lead. We need to be more than waystations where productions happen. We need to be artistic homes to resident artists. I don’t mean artists with residencies, but artists who are part of your community. And we need to bring artists into those conversations more often. We need to look to the example of Centerstage’s hiring of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Victory Gardens’ hiring of Chay Yew. Imagine, playwrights programming seasons!

We also need balance. Don’t just follow your artists. Talk with them, share ideas with them. Close to half of my produced work has come from ideas or suggestions from my artistic director and stories from my community. Follow the artist, yes, but inspire the artist whenever possible. Give the artist room to play, to experiment. Let them work without worrying about rent or a 9-to-5 job. Then, produce their work. Don’t just play it safe with the latest off-Broadway script or the fifth revival of a classic. Give your community a stake in the work because it’s a work of–and from–your community.

It’s more than simply sitting in the room live with a production, it’s this personal connection on every level that makes theatre unique.

As for predicting the future, whether of Broadway or the theatre world in general, I’m not going to bother. Predictions are just that, educated guesswork. I’m more interested in creating a future. How about you?

[Edit: An hour after I wrote this, according to Howard’s TEDxBroadway live blog, Kara Larson said much the same thing about predictions, concluding, “Accept change as it happens, accept it as it arrives. Or, create change — make it happen. Best way to predict the future is to create it, and let others adapt to you.” I couldn’t have predicted that…]

I’ll leave you with these questions. If you run an arts organization or a theatre company, ask yourself this. Is your company “of” your city or merely “in” it? Do you see your patrons or do you know them? Is your building a gathering place or a cathedral? Do you present or do you create?

Depending on your answers, you’ll know whether you’re leading or following.

More to the point, maybe you’ll know where to look for the proper balance between the two.

  • January 23, 2012
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