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The beautiful community of community theatre

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of adjudicating the American Association of Community Theatre‘s (AACT) Festival at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Atlanta.  While I have participated in community theatre in various locations since I was 5 years old, I didn’t know there was a competition until I was asked if I might be interested in adjudicating.   As many of y’all know, there are few things I love more than theatre and giving my opinion.  I was thrilled when they invited me to join the panel.

I know exactly how egotistical this sounds, but I was under the impression that the talent I found at the Winchester Little Theatre in high school (and still find today) was an anomaly.  I was significantly under-prepared for the level of skill exhibited at the Festival.  These productions were more visually interesting and had more consistent acting than many of the professional productions I have seen in recent years.  But, these shows were more than technically good.  They had heart, soul, and at their core, community.

Besides the variety of genres represented, what struck me time and again throughout the Festival was the commitment the artists had to the work.  These folks chose to be there.  The teachers, lawyers, and nurses had to make room in their lives to participate in these productions.  I first thought the commitment and passion reminded me of the difference between a professional football player and college ball.  However, I think that analogy is actually a disservice to the artists at the Community Theatre Festival.  It infers that there is a lower level of skill which was absolutely not the case.  What was missing was the sense of entitlement and cynicism that is sometimes present in the professional theatre.  Openness and joy took the place of egotistical energy.  They not only started at a high level, they were also open to the feedback that I and the other two adjudicators offered after the performances.  It felt collaborative in the best way.

The only disappointment is that I won’t get to see the two productions we sent on to nationals perform in Rochester.

To the AACT, I say thank you for the tremendous opportunity to witness and respond to the work presented this weekend.  To the artists involved, I say thank you for sharing your joy and skill with me and each other.  I hope I have the opportunity to play with you all again in the near future.  To those of you reading this post, I say go find your local community theatre, participate, help build community through theatre.  Passion, craft, and joy … what is better than that?

Here’s a list of all the theatres from the Festival and the plays they presented (in order of performance, * indicates productions continuing to nationals, + indicates alternate to nationals):

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry – Just Over the Rainbow Players, MS
The Harry & Sam Dialogues by Karen Ellison – Sumter Little Theatre, SC
Heroes by Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard – Springfield Community Theatre, VA
Falling in Like by Jerry Sipp – Haywood Arts Rep, NC (original work)
*Sunday in the Park with George by James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) – Manatee Players, FL
The Passing of Pearl by Vain Colby – Summit Players Theatre, WV (original work)
Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl – Cookeville PAC, TN
Honky Tonk Angels by Ted Swindley – Artists Collaborative Theatre, KY
+Dixie Swim Club by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – Starkville Community Theatre, MS
*Second Samuel by Pamela Parker – Wetumpka Depot Players, AL
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry – South City Theatre, AL
Early Frost by Douglass Parkhirst – Colquitt County Arts Center, GA

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Shakespeare’s relevance

Today, the second full day of the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference, found us taking a backstage tour of the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) as well as hearing a plenary speech by Kent Thompson, the Artistic Director of DCTC.  I’m glad our costume designers weren’t with us; the shop space now enjoyed by DCTC would turn their eyes green in a split second and I’m not sure we’d be able to pull them away.

Kent Thompson made some very interesting points during his talk.  He was the Artistic Director for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for 16 years prior to joining DCTC six years ago.  Kent, like so many folks in the theatre industry of late, is seriously contemplating how our society has changed over the past few years and what that forebodes for the theatre and, more specifically, those of us producing Shakespeare.  He said two specific things that I’d like to address here: 1) kids’ vocabularies are shrinking and this (and other factors) will ultimately mean that we will need to adapt or “translate” Shakespeare’s words in order to have them understood and 2) we need to change how we view a visit to the theatre and reconsider rules such as no eating, texting, or photography.

First, about the need to adapt or translate Shakespeare’s work to make it accessible and relevant.  I have experienced first-hand what happens at the Blackfriars when kids (anywhere from 5th through 12th grade) attend a student matinee.  I’ve watched those kids sit for two hours or more, completely enthralled by the story playing out before them and pulling them into the action, and then force three curtain calls because they don’t want the experience to end.  These are full performances of a wide variety of Shakespeare’s plays with no modernization or “translation” of the language.  Kent was a bit dismissive of the idea that “if the actors know what they are saying, the audience will be with them.”  But I would like to say that truer words were never spoken.  One of the most engrossing theatrical experiences of my life was watching the National Theatre of Greece perform Elektra in modern Greek.  I didn’t speak a word of Greek, modern or otherwise, but I knew exactly what was happening on that stage.  When it comes to Shakespeare we are not even talking about performing a piece in a foreign language, this is our language and if those speaking it on stage know in their bones what their words mean then we will, too.  Don’t believe me?  Pick any week of the year and come to Staunton.

The second point I wanted to mention from Kent’s speech was the idea that we need to alter the way we view the decorum and rules requisite to attending the theatre.  A colleague of mine disagreed whole-heartedly with this idea.  However, the American Shakespeare Center already embraces much of what Kent mentioned.  Do we see this as a radical breaking of the sacred peace and quiet of a theatrical performance?  Not even close.  Instead, it is simply going back to what theatre has been throughout history prior to the invention of the electric light and the subsequent placing of the audience in the dark.  Not only do we keep the lights on the audience (allowing for much more direct interaction and engagement of the audience), but we also allow eating and drinking inside the Playhouse.  We go so far as to have a rolling refreshment cart on the stage during the pre-show and interval music.  Attending a theatrical performance need not be a “precious” or fragile experience which the merest crinkling of a snack bag will completely destroy.  Instead, it can be (and has been for centuries) a party, a transformative communal experience complete with food, drink, and all range of emotion.

This is what makes us unique in the spectrum of entertainment: our ability as creators of theatre to connect with our audience, live and in the flesh, with stories that challenge and comfort (as Kent quoted); that get under our skin and make us feel.  None of this is exclusive to the producers of Shakespeare or even classical plays.  With modern work, too, you can choose to isolate the audience or engage them.  I do believe we Shakespeare types have a leg up in the audience engagement arena … it is embedded in the DNA of these plays.

Please tell me about the ways you are embracing the culture of inclusion, whatever plays you produce.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2011 in theatre

 

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Shakespeare, human communication, and Twitter

I’m at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference (up until 5pm it was the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, but now the organization is embracing the whole world).  Between the gorgeous mountains and the amazing minds congregating here, I am immensely inspired and, basically, on fire.

The first speaker today was Tina Packer, Founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Her talk was titled, “Where are we going?  What are we doing?”  It was a fascinating talk that wove together Shakespeare, psychology, rhetoric, neuroscience, and the philosophy behind the writing of the King James Bible.  I could write a multitude of posts on various topics inspired by this one hour, but Tina said one sentence within the first ten minutes that will drive this particular response.

“[The Internet is] severing the idea of thought and feeling in the body and the process of communicating human being to human being.”

Those of you aware of my obsession with Twitter can begin to imagine how hard I had to sit on my hands and not respond until the Q&A portion of the hour.  When the session was opened up to the floor, my hand would be held back no longer.  First I quoted the Pew Internet & American Life Project study which said:

Compared to those who do not use the internet, internet users are 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza and 45% more likely to visit a coffee shop or café.

The findings go on to say:

We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.

I can definitely say that this is true in my case.  The friends I’ve made on Twitter and, more specifically, the 2 am Theatre community, have expanded my world exponentially.  And, these relationships have and continue to translate into a much more active social network “in real life.”  Now, when I visit new cities (like Boulder, for instance), I have friends to meet and relationships to expand.  There are theatres I would never even have heard of that now I want to make special travel plans just so I can check them out.

I can already hear nay-sayers, “But, you are already invested in the theatre world, what about all those ‘kids’ out there who aren’t tapped into our community?”  My answer is they are out there, waiting to be engaged.  I believe the Internet has simply made it more impossible for us to blame the potential audience for not finding us.  It is easier and more vital for us to be present in the conversation.  LISTEN!  They are talking about issues that we explore every day.  Talk to them, ask them questions, get to know what they are looking for and how we fit into their lives.  But, above all, listen.

Over lunch a few of us got into a conversation about the perceived generation of “dabblers” out there, the idea that everyone wants to sample.  However, what I’ve found is that while, yes, people want to sample lots of things they may not have sampled before (and that is a GOOD thing), we also are seeing folks wanting to dive their entire souls into in-depth research about niche topics like never before.  I believe that it is our job to provide samples that make the dabblers want to dive in.  What is on your website that allows people to dig and dive?

One of my favorite quotes from Tina’s talk was:

“We have the run down of human conscious and a multiplicity of points of view embedded in Shakespeare.”

This is so true, her example of the characters in Julius Caesar was perfect: Cassius and Brutus on the same side but for intensely different reasons.  Antony and Octavius, the same.  However, the same quote could be talking about the Internet.  We have the opportunity to use technology and the Internet to introduce ourselves to our potential audiences, draw them in, and hook them so that they can’t wait to get through our doors.  The conversation is happening, with or without our points of view.  But, they can’t get hooked if we don’t show up.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2011 in social media, theatre, Uncategorized

 

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Social Media Guidelines: help your bloggers and tweeters help you

At the American Shakespeare Center, we are getting ready to expand our social media footprint.  Internally, this plan has met with a rich combination of excitement and concern.  What happens when we let our ASC family loose on Twitter, YouTube, and blogs?  How can we make sure that we are all representing the ASC in a way that enhances our brand and deepens the conversation with all our communities?  In order to help ease fears and to help our social media volunteers feel supported, I began putting together social media guidelines.

Besides guidelines, we also felt it necessary to be clear on our goal for this social media outreach.  This is what we determined:

The overarching goal of all our social media outreach is to spread the word about what a fantastic organization this is and the passionate, compelling work that goes on in the Playhouse, office, classrooms, and on the road.  Also, to engage in conversation about who we are, what we do, why we do it the way we do, what we are learning, how much fun we are having, and what is going on in the industry.

After a lot of conversation on Twitter, I’ve decided to post our guidelines here.  Let me know what you think and feel free to pass on anything you find useful.

These guidelines were compiled with help from the guidelines of Intel, as published in Engage! by Brian Solis, and Time Warner Cable, as published in the Fast Company article, “Corporate Social Media Policies: The Good, the Mediocre, and the Ugly” (http://www.fastcompany.com/1668368/social-media-policies-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly).

Social Media Guidelines for the American Shakespeare Center

We are excited about the potential for engaging our current and potential audience through social media.  The connections made possible through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and other social networks allow for a more direct conversation with all the people who love us already and those who would like to hear about us.  We hope that you will want to join us in these conversations and we want you to feel prepared when you do.  Below are a few guidelines to help everyone engage in a way that supports the brand values of the American Shakespeare Center: serious fun, life-long learning, community, and great language.

  • Transparency is vital. Whether you are communicating on an official ASC channel or not, please know that you represent the American Shakespeare Center.  It is best to include a mention of your connection in your profile and also mention it when posting comments on blogs that are related to what we do.
  • Private vs. Public. Don’t publish confidential or other proprietary information.  Anything having to do with legal, internal personnel, or confidential financial matters should never be discussed outside of appropriate internal communications.  Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
  • Write what you know. Stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what’s going on at the ASC and in the world.
  • Learn from others. Use the web to find out who else is blogging or publishing on a topic of particular interest and cite those individuals, including links to their work.
  • Ask before you speak. Don’t cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their prior approval. When a reference is made, where possible, link back to the source.
  • The web is a permanent record. Items posted online will likely be indexed by search engines and copied by other sites, so it can remain public and associated with you even if the original post is deleted. Post with care.
  • Be professional. Treat others with the utmost respect in your conversations.  Ethnic slurs, personal insults, foul language, or conduct that would not be acceptable in our offices should not be used.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Most everyone is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.  Please assume that they meant no ill will until proven otherwise and then see the next guideline.
  • Avoid the trolls. Refrain from engaging in heated discussion and use good judgment when expressing opinions that may pose a potential conflict. Do not post angry comments or attack individuals engaging in the discussion.  If someone attacks you, reply politely and disengage.
  • Play nice. Do not insult or disparage ASC, its productions or offerings, or any fellow employees, even if specific names are not mentioned.  The same goes for other theatres or “competitors” of any kind.
  • Proof your work. Knowing that the web often takes on a more casual tone, please remember that language is part of the bedrock of our mission.  Read it over before you post and keep in mind the writing guidelines Ralph put together.
  • If it gives you pause, pause. Please don’t post something that you would not say openly to a room full of patrons, donors, and strangers.  If you are about to publish something that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, stop and think.  Ultimately, what you publish is yours, as is the responsibility.  Also, do not alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.
 

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Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.

 

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Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

During the last few weeks of complete radio silence on this blog, I’ve been getting my brain wrapped around my new position as Managing Director at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  Thank you all for your patience with me!

Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking and tweeting (@amywratchford) about all the issues and opportunities around our industry.  One thing that has been top-of-mind for me lately is the general lack of General Operating Support (GOS) in our industry.  I’ve heard over and over from theatres and arts organizations that GOS is what they need, and I know the funders are hearing it too.  And yet we continue to see a preponderance of project funding and a scarcity of GOS.  This has gotten to the point where projects are specifically created in order to attract funding, even when basic financial needs of the company are not being met.  We, as an industry, tend to shake our fists and rage against out-of-touch funders who won’t recognize what would truly help us be sustainable.  I, however, think we only have ourselves to blame.

We have trained the foundations and major donors to give us project-based support.  In fact, we’ve trained them on multiple levels:

  • A consistent inability to talk about why we matter outside of the impact of specific projects
  • A consistent approach to documentation, especially financial documentation, of only sending what they ask for and then only in the broadest possible terms
  • Avoidance of explanations of how stable (or not) we are as organizations and what we are doing to make ourselves better (I mean this from a fiscal as well as an organizational/managerial standpoint)
  • A general lack of drilling down to details about who our audience is, how we will reach them, and how we expect to impact them
  • Avoidance of long-term strategic planning (which would make fixing the two bullets immediately preceding actually feasible)

In 2009 in Atlanta, we saw a funder take the leap into the great unknown of GOS.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) listened to the organizations they had supported for years with capacity building grants and heeded the call to convert their funding to GOS.  As Executive Director Lisa Cremin stated when MAAF announced the changes, this was not an easy decision nor was it a cinch for the Board of MAAF to feel at ease with judging who was worthy of what level of GOS.  Lisa said again and again that MAAF had to look at the overall picture of the organization, they had to buy into the company’s plan.  How, I ask you, can we demand that funders provide us support that is open ended in terms of uses if we cannot communicate that plan?  And, how can we truly create that plan if we can’t even speak internally about the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us on a fiscal and organizational level?  It is our responsibility to define our paradigm and then clearly communicate that to potential funders and constituents of all kinds.  I won’t even go into the impact of fiscal and organizational transparency on the staff, artists, and volunteers of an organization, that is for another post!

If we want General Operating Support, we must be generally and specifically accountable for where we are and where we are going.  Only then can we begin to ease the terror that funders feel when thinking about donating large sums of money to which no specific project tied.  Once we get our ducks in a row then, and only then, can we begin to petition for GOS in earnest.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts!

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Arts management, theatre

 

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Is your ideal customer on your Board?

I’ve been thinking more about this ideal customer idea and how it relates to the non-profit arts.  We actually have an advantage over for-profit ventures, we could have our ideal customer as a key advisor.  We could have them on our Board.  But, do we?  We spend so much time thinking about what slots we need to fill on the board: deep pockets, corporate contacts, fundraising experience, marketing expertise, finance, real estate, law.  What about an ideal customer?

Do any of y’all have someone on your board that could be the poster child for your company’s ideal customer?  If so, are you talking to them about what brought them to you & what keeps them coming back?  Are you picking their brain on a regular basis about where they get their information and how they share it?  If you don’t have this person on the Board, do you know someone in your patron base you should be courting?

Let me know your thoughts on this!

 

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