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Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.

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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, 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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