Thursday, September 14, 2006

Informed risk taking and theatre development

Sorry it's been so long since the last post. Things got a bit out of hand with my paying career, but focus (and progress) has been picking up with regard to StageNEXT. I'll try to be more regular with these posts in the coming months.

I wanted to discuss the whole issue of theatre building in our community. I was at lunch earlier this week with a key influencer within Charlotte's arts community, when I heard a rather suprising perspective. The idea stuck with me and kept my brain whirring along on Puree well after I should have been sleeping. It was suggested that ultimately, someone is going to have to take a risk and "step off the cliff without a parachute" to get a regional-level theatre company going in Charlotte again. Something really bugged me about the statement, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it while we were sitting there. I think I’ve got a better handle on it now (hopefully!).

If we were in a traditional arts market, I’d say the statement was absolutely right: inspired risk-taking is how most new arts organizations are formed. However, it just doesn’t align with how I currently view our environment. There is such a huge gap between quality expectations (cf. the ArtsMarket study recently conducted for the ASC) and the overall capability of this theatre community to deliver a consistently high-quality product that anyone taking the risk in this environment is nearly doomed from the start. I had an extensive discussion about this last week with someone whose opinion matters a great deal to this theatre community, and their perspective (which I share) is that we are in a downward spiral—the dearth of talent results in substandard productions, resulting in additional audience discouragement and talent flight, resulting in even poorer productions. Any number of local directors and actors have expressed similar frustrations to me. There may be occasional flashes of brilliance, but the overall trend is negative. One of my core team members (a respected arts consultant) feels like we need to move to break the cycle within the next year or what remains of our theatre talent base will be irrecoverable (relocated or out of theatre entirely). In this environment, a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach isn’t the solution; in fact, it could serve to make things worse.

So, we're not only trying to build a theatre…we're trying to create an environment in this community where theatre is trusted as an artform and can flourish. Of course there is risk involved, but it has to be measured risk: and, to the extent possible, risk that is managed and controlled for. That’s why I’m exploring partnerships with Blumenthal and local colleges and universities; why I’m pushing forward with a plan to conduct large-scale Community Forums in the spring; why I so often emphasize the business side of the equation (to the frustration of many of you, I know): to reduce the organizational risk as much as possible. It’s also why I’m talking with Triad Stage and NC Stage regarding collaboration and co-production; why I’m exploring with local universities how we could collaborate to develop or expand a robust undergrad theatre program and a professional actor training (one-year MFA) program; why I see ongoing actor training as part of our mission; why I’m exploring artist-in-residence grants with TCG: to reduce the quality gap as much as possible. Throwing more people in front of the train has been tried; we need a cultural organization committed to delivering production quality that exceeds the expectations in the market, and to acting maturely and responsibly within the theatre community and the community at large.

This approach takes resources…it takes a long-term view and commitment on the part of the community to implement. If I were only interested in producing (having my name in lights does hold a certain appeal), we’d be onstage by now. And, we’d be struggling like every other theatre organization in town. Because I’m trying to position StageNEXT and our theatre community for long term success, I am doing everything I can to lower resource requirements from an infrastructure perspective, raise the level of the talent pool and ensure sufficient operating capital to achieve the vision. People with talent, maturity and dedication are required to drive this forward. Many of them have already left town, and they won’t return "on the cheap"...they've been through the ringer too many times before.

So, there you have it. I hope this doesn’t sound like a diatribe, because it’s not meant to be. It’s just that, having lived this initiative for the past year, my perspective has changed a bit. Now is not the time to go jumping off of cliffs. Now is the time to figure out how to get to the bottom without severe injury or death.


Friday, June 16, 2006

We don't know who WE are anymore

Last week was Theatre Communication Group's (TCG--the national service organization for non-profit professional theatre) Annual Conference. The theme, "Building Future Audience", represents the culimination of a seismic shift in thinking that has occured nationwide regarding the importance of understanding and engaging current and potential theatre audiences. For those on the outside looking in, this may seem like the ultimate in obliviousness. After all, from a business perspective, audience member = consumer. And, businesses have become increasingly more sophisticated at understanding and engaging customers over the last quarter century. But the reality is more a bit more nuanced than that.

Susan Booth, Artistic Director at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, describes the development of audience awareness in the theatre community over a similar time scale (from her introduction to one of the panel discussions):

Collective Epiphany #1:

We don’t spend time like we used to.

Robert Putnam told us we not only bowl alone, but that we don’t join. We don’t volunteer, we don’t plan and we don’t commit. Research told us that single ticket purchases were outstripping subscription purchases and we discovered that wasn’t a freak anomaly but a new way of existing. We perceive a diminishment of available leisure time and thereby have a resistance to spending it.

Everything pointed to the “we don’t have time” statement.

So we adapted: Restructured performance calendars and developed more elastic and changeable lengths of runs. Altered budget expectations. Made our pricing plans more flexible.

And we survived.

Collective Epiphany #2:

We don’t spend CHOICE like we used to.

With the advent of Tivo technology, individuated home pages, 600 satellite channels and Wikipedia, we became a society that never had to experience the unfamiliar or the undesired (these usually being interchangeable notions). Mark Shugoll’s market research for many of our theatres told us that our existing ways of selling and packaging our work to our audience didn’t reflect their desired means of participation any more.

Everything pointed to the “we want choice” statement.

So we adapted: Created flex passes. Devised “Build Your Own Season” subscriptions. Re-imagined membership. Learned to live with the concept of cherry-picking.

And we survived.

Collective Epiphany #3:

Uh oh. We don’t know who WE are anymore.

Except that WE are consumers and according to Guy Garcia’s book “The New Mainstream,” consumer economies have become the principle driver of social change. And if WE – the we we know – believe that we traffic in the realm of social change, then we better figure out who WE – the we we don’t seem to know so well because they’re not so readily coming in our doors – are. Because THEY are the very consumers driving that social change.

Everything points to a statement we need to listen to, rather than to make.

And we must, again, adapt. But perhaps, this time, we will not just survive, but thrive.

Compelling words coming from the artistic director of one of our foremost regional theatres. With the exception of various music and dance forms, theatre and spoken word performance has the shortest psychic distance to travel in order to connect with an audience; it provides the most direct reflection on the human condition. However, in service to our art, we have often caught ourselves in the trap of talking "at" or "above" our audience (the art of the insider) instead of engaging in two-way conversation. Where theatre is percieved as elitist, the underlying cause is the insider trap.

I'll go ahead and get it on the table that understanding an audience and engaging them in the creative process does not mean pandering to them. More on this in future posts.


Monday, May 15, 2006

So, what's the vision?

Since many of you are coming to StageNEXT as relative newbies, it's probably worth exploring the StageNEXT vision. In fact, in the numerous discussions I've held over the past year on the subject, the first question people ask is typically a coin toss between the following (paraphrased of course):

  • "What's the artistic vision for StageNEXT?"
  • "How in the world are you going to make StageNEXT financially stable?"

Both of these are required elements of a successful organizational vision, and it's a real challenge to define a vision that encompasses and balances both sides of the coin: business and artistry. If it were easy, there wouldn't be so many arts organization failures--both in Charlotte and nationwide. To boil it down, you have to answer two (2) questions well:

  • "How do we foster and remain true to our artistic vision while achieving financial viability?"
  • "How do we develop and maintain a business model that enables effective pursuit of the artistic vision?"

Given our stated objective to serve as a conduit for exploring issues of community and diversity, there's a need for another essential question in the hopper:

  • "How do we sustain an artistic vision and business model that embraces Charlotte as a community and creates a sense of belonging across the ethnic and cultural spectrum?"

I'll say it again: these aren't easy questions, but they are questions that must be answered. The responses drive a company's essential mission and sense of purpose. Without them, we might as well be manufacturing widgets (although most widget manufacturers these days have also embraced the "vision thing").

Over the next few posts, I'll make an attempt to frame an initial response. While there is no one "right" answer, there are an inifinte number of "wrong" answers. I'm hoping your feedback will help to refine our thinking and clarify the StageNEXT vision.


Friday, May 12, 2006

April 2006 Update

The post below was taken directly from an update communication that was sent out in mid-April. It discusses our upcoming work with Executive Service Corps. I'm posting here for background.


We seem to be settling into a monthly schedule of these updates on our efforts to establish a new professional theatre here in Charlotte. While I hadn’t expected to be communicating so regularly so soon, I am excited that our progress warrants these regular communications. As always, if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

The most important item to report is the commitment of the Arts and Science Council (ASC) to provide technical assistance funds in support of our planning and organizational development efforts. ASC will be covering the cost of our work with Executive Service Corps (ESC: to assist us in finalizing and validating the business plan and the “incubator” approach within the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Our work with ESC should provide a substantial case for approaching would-be donors, as it will further explore and assess the sustainability of the new company. As I have shared with many of you, the majority of people to whom I have talked have been “cautiously optimistic”: optimistic regarding the StageNEXT vision and opportunity, cautious about the pos sibility of success in our current cultural environment.

Regarding the focus groups previously discussed, we will be working with ESC to further define our approach to these important events. Look for more information in next month’s update.

While ASC’s overall investment through ESC is fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, it does confirm our prior impression that there is a high level of interest in our proposed approach and leadership. Thank you for sharing the StageNEXT vision and for putting in a “good word” for us with your fellow community leaders. Your efforts are paying off—so don’t stop now! Please keep spreading the word.

One thing that has become clear is that our desire to begin producing in Spring 2007 should be reassessed. While there was overall support for this approach, the level of risk in potentially missing the dates has caused us to re-evaluate. The last thing we want to do (especially in this environment) is to publicly announce dates that we aren’t 100% certain we can hit. Therefore, we are revising our plan to begin producing in Fall 2007. This gives us an additional 6 months to put everything in place for a successful launch. I know that you may be disappointed by this decision; however, I hope you’ll agree that a pragmatic approach to timing is appropriate.



March 2006 Update

The post below was taken directly from an update communication that was sent out in mid-March. It followed directly after our initial formal presentation to the Arts and Science Council. I'm posting here for background.


It’s been a little over a month since our previous communication, and I’ve had a number of you write or call to ask for an update. Apologies for the low profile on this end, but we’ve been in “heads down” mode preparing for our initial presentation to members of the ASC staff and board. Additionally, I wanted to get a sense of ASC’s interest in the initiative before issuing another major communication. Having completed this significant step, we’re in a position to give you a better sense of how StageNEXT is being received.

The news on this front is very positive. As I’ve mentioned to many of you, the feedback I’ve received through our numerous discussions is that StageNEXT provides the right vision and operating model to bring culturally diverse, mainstream theatre to Charlotte. The feedback from ASC was consistent with this, and there is a high level of interest in exploring the idea further over the coming months. There are several areas of concern that we will be working to address, but my sense that we are heading in the right direction was confirmed.

This does mean making some adjustments to our short-term plan, specifically the timing of the March-April focus group sessions. It is our intent to fund these sessions via the generous support of several community members. Because of this, I want to be reasonably certain of ASC backing for this initiative prior to “pulling the trigger” on the focus group events. We have identified a highly capable consultant to facilitate the focus groups and are ready to move forward when the timing is right.

Thanks for your willingness to participate in these important events, and for holding open the March / April dates for so long. I know that all of you have a lot going on, and your commitment to this effort is truly appreciated.

Finally, a favor to ask: while we’re not currently in a position to hold our focus groups, the timing could not be better to build awareness for this initiative. As many of you know, ASC recently wrapped its Annual Fund drive and is ramping up the 2006-2007 Basic Operating Grant process. I’d like to ask that you think about reaching out to key influencers within the community who haven’t yet heard about StageNEXT, and help to spread the vision. Further, if you come into contact with ASC board members, don’t hesitate to let them know what’s going on. If there are people that you’d like me to talk with, please let me know; I’m more than happy to be involved. Understand that this is not a request for funds; rather, this is an opportunity to build awareness and generate positive buzz around our efforts. Thanks for your help in spreading the word.




Recognizing the high risk of failure with such things, I won't try anything too pithy or cute about starting a new blog. This is, however, a powerful tool for establishing communities and facilitating discussion: which, after all, is the whole point of StageNEXT.

StageNEXT is a community initiative recently launched in Charlotte, NC. Its primary goal is to return high-quality, mainstream theatre to the interesting, dynamic, diverse community that Charlotte has become over the last quarter century. It's a city that is maturing and moving from striving to be "world-class", to one that is growing into its own and shedding (slowly) its overweening self-consciousness. At the same time, it is a city struggling to sustain the best of its old identity (e.g., a stong sense of team work and common good) in the face of major demographic changes. I believe that theatre is a powerful tool to facilitate these discussions, and I believe that there is now a unique opportunity to motivate the community to support theatre that strives for this goal.

So, please feel free to hang around and look things over with a critical eye. My intent with this blog is twofold: first, to share with you a sort of real-time history of our efforts to launch a new theatre company in Charlotte; second, to get your feedback and exchange ideas on how we might best accomplish our goals. Thanks in advance for your support and insight. I look forward to continuing the discussion...