Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Conversation

I’ve started to wonder whether the utility of blogs has been overcome by the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. They’re starting to seem almost quaint in this change-a-minute culture.

But one thing I continue to enjoy in the blogosphere is the second-hand kind of conversation that can go on between people on different sites who are interested in the same topics. I was happy to see Mr. Miller from Barksdale / Theatre IV chime in on the Barksdale blog about the Richmond Cultural Census. As always, Bruce writes eloquently, succinctly, and with incredible insight. And what I most appreciate about Bruce is that he saw the opportunity encapsulated in the survey, regardless of its flaws. As I said a couple of posts ago, “I think [the Census] can be used to help organize thinking about bolstering local theater.” It seems to me that Bruce has done exactly that, establishing a play-reading series, looking at possible educational opportunities and introducing an “Entertainment Stimulus Package.” I can only hope others follow Bruce’s lead in exploring new opportunities pointed to by the survey.

I wanted to also continue the conversation on a couple of the points Bruce brings up. I wasn’t aware that other arts organizations had distributed the survey to their supporters. That fact does indeed throw a different light on the self-selection aspect of the survey. To me, self-selection by itself is not enough of a reason to disqualify results, everything else being equal (that is, self-selection doesn’t necessarily conflate with a preference for one art form over another). However, the situation Bruce describes does seem like it would result in an under-representation of people with an abiding interest in theater.

I understand Bruce’s point about ticket sales. However, while it’s impressive that "theatre outsold all other performing arts disciplines—combined,” there are issues involved with success in the arts that have little or nothing to do with ticket sales – the income from which sometimes only represents 50% or less of an arts organizations funding from what I understand. My point about comparative perceived vitality was that regardless of whether people attend an arts event – any event, including gallery openings which are usually free – it seemed to me that the survey was saying that people perceived theater as less vital to the community than other art forms.

There are a couple of anecdotal situations that I think back this up, both positively and negatively. (The following are based almost entirely on my impressions so feel free to dispute them if you wish.) When TheatreVirginia died, the overwhelming majority of Richmonders did not know what that meant to the local community. Frankly, I’m involved in the community and I didn’t fully grasp the significance. However, if the Virginia Museum was on the verge of collapse or Richmond Ballet, it is my impression that there would be an outcry across the general population as well as from highly-committed entrenched communities of supporters.

On the positive side, my impression (based on living on northside for many years) is that one of the reasons that Chamberlayne Actors Theatre continues to plug along despite a lack of regular or widespread media coverage (mea culpa) is that it has a small legion of supporters who have come to perceive CAT as singular in importance for the health and prestige of the northside community. It is this kind of commitment and perception of “vital need” that I’d love to see across the Richmond community as whole related to theater as a whole.

Here’s just one example of what I think would be emblematic of this kind of commitment. Media wonks talk about “appointment television” – that is, shows that have such a committed following that people carve out a place in their schedule every week for this show. For a huge number of Richmonders, “The Nutcracker” is “appointment dance,” that is, they go to it every year almost without fail.

The only thing that I think comes close in the local theater world is Theatre IV’s Christmas show. I regularly speak to people who have gone and continue to go to Theatre IV’s Christmas show – regardless of what it is – every year. Swift Creek Mill’s annual “Drifty” show is similar. It may be an impossible dream, but wouldn’t it be great if more Richmonders considered more local productions as “must see” entertainment?

Finally, no disrespect to Jon Jory (or Bruce or Rick St. Peter) but the quote that “no theater that’s ever existed has attracted more than 2% of its potential audience” doesn't impress me. It may be true (it does, however, make me wonder about the theater of the ancient Greeks) but it seems like a defeatist statement of the highest order. One of my favorite quotes from Richard Bach’s “Illusions” (a book I reread every 3-4 years) is “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” If 2% is the paradigm, how do we break out of it?

The urge to “put on a show” is one of the most basic and elemental creative urges of humanity. It seems to me that there should be ways to capitalize on that to make theater much more popular than it is. In my mind, the potential has barely begun to be tapped.


Anonymous said...

There is a straight evolutionary line from theatre through movies, television, and now the many web-based "shows" that are available.

Movies, television, and the web are constantly changing and reinventing themselves, while theatre has stubbornly remained constant. That is both its strength and its Achilles Heel.

I agree totally with your final paragraph, but who is the visionary on horseback riding to the front?

Joy W. said...

The wonderful thing about the "Drifty" show is that I see people who came as children and are now young parents themselves continuing the tradition. It's what keeps me being well as having alot of fun doing it. People have photo's of me with their kids going back 17 years!! And each year they add a new one...and the older teenagers...seem to look forward to it!! It's great to be a part of that!!

pnlkotula said...

Yes, it's pretty amazing, and think of how many family holiday cards we've been on!

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

I'm too lazy to read the source material for this debate...did those ticket sales figures include live music? Like, not chamber music or choirs, but local rock bands? Also a performing arts discipline that is in no danger of dying that seems largely overlooked by this whole conversation...

Maybe it's just 'cause I dig rock stars...

The good news that we can all share in is that, if/when the apocalypse comes and all our technology is destroyed, live theatre will still be there.

Storytelling is oral history, and it will always exist in one form or another, and I'm grateful for at least that. 'Cause as long as people are telling stories...on stage, on TV, on the web, in someone's living room...I will have a job. :)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the individual's "urge to 'put on a show'" must be measured against the rest of the community's desire to SEE it.

If an actor performs "Hamlet" in a forest, and no one is around to watch it, is it really acting?