Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some reactions

My first reaction in my perusal of the Cultural Census was to think about the many things Richmond theater is doing right. One of the main ones is increasing participatory opportunities via programs like the Barksdale’s Coffee and Conversations series or the Acts of Faith talk-backs. I also think the theater community does a decent job of marketing itself within the community itself via Robyn O’Neill’s email list, Facebook, etc.

I also understand people’s reactions to the self-selection aspect of the survey and that any set of survey results can be used or skewed in different ways. But in the world of surveying, this number of respondents is pretty significant, regardless of where they come from. And while this kind of sampling may be less useful in gauging overall sentiment, there still is highly useful analysis that can be done in comparative analysis (theater vs. dance vs. museums, etc.). And from what I hear, there is so little comprehensive information-gathering done on the arts here that this information is going to be latched on to by many folks like a dog grabs a bone.

Finally, the surveying was done by a California firm that does this kind of thing for other cities and, from what I can tell, it has no vested interest in the results showing one thing or another. So when they make a point of saying “results point to a deficit of theatrical activity in Richmond” or that they have seen figures in other areas related to “vitality” that are more than 3 times higher than Richmond’s, I am more likely to take that information at face value than if it was a survey done by the Richmond Chamber, for instance.

Here are some of my concerns:

It is easy to pooh-pooh the less than 10% “vital activity” number for live theater. But what concerns me is that when you look at the detail breakdown (pg. 37), the number isn’t just “less than 10%” – the highest percentage for any theater related activity is just 7% and it goes down from there.

What really surprised me was then comparing that number to the “visiting art museums or galleries” number, which is 14%. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some galleries and museums – but in my mind there is no comparison in terms of the importance to the community. That the “vitality” percentage would be TWICE as high as the highest theater number is just shocking to me.

Also telling is that the attendance figures (pg. 14) between museums, galleries and performing arts venues were all nearly the same and yet there is still this discrepancy in the perceived “vitality.” So it seems to me this is saying that even if people attend theater as often as other arts activities, they don’t perceive it as vital to the community.

Finally, I think it is easy to get defensive on behalf of Richmond theater based on the findings of this report. I remember the many defensive reactions I heard earlier this year when Mary B and I did our “Arts Report Cards” on theater for Style. As understandable as that reaction may be, in this case, it serves no purpose. The survey, after all, isn’t going to try to defend itself; it is what it is.

While I don’t expect anyone to run around like Chicken Little saying that the sky is falling, what I would love to see is people in the theater community take these results to heart and try to tackle the problems they point to. How can we make Richmonders care more about theater? How can we raise the level of investment – emotional as well as financial – in theater? How can Richmond theater reach out to new audiences? What innovative methods can be employed to raise the profile of theater in town?

Even if the Cultural Census is misrepresentative in some ways – and I don’t think it is to any significant extent – I think it can be used to help organize thinking about bolstering local theater, which would be a good thing for all of us.


Thespis' Little Helper said...

I don't rage against the machine...errr...survey in hopes that it will defend itself, but rather to dismiss it. Sure, it has value in that there's not much else of it's kind around, but I fear the opposite reaction that you pointed out also being not the right route (Chicken Little).

I think most (if not all of us) knew before this survey that we need to do more to get people to the theatre and find new ways to do that.

Putting stock in this report, one might liken to putting stock in a questionable religious text or to that guys "memoir" from a while back.

It just seems to me that it's not substantial enough to take serious note of.

And it just plain pissed me off and emotions don't really have a rationale. ;)

Dave T said...

Not substantial enough? More than 2500 people, many who have a high level of interest in the arts say (in a general way) that art museums are more than twice as vital to Richmond than live theater, and that's not substantial? In a failing economy where money for the arts is going to be stretched even thinner for the foreseeable future?

As I said, Chicken Little ain't the way to go but I think outright dismissal is downright dangerous. That's great that you're pissed -- if that kind of energy can be harnessed into positive change. Otherwise, it is just rage against the machine.

pnlkotula said...

The VCA has a really great annual conference January 27-29, held at the Marriott. It is aimed at advocacy and provides some really informative morning and afternoon sessions. You can find more information on the Virginia Commission for the Arts website.

Anonymous said...

No, this report does not summon Chicken Little, but maybe it should at least lead the Richmond Theatre Community to look at itself in the mirror and honestly assess if they are doing all they can to develop participants and a broad-based audience.

I personally have tried to get involved in local theatre as a patron, volunteer, and even as a performer. It has amazed me how few people are friendly and welcoming. Many seem almost hostile to what they must perceive as "johnny come lately" interlopers. Unfortunately, I got that vibe from someone who posts here regularly.

Maybe it's just me, but I signed up to volunteer at CAT. I was never contacted. I've volunteered at Henley, but I get the same cattle call email show after show, asking me to volunteer. That's fine, but wouldn't you think after a whie someone would ask me to reprise a job I've learned? I've supported the heck out of some Richmond Shakespeare activities for well over a year, but I'm not on any kind of mailing list and I have to monitor their website (almost always out of date)to find when things I want to pay to do are available.

I know that the people who make theatre companies go are either severely under-compensated for the amount of work they do or pure volunteers, but I'm not asking for white glove service--I'm asking if I can pitch in and help!

So, my first suggestion is that the community try to be less insular and more inclusive. There are lots of ways to do that and I'd suggest them, if I thought anyone wanted to hear from someone from the outside looking in.

Just as a quick example--I watched the Ukrops Christmas Parade and I didn't see any of the major theatre companies represented. What a wonderful opportunity that could have been ....

Anonymous said...

As for community involvement, Barksdale's Coffee & Conversations is lovely, but the crowd is, let's say, not young or new to theater. The Acts of Faith talkbacks I've been to have been uniformly dull and pointless. A place I do see new audiences being developed is the Firehouse, where Jase Smith seems to be bringing in crowds of young people for his edgy shows.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

(Acknowledging Dave's comment back, but processing and nothing to further note on that at the moment, but certainly not ignoring it...)

Coffee and Conversations I think are intended to nurture the audiences that are there, so I don't know that that really plays in a whole lot. (That's just me talking, not me talking because I know something.)

I so totally agree about the Acts of Faith talkbacks, especially when they all end up being about God, when such incredibly dynamic conversations could be had about FAITH, BUT...the Acts of Faith Festival absolutely puts butts in the seats. Without question it gets more people into the theatre, spreads awareness, generates income and all those things we're talking about. It could definitely use a lot of improvement (like most things) but it's working.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone - this is definitely a very worthwhile discussion to have and I'm glad we're talking about this. Eraserhead, to address your point about volunteering - I'm not sure what you're referring to re: Henley Street cattle call emails that we're sending out. It is true that we were looking for volunteers earlier in the season to help support our efforts, but I believe we've only sent out one email about this. We would be more than happy to discuss further opportunities with you or reprising one of your previous roles if you'd like. Have you expressed an interest in getting more involved (staying involved) with any of our staff? If you would like to talk further, a blog probably isn't the best way. I can be reached at

Thanks -
Alex Previtera
Artistic Director
Henley Street Theatre Co.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me if theatres don't acknowledge and appreciate folks like Mr. Eraserhead Returns better, they'll go the way of the dinosaur and American auto companies. His commitment and passion needs to be nurtured, not handled in such a cavalier manner.

A few years back I had some similar experiences in volunteering at a local theatre; it seemed my efforts (and those of my wife) weren't enough to satisfy. The company (which shall remain nameless) worked us both hard, and a few of the board members had the nerve to boss my wife around as she broke her neck to serve their patrons. Needless to say, we didn't volunteer there again. The good news is board membership has changed since that time, so hopefully the environment is better now.

Non-profit theatres depend upon both patron and corporate donations for their very survival, and upon volunteers to keep operations running. I'd say increased appreciation and acknowledgement of those efforts can only help.

Grant Mudge said...

First, a quick congratulation to Thespis' Little Helper' on a great review for "Sanders." I'm glad the show extends into January--that means I might even be able to see it!

Next, it's opening night on 'Carol-4-Two,' so I'll e brief:

Eraserhead, I'm very sorry to hear that your experience with Richmond Shakespeare has been disappointing. We work every day to welcome and appreciate our fabulous volunteers. Clearly that hasn't been the case for you, and I'll certainly reach out here and suggest you phone me in the RS office directly, 804-232-4000, or send an e-mail. The address is

As RS celebrates its 25th anniversary next year by becoming a resident company inside Richmond CenterStage, we'll need folks like you to help us succeed in the transition.

We'll certainly get you on the mailing list!

Grant Mudge
Artistic Director
Richmond Shakespeare

Anonymous said...

I would like to respond on behalf of CAT to Eraserhead's blog about his volunteer status. Volunteers are extremely important to us at CAT, in fact in many capacities we could not function without them. We always welcome new volunteers of all ages and experiences but the need varies depending on the time of the year and for the needs of a particular show. CAT is very sorry that you have not been contacted yet, but we are certainly going to keep you on our list for the rest of the season.

A more direct way of contacting us to vent frustrations or to discuss future volunteer opportunities would be through our website at Or feel free to email our volunteer coordinator directly at That way you can let us know exactly where you would like to be used, how often and in what capacity. If you have a suggestion for a particular show or if you would like suggestions on how to get involved, again please contact us directly.

Rebecca Anne Muhleman
CAT Board Member