Sunday, June 20, 2010

Perpetuating the Myth

I've just returned from the Theatre Communications Group Annual Conference. The theme for the conference was "Ideas into Action," and it built upon the previous year's conference where the field took a look at some of the major issues facing all of us. The idea was to take what we discussed last year and to explore "bold new solutions."

The first session I attended was entitled "Theatres Becoming Centers in the 21st Century." I attended partially because my Artistic Director, Molly Smith, was speaking, but also because I wanted to hear some ideas from other centers from around the nation as we move toward the opening of the Mead Center for American Theater. The one thing that stayed with me through the entire conference from that session was the quote Molly used to open her remarks--she referenced a quote by R. Buckminster Fuller in which he said: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." It made me think that as a field, if we generally agree that our business models have significant issues, then why do we spend so much energy devising band-aids for them instead of building new models that make the existing ones obsolete?

Later that evening, I had the pleasure of listening to a wonderful speech given by Jonah Lehrer, the author of the book "How We Decide: the New Science of Decision Making." He kept me captivated throughout his entire manifesto, but a single story stood out among the rest (well, at least to me). The story goes that Procter & Gamble decided they wanted to invent a new soap to make mopping more efficient. After several months of failed attempts to create this novel soap in house, they hired a creativity firm to work with them. The firm spent nine months studying homemakers as they mopped their floors, and in the end, they concluded that a new soap wouldn't revolutionize mopping because mopping as a means of cleaning was essentially flawed in itself. After observing one woman cleaning up coffee grounds on the floor with a damp paper towel, an idea emerged--what about getting rid of the mop entirely, and fastening a damp paper towel to the end of a stick? And the Swiffer was born.

After more than 50 years of success, where should the resident theater movement look to throw away a mop, and replace it with a Swiffer? In looking back on my scribbled notes, it looks like I came up with four different ideas:

1. Arts Education/Community Engagement. The idea of having an education department at a resident theater is relatively new. Maybe 15 years or so ago, funders started to route resources to student and community programs. Theater companies took note, and started developing more education programming, however the programming was almost always intended to compliment the more "formal" arts education that students were getting in the schools. Fast forward to present day where the focus of our schools have become glued to developing the highest standardized test scores. In this environment, arts education has been highly marginalized, if not all together eliminated. Who is teaching creativity, at a time where we frequently hear from top corporations that creativity is a key component to success in today's ever changing world? Do we need to look at our education departments to figure out how to serve this essential need by ourselves instead of being a complimentary service to our school systems.

2. Subscriptions. Where is our generation's Danny Newman? When he invented the subscription, it revolutionized how performing arts organizations did business, and it mirrored how a certain generation wanted to "consume" artistic product. Baby Boomers joined Kiwanis clubs, went to church, participated in bowling leagues, and purchased tickets to a large number of shows well in advance at discounted prices. But times have changed--Generation X doesn't act like its predecessor, but we are still using the same sales techniques on them that have worked for decades with Mom and Dad. How do we continue to serve Baby Boomers as they still have the largest disposable income, and work to meet the needs and buying habits of Generation X and the Millenials? We can keep slapping band-aids on the subscription model, by doing things like introducing smaller and smaller "pick your own" packages, or acknowledge that we may need a new mop to clean up this particular problem.

3. Development vs. Marketing. If you read my previous post entitled "The Problem of Silos," you know this is an issue that I have been stuck on for awhile. In my career, I have worked at some amazing organizations both incredibly large and very small, and I can honestly say I have never seen an operation that integrates the needs and priorities of marketing and development well. Almost always, one wins out over the other, the cause of which usually can be tracked back to funding and/or leadership. To solve this, a few organizations have developed external affairs divisions that house both marketing and development activities, however those departments are just as segregated under a Director of External Affairs as they would be under an Executive Director. I proposed a new system in my prior post, but this type of change is daunting considering it would mean dismantling and rebuilding the entire revenue generating departments of an organization.

4. Funding vs. Accessibility. There are a multitude of reports out that show that funding has dropped during the global economic crisis, which has put more and more pressure on earned revenue sources to make up the difference. On the 2amt blog, there has been a heated debate on dynamic pricing, particularly as it is used by non-profit theaters. For those unaware of dynamic pricing, the basic premise is that ticket prices for popular productions are increased as demand increases. Is it a coincidence that dynamic pricing has really gained ground and become almost standard practice during the two years following the start of the global economic crisis? If there is less funding, then we need to make more money in ticket sales. Seems logical to me. The problem is that many times, we are doing excellent work in education and outreach programs that reach populations that will never be able to afford a ticket at our institutions. This used to be addressed by funders who supported lower priced tickets, but as that money has dried up, to keep afloat, institutions have cut discounting programs. So where does that leave us? For me, I have become more and more interested in finding new revenue streams--and hopefully new streams that aren't dependant upon the fickleness of reviews either.

As I wrap up this post, I am more cognizant than ever that as a professor of arts management, the techniques that I am teaching my graduate students are antiquated. I call them "best practices" when a more appropriate title might be "yesterday's best practices." If I continue to teach how I was taught, aren't I just perpetuating the myth that our arts organizations are healthy and ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century? Maybe I should begin my classes by challenging them to throw out the mop.


Tony Adams said...

When I was listening to Lehrer, I looked up and had an epiphany. What if we were all sitting in a 50 million dollar mop? What if the mop is the Mead Center? The Goodman Theatre, The Guthrie building.

What if the theater buildings are the mop? What's the swiffer?

Shoshana said...

I agree about young people and subscriptions, but what do you think of those non-profit theaters creating their own youth subscription programs: Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout (HIPTIX), MTC (30 Under 30). It seems like that is a good solution to getting millenials and generation Xers not only to buy tickets but to become invested in an organization so that they will one day become a subscriber. There's really no data on whether this works or not, of course, but has it been looked into/addressed as a possible solution? Is any data being gathered?

Bee said...

I'd start out shifting the paradigm "I can teach you what I know, but you are required to teach us all what you know." As a teacher I know that students want to share what they know. And they know an extraordinary amount of information about networking sites, apps, and technology. I'd love to see you honor your last sentence by making Seth Godin's Book "Linchpin" required reading for the first week, and tell them that with your Old School knowledge and their New Technology knowledge that their challenge is to become Arts Management Linchpins. And each subsequent week students are required to present 3-5 sites/apps they currently use and one new site and ideas how they offer tools that Arts organizations need to implement.
Students still need the old school ideas, but spinning the tables and having your best practices themes be the springboard that leaps them into focused thinking about current technology would be the best class -- for all of us. Ideally we'd want the class to create a blog and share with us all this stuff they know and we need to know. Each semester, each student is a wealth of expertise and passion. No two classes will have the same experiences/ talents/tech savvy and each class will produce heaps of ideas. We need you to be their loudest cheerleader!

I recently had an hour conversation with a recent grad (not in Theater) and she gladly shared links and apps and add-ons and sites that I now love but would have never found on my own. And I need to figure out a way to take them to our local theaters.

As per Tony's comment: Theater buildings that are bringing in audiences are not the mop. HS Theaters, Community Theaters, & smaller local theaters because of their lack of marketing innovation are becoming mops! That's the crime! That's also the best places for innovation, risk, training and all the ideas you list in this post!

Finding ways to improve experiences and increase audiences joy in our sacred theater spaces means they will never be the mop. But it never hurts to tell the talent in those buildings that all the world is a stage. Encourage them to find other spaces in town where audiences are eagerly waiting for us and -- yes! we can do our shows there too!