Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parallels: Arts and Journalism

Recently St. Pete Times Arts Critic John Fleming wrote a bit of a scathing preview on the fact that we have Forever Plaid playing again in our Jaeb Theater. He also managed to take a swipe at other shows we do in the theater like Menopause the Musical, Hats! and so on. Shows that sell extremely, extremely well and that help our building do work like the Off Center Series (was Expanding Horizons) and that allow TBPAC to be able to work with Jobsite, The Florida Orchestra and Orlando Ballet.

Today a coworker forwards me this link from to a letter to the editor of the Times that agreed with Mr. Fleming's assessment. In short that the building offers too much sweets and not enough sustenance.

Both stories suggest that TBPAC has a responsibility to do more "artistic" and "challenging" work.

Now, I have to walk a careful line here as both an employee of and a producing artist at TBPAC. I didn't really start this blog post today to argue why we should produce Plaid over Sondheim.


The following is really nothing more than my thoughts, with a lot of experience thrown in, and also in the end a comparison of our field to the field of journalism - sparked by a recent Frontline documentary I watched. There are some striking similarities it seems.

First, to the idea that it's a bad thing to produce or present work that people actually want to see - even if it's been here before. Um, it's not a bad idea. At all. This building has nearly 4,500 seats all told on any given night, and there's way more variety here than a lot of folks actually give us credit for.

The juggernaut is of course Broadway, and long running shows that play in the Jaeb, but the truth is that those are the shows that get the bulk of the people in the door, that train folks to come here and have a good time. I know, as a member of the TBPAC marketing team, that we do everything we can to get folks interested in other work once we get them in the door for one of the blockbusters. We want them to come back and discover all we have to offer. What's the saying about flies and honey?

And, if I can editorialize a tiny bit, Fleming says in his original article that "It's as if TBPAC is trying to appeal to those who never go to the theater" - like that's a bad thing. That elitist tone, often found in fine arts criticism, is in my opinion part of the problem as to why a lot of people - unaccustomed to going to fine arts shows - find a lot of fine art inaccessible. It's a fact that there are obviously not enough die-hard fervent theatergoers to keep any organization here in the area in the clear, so everyone makes their adjustments.

If we're to survive as an industry we have to find a way to get new people into the theater and to have people in an extremely poor economy, where disposable income just isn't very disposable choose to come here over less expensive options like movies or free options like just going to a park or staying in and watching the toob over a home-prepared meal. Did I mention we have about 4,500 seats a night across five theaters?

TBPAC isn't just serving cake. It's more like the big table of desserts when you walk into a restaurant that gets you hungry and excited to be there in the hopes that you'll look to all corners of the menu to see what they chef really has to offer and come back again and again.

Since I am involved with both marketing and programming here, I can honestly say that there is always a desire to do more "artistic" or "meaningful" work, and all of the programmers have a deep love and passion for what they do and wish that they could do more of it. We still have a budget to balance. We're still a not for profit. We're still in a horrid economy. It's a common misconception that money is just falling out of TBPAC's pockets. I know for a fact that there is always a desire to balance the "art" with the "entertainment." There is a commitment to converting those who may only come to our pop shows to try something different.

It's harder than it looks. Way harder.

As individuals we like what we like. We can tell an audience member that this dance company or that symphony orchestra is the finest in the world and list off every award they've ever been given and it won't likely transfer over to ticket sales. If that same orchestra backs up Taylor Swift on a VH-1 special and the MSM makes a big giant deal over it and they end up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly - then we might have a chance.

Personal illustration - I have a Masters of Fine Arts degree, and you'd practically have to drag me kicking and screaming to just about any opera (ok, so I like Wagner). I'm not much of a fan of Broadway, but I'll watch just about any off-the-wall one person show, obscure expressionistic play, gritty modern drama and so on. I like what I like. If I don't want a Brussels Sprout - I'm a grown, educated man and I do not have to eat one. And in the end it's my opinion. I'm sure plenty of people think what I like is too "out there" or "not real art."

A lot of people might not eat a Brussels Sprout because they may not want to eat anything just because someone says it's good for them. Others plainly may not like the taste. Not everyone wants to develop a taste for something, and if you tell them they have to acquire a taste for anything - they may simply tell you they have better things to do with their time and money than sit around and eat something they hate in the hopes one day they might change their mind. Then of course there are those who may be predisposed to new things or experiences, or are just simply moved to give something a shot - and those are the people we want to go after. We can't force-feed anything to anyone.

If you just produce - for the sake of argument let's just say classical music, which historically has a hard time just about anywhere - and continue to lose money on it month after month, year after year at what point do you maybe decide to adapt? The only other option is to find enough funders who are ok with your mission of continually losing money on programming that has no one seeing it.

Have you ever been to a live show where it's been empty? Isn't that a miserable, odd feeling? Artists aren't too fond of that either.

So I think TBPAC largely has it right - support one with the other, and make a sincere effort to turn people on to something new while they're here. The discussions about bringing in more "art" to balance the "entertainment" are ongoing and lively, I assure you.

And don't even get me started on the irony that the newspapers generally bend over backwards to write story after story on Spamalot! or The Lion King, but we fight tooth and nail to get any mention at all for a show like the Beijing Modern Dance Company or the Turtle Island String Quartet or a South American adult-oriented puppet troupe coming in to do Romeo and Juliet in Spanish with marionettes.

Now, to my journalism comparison. That Frontline documentary I watched bemoaned the slow death of true journalism in this country for what's essentially tabloid or magazine journalism. Soft journalism. Sensationalist, human interest stuff.

Now, the old school journos in the documentary all sat and talked about how they had a responsibility to the people and to their profession. The new school editors and media owners also claimed a responsibility (and not just to shareholders), a responsibility to offering a wide palette of information and types of stories in a 24/7/365 news world where there is option upon option.

A lot of the argument went back to ratings - the hard news old school shows just didn't pull the numbers, but hide a camera in a house where a guy is going to go try to pick up an underage girl and they're through the roof. People are voting with their remote, and the market follows.

I think 60 Minutes might have one of the better balances of hard and soft journalism on TV. They're giving both. Like I feel TBPAC does with art.

And there's that irony again that we get beat up a little for bringing in shows too many times or shows that appeal too much to the "lowest common denominator" (yet another elitist statement), yet those are still the same shows that get the press while dozens of "artistic" and "challenging" shows go by every year that the press ignores.

We have to be careful - be it in the arts or the news - when we start talking too surely and with too much certainty that we know what's best for people. Our job is to be here for the entire community and to offer a wide variety. Who are we to tell anyone that the type of show they like isn't "good enough," particularly when it's selling a theater out for weeks straight? We stop offering the things people want to see, they could stop coming here altogether and then we'd really be in crisis.

Got a thought? Sound off. There's a whole lot to be had of this discussion, to be sure.

1 comment:

LeeAnn said...

I second that emotion. Well said.


As another member of the marketing department here at TBPAC, I can vouch for David's statements here. True, true and true.

I also am not fond of opera, though Puccini is bearable for me. Classical music gives me a headache. Literally. I've been told that it is the timbre with which most classical music is played ... that it wreaks havoc with my inner ear for some reason and literally causes me to get a headache. That gem came from jazz artist Fred Johnson ( who was once the Vice President of Education and Humanities here at TBPAC before he left to more actively pursue his other artistic endeavors.

I like some of what Jobsite has to offer, but some of it is too deep for me. ALL QUALITY WORK and I LOVED LOVED LOVED The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. But truth be told, I am a Broadway fan through and through, and I loved Menopause. Yes, I was in the closet about that one. What a fun time. Life is stressful enough for me. I'm looking for some escapism when I go to the theater. That doesn't mean I don't see the shows that are a little more "cultural," but like David's comment about Brussel Sprouts, I am an adult too and can decide for myself what I do and do not want to see and spend my money on.

There is such a wide variety of shows that happen here season-round at TBPAC. And we struggle year after year to get audiences in the door to see those shows, because they truly are wonderful. I'm not fond of dance, but loved Diavolo Dance Theater.

Do you know how sad it is for a quality artist to come through the doors and have a scarce audience. Who wants to gets up on a stage, put their art out there and hear crickets? Hands up if you want to do that. Yeah, I didn't think so.

We take our mission very seriously here. But without the heavy hitters, our mission would not be possible. And in this economy it is even more challenging. When people are paying $4 a gallon, they are much less likely to travel far to see an act like American Indian Dance Theater.

And don't even get me started on the media. I won't even go there.

But a volunteer here at TBPAC ... a HUGE Plaid fan brought John Fleming's article about Forever Plaid to my attention because she was so upset over it.

And I have to say I found it very distasteful. And disappointing. And a bunch of other "dis"'s that I won't bother to mention.

And I'm really sick of everyone thinking that we have deep pockets over here. We are a non-profit arts organization and we have managed to survive for more than 20years. It is quite a feat, actually. And I am proud to be a part of it. And we have a responsibility to the community to not only survive, but the thrive.

Please tell us what you think. We would love to hear from you!