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Jess Hutchinson

In the Room Where It Happens, Ep. 7: Horseshoe the Wagons

Or: It’s not them. It’s us. In her seventh column, Jess Hutchinson explores the arts impact that matters most: our audience.



published Sunday, May 29, 2016

 

 

Dallas — What impact does your work have on your patrons, your city, our industry, and yourself? How do you articulate the value of the art you create?

What are your measures of success? Are you achieving what you’re setting out to? How do you know? What kind of impact does your work have on local, national, and international levels?

A quick clarification of terms: of the many words used by our field that have multiple meanings but are rarely specifically defined, “impact” has become one of the most ubiquitous and potentially problematic. We’re meant to measure our impact on our community (another of those oft-used, seldom defined terms) and rare is the metric of impact that feels designed to sufficiently capture what art seeks to do. I’ve started reading Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Arts, Theatre Bay Area’s 2014 report on a two-year study of arts impact. The book, which I’ve been obsessively talking about to anyone who will listen, asks us to consider how we talk about our value as artists and an arts sector, and how we may be inadvertently undercutting that value in conversations designed to improve our situation. In a nutshell, it comes down to how we define and display impact.

For artists and arts organizations of myriad sizes talking about why we should be included as an integral part of a community, impact is most often spoken of in economic terms. We are (below the poverty line) job creators! We drive business to local restaurants, bars, and boutiques! We make your (gentrifying) neighborhoods vibrant (until we can’t afford your skyrocketing rent and are forced to revitalize a new neighborhood)! But none of these “indicators” have thing one to do with the art. So why is this what we’re touting to donors, funders, and government bodies when we sing for our supper with increasing frequency, uncertainty, and fear? Counting New Beans tells us that we do it because it’s the easier choice. The number of additional pints poured at the pub is infinitely easier to track than the percentage increase of empathy, understanding, or personal revelation.

I’m going to plant my flag next to Theatre Bay Area’s: we have to stop using economic impact as our primary argument for support of the arts because it is an argument we are always going to lose. Theatre is expensive to make well, and especially if audience accessibility is a concern, ticket sales cover a smaller and smaller portion of that expense. Outside investment is essential, yet we haven’t figured out effective ways to talk about an ROI that doesn’t start with a dollar sign. Instead, artists have trained ourselves to seek approval and livelihood by adopting limiting vernacular and systems of measurement, which are almost exclusively based on numbers of bodies passing through programs or performances, and the number of dollars those bodies leave behind, regardless of what happened while they were in attendance.

Photo: Katherine Owens
Jonah at Undermain Theatre

But here’s the truth of it: those economic bumps before curtain time for the restaurant down the street or the bar open late after the show are—at best—by-products of what we’re doing. Think about it—when was the last time that your gut impulse to create a new piece of art had anything at all to do with bringing revenue to the bar next to your performance venue or increasing sales at the boutique down the street? My guess—my hope—is that your answer to that question is a red hot never. But, as Donella Meadows says in Counting New Beans, “We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure.”  Imagine you’re talking to someone whose primary goal for his development property is to turn a sweet profit in our relentlessly capitalist economy. Your strategy is to highlight the economic impact you’ll have on other businesses, driving up their sales, making a more vibrant space. Now, do you really believe your new friend is thinking about anything other than what other “vibrancy builder” could make him more money than you can reasonably shell out in the footprint that your arts space would occupy? When it comes purely to profit margin, having a small, non-profit theater in your shmancy new building doesn’t make a lick of economic sense. The impact simply isn’t great enough. But by leading with it, we are reinforcing to those in power that what they should value is how much money we’re good for because it is what we’ve chosen to measure. The conversation has to change, and it’s our responsibility to change it.

Even if we still struggle to define how, theater has undeniable power to affect our lives, especially when it is rigorously, thoughtfully made with the experience of the audience in mind. We know this. Odds are, if you are reading this, you are already connected to the theater community. And if you’re already connected to the theater community, you no doubt have an “origin story” for how you found this particular tribe. And, if you’re like me, you sometimes go through periods of despair where you look at your friends from high school who are doctors or marine biologists and their Sensible Careers and New Houses That They Bought Like Damn Adults, and their Offspring who they Feed and Clothe, and wonder where your life went wrong when you grew up hearing so much about your Potential. But damned if that’s not the day you wander into a moment of theatrical bliss, something like Jonah at Undermain Theatre. And suddenly aren’t you thankful, and aren’t you lucky, and aren’t you sure that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be? Maybe theater has had a negative economic impact on my life, but I wouldn’t trade what it’s given and taught me.

Counting New Beans talks about the power of art to create empathy, reveal humanity, and model connection as intrinsic impact. A work of art’s intrinsic impact is the way that art works on, lands with an individual. Unlike economic impact, intrinsic impact is more difficult to quantify or to map across an X and Y-axis. But Anne Bogart always says that if you can’t name it, point to it and sometimes that can help you give what you’re experiencing language. Like the lead researcher on the Counting New Beans study was reminded about the seemingly unquantifiable effects of art: if you can describe something, you can measure it.

Measuring our work through economic impact lets us off the hook artistically. If our primary measure of success isn’t the efficacy of our work, we never have to deeply, authentically consider if our work is, well—working. In order to really measure the impact of our work, there are a lot of difficult questions we have to ask ourselves so that we have a starting point against which to measure what we’ve done. We have to authentically answer:

  • Why are we making the work?
  • Who is it for?
  • What kind of experience are we trying to craft?
  • How will we know if our work is successful?
  • What will we do if we discover that it isn’t?

To me, the thorniest question in that whole tangle is who our work is for. We talk a lot about the audience—developing the audience, reaching out to the audience, growing the audience, diversifying the audience. In all our talking about them rather than to them, The Audience starts to feel like one mythical monolith that we either appease or offend—and risk losing—en masse. Even when we segment them we keep them in impossibly simple categories, often delineated by race, gender, age, or class. And even as subscriptions continue to dwindle, the rhetoric sounds as if a whole group of complicated human animals can be formulaically predicted and kept docile with safe choices thought to appeal to as many of them as possible. And we talk about those shows like the tollgates we have to go through to get to the Real Art We Want To Make. Like the artistic director I referenced in an earlier column who wasn’t excited about a play but programmed it anyway because it sold well in other markets, you can look down many seasons announced recently in the American theater and guess which plays have been programmed for Us and which are for Them.

Have our assumptions of what our audiences want become the crutch that keeps us from joyful, bold experimentation? Are we operating from a place of fear and scarcity? Has the obsession with economic impact made its way into this most essential relationship, too? Is it possible that treating the audience primarily as a revenue source rather than as co-creators of a shared, transformational, ephemeral experience is creating the very scarcity we’re so afraid of? What if the way in which we, as a theater community, instinctively circle the wagons when the going gets tough has encouraged large swaths of the general population to get going when they find it impossible to really get inside?

Could it be that our audiences are more difficult to come by because somewhere along the line, our frustration with measures based on money caused us to give ourselves the message that the audience is a burden, or even an enemy, and something to be “handled?” I had an alarming experience recently where, without even thinking about it, I posted a public eye roll about a patron’s title fumble when requesting tickets in a voicemail.  After I was done being Very Clever on the Internet about it, realized that it had taken me literarily no time and less consideration to post. The work we do is important and impactful, yes—no doubt about it. But for folks outside our immediate industry, how often is it really top of mind? That doesn’t have to be a negative thing: medicine is not usually top of my mind until I have to go to the doctor; I don’t constantly think about brisket, even though I’m so happy when I eat good brisket. Just because a certain title has been right in front of my face for weeks, it’s unreasonable for me to expect anyone else to be that familiar with it, especially when it’s the title of a new play.

But like the 13-year-old who first fell in love with this form, there I was, without even realizing the depth of this unconscious bias or how close it was sitting to the surface, publicly mocking a stranger who wanted to come to see a play, when that is true of less than 10 percent of the general population. And I spend a good amount of my time thinking and reading about how to better identify, reach, and form authentic relationships with patrons. Another pal recently told me of friends of his who refer to the audience as “muggles.” The J.K. Rowling-inspired implication is that theater people are magical—we’re all Harry Potter while our audience is Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. Even if we assume less severe intent and our audience is Hermione’s super-supportive parents, there’s still the notion that we are the special ones, joyfully burdened with saving humanity from evil, while our patrons sit quietly with their (spoiler?) gently-wiped minds, safe from danger. The shadow side of the tight-knit-ness of our community is real: it can manifest as this Us vs. Them mentality. What if—as difficult as it might be for us to accept—it’s not them, it’s us? What if the reason the butts aren’t always in the seats is because we aren’t always producing work that challenges and excites us and that lack of enthusiasm is the loudest thing in the room?

Money is hard to come by for most and times are uncertain in America. When uncertainty provides our baseline experience, turning insular makes sense in an evolutionary Protect The Species way. But I suspect that the moments of impact we need in order to feel refueled will be more plentiful if we operate from a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. We have to become more willing to, however imperfectly, point to and shape a shared understanding of the intrinsic impact that brought us all into the fold to begin with. That feeling of community is part of the compulsion—for me, at least. As a military kid who moved around a bunch, discovering that I was also a theater kid was an incredible advantage for categorizing myself into community. Instead of wondering where to start when it comes to a new school, or job, or city, I just have to get somebody to point me toward the other theater kids and I know, eventually, I’ll be okay. The bond of shared experience is strong.

I recently heard an interview with Sebastian Junger on KERA’s Think. He was talking about his new book that explores the bond between soldiers in combat and the difficulty that they often face in returning to their lives outside the platoon. It would be problematic of me to compare creating a play or simply moving through your live to the experience of being a solider in a warm zone, but that model of devotion to fellow humans is one I believe we can learn from. If theater is in the business of creating empathy—as I believe it is—is it possible for us to impact our communities by virtue of offering opportunities to understand people who aren’t like us? How might we then work to build a platoon of folks beyond our close-knit cadres of theatermakers? What would it be like to open the wagon circle into a horseshoe—still safe, but welcoming—and make room for people who might love or need the theater and just don’t know it yet? What are we afraid of? Other, of course, than change?

Photo: Jess Hutchinson
Frightened Rabbit at the Granada Theater in Dallas

Call it technology, or progress, or the simple whirligig of time—whatever it is that has brought us to this moment, we’re living in a time where the expectation of inclusive engagement, of creating an experience an audience can feel part of—is really taking hold. Customized. Personal. Immediate. Valuable. The rising generation of decision makers wants all those things and they want them fifteen minutes ago. How are we going to shift in order to include them while maintaining our integrity? Are we ready to accept real responsibility for how we not only treat but how we think about our patrons? How long can we expect to survive with an Us vs. Them ethos? How can we create the space for a collective “we?”

I know some Scots who, albeit in a different medium, seem to have an idea.

Last week, I saw Frightened Rabbit at the Granada. If you haven’t been—you guys. It’s an exemplary place to see a rock show. The experience of this concert turned me from a pretty middle-range admirer of the band to an acolyte. The crowd was remarkable; it’s been a minute since I’ve been to a rock show where everybody was un-ironically jazzed to see these musicians play. The band fed on that energy. The reciprocal connection was palpable: the more energized the crowd became the better the band played, which energized the crowd even more. Scott Hutchison, the band’s lead singer (I treasure the hope that we are long-lost cousins), told us it was like playing Glasgow, which he assured us was his highest compliment. A song from an early album erupted into a full audience sing-a-long. Here is a poor-quality NSFW bootleg video. Like most video of live performance, it doesn’t quite capture the profundity of this moment, but maybe it points toward it. My favorite part: watch Scott when the crowd starts singing his song at him. Transcendent moments have impact on the artists, too.

I don’t know what a play-type-play analogue would be for singing a song back to its creator, but I know that same kind of unity, shared experience, and transformative euphoric sense of all being in this crazy thing together are possible and they’re why I at least keep coming back. They’re the moments that stick with me and inspire me to try to create more like them, build on them in my own work. The feeling in Jonah of actors singing, all together in harmony, right to us, in that intimate space? Stealing it. Passing bread around the audience as the Duke’s picnic Orlando stumbles into at Shakespeare in the Bar? Stealing that, too. Going out of my way to make the audience feel like they’re coming to my home when they come to see a play? Thanks, Undermain. That’s the standard now. Knowing my longtime subscribers by name and face and looking forward to hearing them place my newest piece in context of the whole body of work I’ve created? Damn, Kitchen Dog. Amen to that. The impact of these experiences has little to do with economics. It sounds cliché, but they really are priceless. They are examples of things people in our field are doing well, and it’s important to point to them as we learn to speak about them. These moments of impact demand and deserve a more complex method of measurement, and just think of all the potential for impact we have by these measures.

Our pioneering ancestors had good reasons to circle the wagons. Keeping literal predators away from your food and your throat is something that natural selection smiles upon. So we come by our fear honestly—it’s what’s kept the species alive. But I question what we, especially in the American theater, have started to perceive as threats. Contained in finding a close-knit community that welcomes and encourages your individual expression is the memory of what life was like outside the circle: once you’ve found your tribe, of course you want to protect and defend it. We are lucky to have found one another—truly. We, by and large, have ready access to creativity, connection, community, shared purpose, joy, and wonder by virtue of the tribe we’ve joined. I’m not denying that making theater is hard. Of course it is. But we’re not under attack. We need to horseshow those wagons. We need to find ways to authentically welcome a larger segment of the general population, not as a faceless mass to be feared yet courted for the economic impact they could have on our companies. We need them and we want to believe that they need us for the intrinsic impact we can have on each other, if we can be brave enough to invite it in.

 

» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.

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In the Room Where It Happens, Ep. 7: Horseshoe the Wagons
Or: It’s not them. It’s us. In her seventh column, Jess Hutchinson explores the arts impact that matters most: our audience.
by Jess Hutchinson

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