Marketing the Arts

Not Funny

Comic. Droll. Wacky, kooky, silly and slapstick. Side-splittingly hilarious. Amusingly madcap.

If you’re an artist, do you want these words applied to you?

And if they are, are you afraid they negate your sense of craft?

Let me say up front, the funny is not exactly my personal forte. It’s a genre into which I dabble, a mode that I sometimes employ. But it’s not really my mainstay, and I don’t think many would classify the majority of my work as comedic. When people see my stuff, though there are often things that make people laugh, I think they likely put it under the heading of the frowny face dramatic mask and not under the upturned smile.

In many ways, I’m pretty lucky because of that. Lucky not to have to wrestle with the label of “funny” or “humor.” It’s something of a relief to be “serious” because I don’t personally have to deal with a stereotype and unfair bias that my fellow creators who do live squarely in the humor category do.

Comedy: No one takes it seriously, am I right?

And before you go telling me it’s not true, go look at the big awards in any category of art making and then count the number of “dramatic” works compared with “comedic” ones. I don’t even need to do a survey, I know that the things that people deem worthy of accolades are the heavy stuff. I unconsciously do it myself. I think we all do. When I pitch works to presenters, I down play the comedic, and emphasize the avant-garde and heady. When I want people to think I’m smart, I don’t go for the funny. I remember in college reading biographies of Moliere – one of the greatest comedy writers ever to exist – and being struck with how much he wanted to be a tragedian. That he tried to be a “serious” actor and wanted so deeply to write “serious” plays and failed over and over. He was cursed with too great a sense of humor.

Even if we don’t think that we think that way, we can’t help but admiring someone for delving into something “hard.” We revere those that make us cry and don’t see effort in the same light when it’s directed at making us laugh. Is it something hardwired that makes people equate humor with lightness? Something unconscious that makes us assume levity equals lack of depth? Why is that? What is it about “heavy” subject matter that somehow makes things more worthy of debate or academic discussion?

I think this bias runs very deep in the structures we have created to support artists, in the non-profit world most especially. Arts are a deeply imperfect fit for this model. And while again, no one would say it, I think deep down we all think of non-profitship as “doing good” in a very particular way. It is selfless and egoless and totally “good” and “serious.” And I bet its why foundations get a little squicky about giving their very important and tax deductible money to people for “just” being funny.

Feeding hungry children in Africa. Raising awareness for disability. Offering Shakespeare’s tragedies to the Philadephia area.

They all have that humorless ring to them, don’t they? They are all good for you rather than feeling good to you. They all smack a bit of responsibility and social progress and of eating one’s vegetables.  Starving babies aren’t funny and if I have to compete with them for funding I guess my artwork should be just as serious.

Artists end up in this strange contortion in which we must prove that people do come to our works (and valuing theater based solely on the number of butts in seats is a whole other problem) and that they enjoy them (whatever that means) enough to value our art in society, and yet we must also prove that our work isn’t just amusement or leisure. That we deserve support, unlike a movie that people might just go and buy because they already want to, in a way that is different that these commercial outlets.

Look, entertainment is different than artwork. They are totally different metrics. Like a Venn diagram you can have one or the other or both depending on where you’re placing yourself, and they can overlap in strange and sometimes frustrating ways. But at the core they are two different circles. And the trickiest thing about those two circles is that we only associate one of them with being commercially marketable. We only equate one of them with capitalistic success.

I think laughter is tangible a sign of entertainment. And so laughter becomes a symbol of commercial success and selling out and all the things we think that a good artist in the non-profit would should ward against.  Because if something has commercial value it can’t be taken serious in the “art” world or what does the art world have left to defend itself with? I think it’s a posture that is ultimately a defensive one. And it’s why entertainment and the “Arts” remain such strange and uncomfortable bedfellows. They are not the same, but they are confusingly similar. And in an effort for artists to distinguish their art from entertainment, I think too often we run to the side of the Venn diagram in which the two circles stop overlapping.

The problem with arts under the moniker of a “social service” runs deeper than just the topic of comedy, but I think it applies most especially. If at your core you want to make artwork, however you define it, and you happen to express it through humor, you have to deal with this battle going on in the minds of those around you.

Some artists are funny. Some make us cry. Both can be beautiful or transgressive or enlightening. People talk about great works of art  “elevating the human spirit.” What’s more elevating than laughter?

Here is the truth:

There are comedies that are not art, work that are uncrafted and uncomplicated, even if they entertain. There are comedies that are art, complex and intelligent and change our ability to see things in a new way.

The same is true about dramatic works, we just seem to have a bit more objectivity with them.


Fifteen years

I’ve been talking a lot in generalities lately. Big warm and fuzzy ideas that I think need to be guiding us as we make our way forward as creators. I think these things are important. I believe in them.

There are also times when the in your face, nitty gritty details of working in the arts hit me with a force and vehemence that is surprising and overwhelming.

Let’s get a little bit into the gritty and nitty today.

Last night I sat in the audience of a show. It was in a big high-end theater. I helped usher so I saw every single person that walked into the theater on that Thursday night. I exchanged pleasantries, I tore their ticket and I watched them walk into the theater.

I swear at least 80% of them were 65 or older. It’s probably closer to 90%.

I swear this is not hyperbole.

Of all the people I saw working at the theater that night (Literary manager, actors, crew, bartender) only one person that might be in that age bracket. All these young people working at the theater and a much older subset coming to the theater.

That’s weird, right?

Also, I did not love this play.

It was not, for the record, the actors’ fault. They were doing the job. They really were. They were doing their very best to justify some really horrifyingly inane stuff. Things that I took a lot of issue with as a feminist, as an artist, as a –

Look. I’m gonna stop there. I don’t want to rail on this performance. Because the particulars of what I didn’t like aren’t really the point.

The point is I came home fuming. I was mad at this thing. I was mad at the theater. I was sad for the actors that I saw that night, who probably got paid well for this gig, but who I doubt much like what they were saying up there. And I felt this looming thing, of the work that we make that we don’t totally agree with but we do anyway because we think it’s the stuff that audiences will like. I was upset that I feel like I see so many works that people are just slogging through for a paycheck. Work they have resigned themselves to because they don’t see any other way.

And I thought a lot how often I see so few other people that are my age in the audience around me.

Let me say right now that I am not trying to rail on people older than me. This is not an ageist argument. Because youth is not better. People who are younger than 65 are not better or worse people that those that are over 65. But they are only 12.8% of the population in the US according to the 2010 census data. So there’s no reason that they ought to be 80 or 90% of the patronage. I don’t think this is just the particular theater I happened to be at. I think this is mostly true across the non-profit theater world.

The average life expectancy in the US is currently 78 years. Which means that statistically in 15 years almost everyone in that audience I was in will be dead.

Something in theater needs to change.

Because if we don’t do something as an art form, we’re going to be dead too.

I’d like you to think for a moment about the example of Sleep No More.

I think what they’ve done with this show is a revolutionary achievement of a play. Not just because this is a massively successful experimental show. Not because it requires a ton from its audience and they can’t wait to participate. Because the night I went there were SO MANY KINDS OF PEOPLE SEEING IT.

Whether you like its particular style and form or not, and I had plenty of qualms with some aspects of it, you have to admire, support and love the idea that something so weird and avant-garde has managed to hit a chord in so people that has re-energized the desire to go to see a play, often multiple times. This thing has made it fun and exciting and cool and not just “good for you.”

Can we learn from this? Not that we should copy them, but that there is hope that such people are out there. We just need to get to them.

I think model of buying tickets and parking downtown and big lobbies and concession stands and long programs with dramaturgy notes and season subscriptions and paying a lot of money to leave a plaque on the seat is over.

I think it’s been over for a while.

I think there is an ever-shrinking base of people with more money than most that like this system just the way it is. But I don’t think they are our future.  Let me be clear: I don’t think they are bad.  And I don’t think everyone who is over 65 wants that old way of seeing theater. But I think more of them do. And I don’t think we should be making theater only for these kinds of people. Because if we do, I think we will exclude people who don’t care to take in performance this way. And if we don’t figure out how to get in those other people, soon we won’t have anyone left.

I think most of us kind of know this already. I think most of us are really afraid to admit it.

If you are a theater maker, for just this moment, be really honest with yourself: When you are in rehearsals making your art, who is the person you imagine in the audience? Are they like you? Do they think the way you do? Do they have similar interests and concerns? Do they look at the world from a similar perspective?

Is everyone in the room somewhere between 25 and 45?

Are those the same people that you see in the audience?

And are you ok with that?

Are the people you spend so much time courting, the people around whom we start to tweak and change our work for, the same people we most want in the seats? Or are they the ones that we think we are likeliest to get?

I’m not just talking about age. I’m talking about real diversity of audience. Of perspective on what performance can and should be. Of people who come to what we make from a variety of classes and income levels. People with a variety of facility in technology. People seeking different genres: action, suspense, horror, western, romance, comedy, science fiction, magic realism.

Is there a large swath of the country that simply don’t listen to music? No. Everyone listens to music. They listen to different kind of music. They take it in through different kinds of experiences. But they don’t avoid the genre of art as a whole.

We need to find a way to do the same with our performances.

We need to find a way to get more people interested in what we’re doing.

This is not an option.

This is simply a fact.


Where are you people?

The other day I was in a room with a bunch of other arts organizations. We were all there receiving money from the city but beyond that the only thing we all had in common was a Philadelphia location and some connection to the arts in some way.

A woman came up to me and introduced herself as the director of an arts education program in the northwest area of the city. We started chatting about our work. After hearing about the great things she was doing with the kids she interacts with I told her a bit about the theater work I’ve been making. She hadn’t heard of Swim Pony (not really a surprise) or the giant Festival in the fall that used to be called Live Arts (that one I found a bit more surprising) in which I would be presenting my next show The Ballad of Joe Hill. I told her a bit about the show – its music, history and spectacular location at Eastern State Penitentiary.

At the end of the conversation she said, “That sounds awesome. I totally want to see that show! How do I find out about it?”

“Uh… Well… You can… go to my website. In August. Maybe July. Or, look… for it… Live Arts, I mean, Fringe Arts, I mean, The festival… they always have a lot of marketing. You’ll see big signs and stuff on bus stops. I assume my show will have one, I think. Or get on my mailing list. And I promise I won’t send you a lot of spam. No really. And our facebook page! Please like us. And here’s my card! Take it!!”

Does this sound familiar to you?

Audiences are weird magical unicorns.

I really believe that my work is pretty great. And I think if people knew that it was out there, a lot of them would come. Every time I do a show, especially a funkier, out of a theater, more experimental thing, the people who come that ARE NOT other artists are the ones the most enthusiastic. And there is a small core of those people that come to Swim Pony shows, sometimes emailing me to see what’s up with us when it’s been a while since anything has been presented. But these folks are the rarity. (How did I even find them in the first place?)

So when I’m having trouble funding people, I don’t really think it’s the fault of the show, but of me getting that show to the people that might see it.  I think this because every week my partner and I also sit at home on Saturday and wonder where to look to find something awesome to do. And when we don’t want that to be theater, which we know about because it’s our profession, WE HAVE NO IDEA WHERE TO LOOK.

The problem, I don’t think, is that there’s no one out there making stuff that’s weird and awesome. I think the problem is we spend so much time and energy making it that we can’t think about a lot else. And the super frustrating part is that right at the moment when we need to me THE MOST inwardly focused, THE MOST inside the process and devoted only to the work is EXACTLY the time when we need to be getting the word out about the thing.

And on top of that, in this time when people are bombarded with so much information, it is so difficult to be the thing that pops out in people’s minds long enough. I don’t think it’s cost. I don’t think it’s the difficulty of leaving one’s house. I think it’s getting the information that you are an interesting experience into the viewspace of that person that might come.

Facebook invites are over, yes? We all still create them, but we’re all ignoring them when they pop up in our notification tab in the upper left corner. There was a time when responding “yes” to an invite meant that you’d actually be there, but that time is over.

Reviews are no guarantee either. In fact, some of the shows for which I’ve had the best reviews of my life, I’ve had three people in the audience. One show, the first on which I spent a significant amount of my budget on a marketing firm had AMAZING press coverage and still couldn’t get butts in seats to save our life. In fact, the only times in which I’ve really had houses that counted in terms of size were when I’ve cozied into the audiences of another marketing machine: a festival, a theater company that’s been around, an event like a first Friday that’s got a built in base.

And because so few of us self producers really know how this brave new world of devising companies making a show or two a year can really keep someone’s attention, we’re all sort of schizophrenically operating on a variety of marketing platforms at the same time. We’re all trying whatever way we can to reach someone. A lot of us become PR machines – schmoozers to the highest degree constantly handing our stuff to anyone that comes near – and some just give up and plead irrelevance. A few luck into a snowball of awareness that gives some real and consistent support.

I don’t know what else to say about this other than that it is one tough nut to crack. I don’t know where to turn and it’s something that I’m increasingly aware will make the difference in my long-term success.

How do I find you people? There are a million and a half of you in the city proper and another five mil in the surround metro areas. If I could get just one half of one percent of those folks to see my show I’d have 30,000 people as my audience.

How do I get to you and you to me?

I know you’re out there.