Journalist Rachel Swan asks, “Is financial prudence inhibiting art?”
Local playwright Lauren Gunderson takes it as an article of faith that theater is, by definition, big, strange, extravagant, and epic. That’s the line she preaches to students at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, where she teaches a writing class called “PlayMath.” “When I talk to writers, I tell them, ‘Your concern is to write the big, and the beautiful, and the true,’” Gunderson said, explaining her pedagogical credo. It’s a reflection of her roots: Gunderson said that in her MFA program at New York University, professors advocated pretty fiercely for big and strange plays.
But lately, Gunderson has been balancing that line of quixotic idealism with a more pragmatic argument: If you want your plays produced, you have to write small. Gunderson knows this firsthand. Last year, Marin Theatre Company had planned to mount a production of her play Silent Sky, which was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles company South Coast Repertory. A historical work about 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, it called for six actors, a few period costumes, and a “dreamy landscape” with optional video. To Gunderson, that didn’t seem too complicated.
But Marin Theatre Company pulled out of the planning process, even after announcing the play to its subscribers. The official line from Marin spokesman Sasha Hnatkovich was that this version of Silent Sky had a different script than the South Coast production. But Gunderson said that Marin gave her a different explanation: Silent Sky was just too expensive.
This is an interesting repercussion of a downturn in the economy I had not directly considered, but makes perfect sense. Those who are producing ensemble-based art must necessarily reduce the ensemble and the means whereby the ensemble reproduces the art for consumption.
According to a recent study by Rice and Duke Universities, the best way to combat music piracy is to give up combating it in any formal manner, such as via digital rights management systems. Steve Jobs said of iTunes,
“Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.”
Researchers Dinah Vernik, Devavrat Purohit, and Preyas Desai used,
“…analytical modeling to examine how piracy is influenced by the presence or absence of DRM restrictions.
They found that while these restrictions make piracy more costly and difficult, the restrictions also have a negative impact on legal users who have no intention of doing anything illegal.
Because a DRM-restricted product will only be purchased by a legal user, …”only the legal users pay the price and suffer from the restrictions,” the study said. “Illegal users are not affected because the pirated product does not have DRM restrictions.”
“In many cases, DRM restrictions prevent legal users from doing something as normal as making backup copies of their music,” said Vernik, assistant professor of marketing at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “Because of these inconveniences, some consumers choose to pirate.”
The research challenges conventional wisdom that removal of DRM restrictions increases piracy levels; the study shows that piracy can actually decrease when a company allows restriction-free downloads.”
This makes intuitive sense to me, but many musicians and artists balk at the idea of not protecting their property as well as how they will ever make money as artists. Of course, that was my next question, so how does anyone make The Money?”
“Removal of these restrictions makes the product more convenient to use and intensifies competition with the traditional format (CDs), which has no DRM restrictions,” Vernik said. “This increased competition results in decreased prices for both downloadable and CD music and makes it more likely that consumers will move from stealing music to buying legal downloads.”
We all should have seen this coming, and many artists probably thought of it.
Death + Taxes writes,
What does Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, Twitter’s creator Jack Dorsey and Rupert Murdoch’s wife have in common? They have all become financial backers for the most nonexclusive online art gallery in the world.
Founded by 24-year-old Cleveland Carter, a computer science major at Princeton, Art.sy will attempt to connect art galleries all over the world to provide not just a database but a database personalized to your taste. The website is attempting to do for fine art what Pandora did for music.
While all artists cannot also be computer science innovators who know how to get venture capital funding, they can certainly do what they can to understand more about how technology and innovation can attract funding on whatever scale they are working in.
What New Audiences are Expecting
Via Andrew Taylor at The Artful Manager,
During the ‘lightening round’ session at the Arts Presenters conference, performing arts facility consultant David Taylor pointed us to the challenge of traditionally designed and constructed performing arts spaces, particularly in the face of evolving consumer trends. At the heart of his presentation was the ‘Ten Trends of 20-Somethings” identified by Marian Salzman in the Huffington Post last year…they are:
1. Real-time expectations
2. More intensely local lives
3. Radical transparency
4. Expecting cheap or free everything
5. Demanding entertainment
6. Worrying about the planet
7. Seeing luxuries as standard
8. Pro-business, anti-multinational stance
9. Wanting to regulate the heck out of media bias
10. Naturally Me but aspiring to We
Among the most compelling for the performing arts are 1, 3, and 4, that challenge the traditional professional performing arts organization — which is highly scheduled, opaque in administration and process, and costly to run.
Reading this, I immediately thought of two performing arts experiences that I thought fit the “What a 20-Something Wants” bill. The first was a 2009 Met live broadcast of La Sonnambula featuring Natalie Dessay (with brilliant Mary Zimmerman direction, I might add), the second was an interactive modern dance performance choreographed by Peter Sparling, where dancers performed via live feed from a remote studio, “controlled” by Sparling’s hands manipulating them from the live stage. (By the way, it seems Sparling has evolved this concept over the years and fully embraces new technology and its interplay with his art and audiences.)
What both had in common was “live feed” and a “behind the scenes” feel. As an audience member, I felt more intensely connected to the stage action than if the third wall was more rigidly constructed such as during a more “traditional” opera or dance performance. Philistine that I am, I actually prefer the Met broadcasts to being at the Met. Not only is the price tag cheaper, you can see more stage details, to the point you feel like you might just be a lucky chorus member participating in the action. Close-ups revealed the labored breathing and singing of what sounded like a vocally struggling Dessay (my fellow audience members mused about whether an understudy would take over after intermission.) During the Sparling performance, an all-black clad videographer was on stage, shooting the choreographer’s hands, which appeared on the walls of the Kresge Auditorium in Ann Arbor, inspiring the remote dancer’s movements from afar. In short – the effect was super cool, conceptually, and artistically. Again, I was reminded of the days of being behind the scenes myself, and the prototypical “tech guys” who always wore all-black to blend in with the darkened stage during scene changes.
Why Connecting with Audiences Is Critically Important, and Why (I think) Artists are Bad at It
Audiences do not want to be treated as somehow beneath the artists. Indeed, we do not want to get the impression we actually are philistines, which artists could do a much better job at. Is it just me, or do artists often-times appear remote and snobbish? I say appear because it is so rarely the case that they are (with the exception of the primi donne e uomini who are amusingly full of themselves). I believe that more often than not, artists are not narcissists, parading on stages to self-glorify, but to glorify the art. They may seem remote off-stage because they may have just spent every ounce of their energy, and post-performance have very little left to give, or because their on-stage personality is truly pretend, an outlet, and they could be quite shy in real life.
I am focusing on this no-really-artists-aren’t-snobs issue, because I know that I usually wanted nothing more than to duck out the back door after a performance, rather than do the requisite meet-and-greet of the audience. I was usually experiencing an exhausted kind of buzz, you know the kind, like when you’ve had too much caffeine? My body would feel like it was on fire, my mind would be completely blank, and I would have to plaster a smile on my face, turn back into Milena, and somehow muster charm? Not only that, I would begin to feel guilty accepting any compliments that came my way because I never really felt responsible for whatever talent I happened to be acknowledged for, and I think many artists would share this opinion with me – we feel inspired by something greater, and that our talents are just a gift, our bodies simply the receptacle through which that talent is miraculously allowed to flow.
So, What Can Artists Do?
As always, I try to emphasize that if you hope to make a living in the arts – business must come first, and you should not harbor any delusions that your talent alone can carry you. Artists need to recognize the above issues and find a way to overcome the challenges of performing in the 21st century, particularly if they practice old world arts. Often times, the way to stay relevant is to stay connected, and for today’s audiences, that might mean reaching beyond your limitations as well as your personal autonomous zone. You need to let audiences in, in a way that will likely make you very uncomfortable. You may have to take this quite literally and reveal far more personal aspects of yourself than you would like: start a blog, post YouTube videos of your practice sessions, accept all the friend requests you can on Facebook and Twitter, admit your faults, your fears. Audiences respond to this like a child might if their favorite doll came to life, with enthusiasm and eager for more.
If this all sounds exhausting, well, it is. If it sounds largely unnecessary, well, it’s not. It’s just what people are demanding these days. You have to muster all the energy you can, not only for your art, but for the longevity of the business side of your career or for the organization you represent.
A state representative in Michigan, and former professional singer proposes a tri-county (Oakland, Wayne, Macomb) vote to use taxes to support the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
[Vicki] Barnett said the DSO is an endangered cultural gem that adds to the region’s quality of life and can help attract new businesses.
She said she was asked by DSO musicians who live in her district to consider a public tax to keep the orchestra viable and competitive with other major U.S. symphony orchestras.
I’m just curious, how many other orchestras are funded with tax dollars? I’m assuming this is not uncommon.
I recently stumbled across this article in the Guardian, “The parent trap: art after children” by author Frank Cottrell Boyce, father of seven. I was intrigued and inspired seeing as I am very (as in, post due date) pregnant and have been wondering to myself, “What is going to happen to my life after this baby is born?” More specifically, “Will I have to give up singing?”
Of course this sense of despair is unfounded, but it feels legitimate. I would venture to guess anyone who has a child on the way mourns their loss of independence. But for the artist, the unknown could be a bit more frightening. We know how unstable the life of an artist is, believing it requires a singular devotion. We worry that the introduction of a commitment like marriage or parenthood could easily topple what we’ve been building. We may believe that in order to maintain a certain way of life for our art, we must sacrifice family, or if we want family, we must sacrifice art.
Boyce shares he once had similar feelings,
We were still students when we got married and had our first baby. It must have been hard work…Friends were mostly delighted, but also slightly appalled. From the first they’d take me aside and commiserate. “That’s it now, Frank, the pram is in the hallway.”
The full quote – from Cyril Connolly – is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” In fact, we didn’t have a pram or a hallway, but in the dark watches of the night I would sometimes look at the Maclaren Dreamer buggy in the corner of the tiny kitchen and think, is that it then? Will I have to go and get a proper job and never write again?
After graduating college, I had arranged a voice lesson with a famous soprano. At the end of our lesson she had some encouraging things to say about my voice and grilled me on why I was not yet in graduate school and “just what was I doing with my life.” I feebly explained I needed to make some money first, was just testing the waters with different teachers, and was not ready for grad school yet.
Exasperated, she asked, “Do you want to get married? Have children?” As if these would be the only reasons someone like me would not follow the same career path every other “serious” music school undergrad was following. She said, “You know the divorce rate among opera singers is over 50%? I have seen a lot of cheating in my day. You will have to make tremendous sacrifices and a solid marriage is possible, but not easy. I’m married, but may not see my husband for months while on tour. We decided we could never have children, given the traveling schedules we have as performers. We don’t have 401Ks, so you’ll also have to figure out how to save for retirement.”
Today, 8 years later, 9 months pregnant, just two weeks shy of my 30th birthday, having sacrificed a possible career dedicated solely to music (maybe, who knows, really) I believe my life and my career and far are more rich and wonderful than I could have ever planned for myself after that voice lesson, had I taken the soprano’s warnings seriously. In fact, I am grateful for the series of events that kept me in Michigan. I am grateful that I doubted there was one way to becoming the artist I was, and am, meant to become.
Boyce touches on the reasons why I believe committing to family life can be so much more frightening, challenging, and rewarding than (exclusively) committing to one’s work as an artist,
It’s very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctuations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.
I love this insight. I have noticed that sometimes family members may not be interested in or may not understand my artistic endeavors. This is not to say they are unsupportive, but they cannot inhabit my world. It is not only selfish of me to expect them to, but unnecessary.
Jonathan Franzen has said that “it is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection in his workplace is writing good fiction”. Family is, of course, the most potent distraction, and probably the only distraction that makes you feel virtuous when you surrender to it.
My heart aches reading that last statement because I have experienced it. Why is surrendering to one’s family so difficult and so rewarding? Is it because the rewards are often so private? Is it because they cannot be measured in an artist’s preferred currency: money or fame? You don’t build any artistic street cred by advertising on your blog, “I loved someone with all my heart today.” It won’t get you a job, make a sale, or win an audition. And while the distraction of family can be tiresome, draining, and in some cases, something you legitimately need to distance yourself from, what Boyce says next struck a chord with me,
There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.
Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.
In fact, if you go back to Connolly’s terrific book, you’ll see that the pram is only one of the many Enemies of Promise. Others include a public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can’t move on) and success, surely the greatest enemy of all. But no one warns you about these. It’s just the pram.
Why does it retain its power to chill? I don’t think it’s about fear of distraction or domesticity. I think it’s a fear of babies. Being a parent – or really loving someone other than yourself, whether that’s your children, parents or your lover – forces you to confront a horrible truth: the fact that we get older. The amazing boy who was born when I was still a student is a man now. There is no way that I can still think of myself as “quite young, really” or “a child at heart”. Parenthood confronts us with our own mortality, every day.
To me, the pram is a metaphor for “all family life” and I might extend Boyce’s analysis to include “all family life confronts us with our own mortality, every day.”
It was not until I met my now-husband, was planning my wedding, and my father was dying of cancer, that I realized just how little I cared for a Great Big Career in music. How grateful I was that I never followed the soprano’s advice about my career path. How little I cared that my “creativity” was put on hold because I was growing my family and losing it at the same time.
I think what I am getting at, is that artists need to be open to life. They need to be open to the possibility that family life need not be sacrificed for art’s sake. That in fact, it can make you the artist you are meant to be.
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