Old Arts, New Audiences, and Why Artists Are Not Snobs

Natalie Dessay - Amina, La Sonnambula MET
Image by dapertuttotrubadur via Flickr

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.

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2 Responses to “Old Arts, New Audiences, and Why Artists Are Not Snobs”

  1. john says:

    interesting post i just got in to rc vehicles myself!

  2. Gabriel says:

    Cool blog love your work

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