Archive for October, 2009

Singing Naked

Monday, October 26th, 2009

In the beginning was the song. And then came fun.

Homer was apparently quite a vocal performer. Ancient Greek theatre used speaking, chanting and singing to capture three different types of dramatic moments.

While today’s technology can create amazing effects and enhancements for live performance, it’s good to remember the power in the purity of singing a cappella.

A cappella was the “church style” of singing for a direct connection to God without the ornamentation of instruments. Gregorian chants, named after the late sixth and early seventh century Pope Gregory, are a perfect example of non-harmonic, or monophonic, singing. As beautiful as the chants can be, there aren’t a lot of laughs.

Today’s a cappella approach comes from the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. The Whiffenpoofs came together in 1909. (The name came from a fish in the Victor Herbert musical, “Little Nemo.”) A cappella groups at campuses across America continue the tradition of choosing a fun name and finding the right songs to adapt.

Here’s the a cappella formula: take a classic song or pop hit, use some of the group’s voices as a rhythm section and the other voices for multi-layered harmonies. Each a cappella group has its own style of delivery and dress. However, the key is to make sure the audience knows how much fun they are having performing the song.

The best kind of performance — in any form — is when the artist is doing something you know that you can’t do. The campus performance environment goes one step further: just as with the Ancient Greeks, it’s one’s peers who are performing. Usually the groups are made up of the kids who don’t appear to be the coolest, the best athletes, or the most popular on campus. But then they open their mouths and everyone is cheering.

The Contemporary A Cappella Society keeps track of many of the groups. Currently they are running a feature of a cappella groups doing their versions of U2 songs.

So, here’s a shout out to all the a cappella groups who create perfectly harmonious and humorous entertainment.

- Bill Reichblum

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Radical: A Government Arts Agency Promotes Quality!

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Photo by Tom Giebel — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The U.S. might be trying to renew quiet diplomacy, but fortunately one of its leaders won’t be quiet.

Rocco Landesman, the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, has provided the press with energetic quotes and has lit a fire under the arts community. In Landesman’s latest round of interviews, he put forth his goal: above all other factors, the government should promote quality art.

Who could argue with that? Well, believe it or not, plenty have.

For too long, government funding for the arts has been more about equality of distribution, community representation, and the no-wave theory of creation. If everyone gets a little, all they can agitate for is more. If no one is offended, then no one needs to fear a backlash and a smaller pie.

This way of operating a government agency is sweet, nice and fair. However, as Landesman pointed out to Variety last week, “Washington isn’t about fair.”

Landesman’s approach appears to ignore political correctness and embrace provocation: “We’ll be a strong, aggressive and unapologetic NEA.”

Although he only has $155 million to spend, Landesman hopes to double the budget. He also hopes to renew funding for individual artists, even though the “NEA 4” almost brought the agency down and helped fuel America’s culture wars.

Landesman believes his ace in the hole is the artist-in-chief. Of his boss, Landesman notes, “He’s the first real writer in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first really good writer since Lincoln. That’s a very significant thing.”

Can Landesman pull it off? Can he get the agency to live up to its new slogan, “Art Works”? Every artist and artistic movement needs someone who can put the work in context and help garner support. The arts succeed — in education, in the community, in the marketplace, and in importance — only through leadership.

Here’s hoping Landesman follows the advice of Leonard Garment, an éminence grise of arts advocates: “It’s the essence of the artist to be provocative, and to avoid straight lines in favor of curves.”

It will be good news for the arts in America if the NEA throws a few curves.

- Bill Reichblum

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Talk Back, Move Forward

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Photo by The House Theatre of Chicago — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

As posted in KadmusArts’ daily news feature, Broadway has discovered the benefits of letting the audience speak.

Broadway is not known for innovation either on stage or in audience development. Hollywood gets shaken up at least once a generation from a new outlier style of producing (a position currently held by the Weinstein brothers — but for how long?). Broadway, unfortunately, too often suffers from the same small cast of producers who hire the same marketing firms who pitch the same flavor of campaigns to the same kind of audience.

In the last two years, the big innovation in Broadway marketing has been — wait for it — social networking! We can post videos on our site! We can create Twitter posts! We can even have a Facebook page for fans of the show! Okay, but how do you expand the onstage experience to an ongoing relationship?

As in all arts, the marketing focus has to be on how we deepen the connection to current audiences and reach new audiences. On Broadway, the newest trend is the talk-back session.

For years, giving the audience the opportunity to provide feedback has been the staple of play development programs. The sessions inform the playwright and give the audience a genuine voice in the creation of new art.

In the not-for-profit world, theatres have been bringing the creators onstage after a show to answer questions from subscribers as a bonus benefit to supporting the theatre. These sessions work incredibly well because they give the creative team a chance to meet the community, and they give the community a chance to deepen their understanding of the choices made onstage.

As the New York Times notes, the talk back is playing on Broadway to help increase ticket sales and “enhance the audience’s experience.” For David Mamet’s Oleanna, the talk-backs expand the characters’ drama of sexual harassment to let the audience choose sides. Legal scholars, critics, lawyers, even a former NYC mayor, lead the audience through their own experiences and the law.

Everyone has shared an event. Everyone has an opinion. And everyone is in the room. This is a social network at its best.

- Bill Reichblum

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Arts Fuel Auto Industry

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Photo by Mayhem Chaos — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

It’s time for business to learn something from the arts — about business.

So often arts leaders hear from critics and cynics that their institutions should be run more like businesses. Now we know that there is a business that would do a lot better if only it were run like the arts.

The auto industry recently wrapped up its annual Frankfurt Motor Show. Talk about an industry in search of an audience. After all, it’s about the audience, right?

Look at today’s General Motors. The company has received $50 billion in subsidies. The German government has given the company’s European based Opel/Vauxhall another $6.5 billion. That’s a lot of money for a company to figure out how to become an audience favorite.

How exciting, then, that they have a brand new, can’t miss, strategy. “Business as usual is over at GM,” President and CEO Fritz Henderson declared. What’s their new approach? Their novel idea? “We have reorganized our entire organization around the customer.”

OMG, what an idea! They are putting “the customer first”. Wow! How many meetings were taken? How much did they spend on market research? How ever did they arrive at such a radical shift in their business model? Forget about what they used to do. Now, they put the customer first.

Here’s the problem, though. Putting the customer first is exactly what the US auto industry has been doing for a long time. For years, the industry has been giving customers what they want: gas guzzling grotesqueries that culminated in GM’s own Hummer.

Instead of following their customer’s fantasies, which ignore the realities of oil, the environment, and civility, perhaps they should have considered leading their customers.

Isn’t it ironic? In the arts, critics attack institutions for taking government money and not producing work that the audience wants. Yet, the arts know that the way to build an institution, and a lasting heritage, is by leading an audience.

Arts lead. Business follows.

Now, imagine what the arts industry could do with a $50 billion subsidy.

- Bill Reichblum

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