Touring Artists and Presenters: Partnering for Change

I’m a solo, touring, performance artist.  Really solo. I often travel alone and my lighting and sound requirements are minimal.  Compared with many touring artists and companies, I’m already a fairly green operation.  I didn’t plan it this way – it’s just that my work relies on audience interaction rather than on stunning set or lighting design.  And still I worry about my personal impact on the environment because I spend so much time in the air and in hotels.

My concern has prompted me to offer a free add-on to anyone who books my shows: skilled facilitation on the topic of building greener theatres and touring practices.  Good discussions (especially those which include diverse participants) don’t happen automatically; facilitation helps.  Before I was a performance artist, I was a teacher, facilitator and mediator.  And these activities still influence how my mind works:  I look for the ways in which constituents with different ideologies, concerns and perspectives are not communicating well with each other – and I look for our common aims.  The most basic of these are:

  • Building audiences for live performance;
  • Developing more environmentally sound practices; and
  • Saving money.

So now what?  Start with what’s working well, of course.  The Green Theater Initiative is a great start.  I’ll be part of a panel on greening the theatre at the next ATHE conference (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) in New York in 2009.  And surely strides are being made around the world about which I have much to learn.  But for now, I’d like to present a few of the barriers to the type of partnership that could accelerate our progress toward these common goals.

1)  Scheduling Practices

My agent has heard enough from me about this one to last a lifetime!  “Why can’t they work together and save some travel costs?” I whine, as I struggle to schedule travel to Georgia, Michigan, California and New York – all within a week’s time! For an annual festival in a certain city, I can expect to accommodate specific dates, but for colleges and theatres who regularly book a full slate of touring artists, can’t something be done?

Interestingly, there are areas that do “block booking” better than others. My agent is active with the NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and claims that the Northeast is better at cooperation than any of the other regions. What could they do to influence others – to discuss the positive outcomes of partnering with others to reduce travel and per-show costs? What if presenters looked at the results of a show more broadly than good reviews and good ticket sales.

A contracting economy presents opportunities to do things differently. Driving toward cheaper, “amateur”, or local arts offerings is one option.  Yet, this alone can’t supplant professional touring.  Some presenters have already reduced payment to touring groups to nothing but a cut of ticket sales, or they offer “stipends” of $500 per show.  American artists already live in a climate of limited funding and this response will further limit the array of artists who can afford to devote real time to their craft.

Another option is to engage artists more, rather than less.  Currently, the main focus is to complete the season’s schedule with large audiences and perhaps critical acclaim. What if the goal shifted to engaging audiences and community in a certain form of artistic exploration, or with a certain theme, or with a type of activism?  Surely you already know of theatres or campuses that do this – but rarely do they involve the artists who’ve just provided the performance.

Touring artists are actually a rich source of information about how things have gone well – and not so well – in different communities in the past.  But it’s rare that anyone ever asks us. This brings me to the second barrier.

2)  Presenters’ and Performers’ Roles

I arrived on the arts scene with the assumption that people with common interests should want to communicate freely and openly with one another. What I found were some pretty strict protocols about interactions that I often violate, in my idealistic naiveté. Here are some of the role-specific expectations I’ve encountered that can serve as barriers for creating environmentally friendly practices.

Artists are solicitors who are trying to sell their wares.  They may be brilliant on stage, but in conversations, they’re always selling.

We are treated like (and sometimes act like) used car salesmen pushing products of dubious quality for inflated prices.  At events such as the APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) and NACA conferences, presenters rarely speak to performers, unless they’ve witnessed and loved their work.  It’s impossible to form collegial relationships based on mutual interests in these environments because it’s all about buying and selling.  The buyers isolate themselves.

If an artist is reaching out to a presenter, it’s because he’s not very good.  If he were good, he’d be in demand and not have time to chat.

Let’s face it, many performers construct a celebrity persona because that’s how the business works.  Performers who are “professionals” should seem aloof and disconnected. We accumulate fans rather than partners or even constituents.  The performers isolate themselves from all conversations except those regarding booking.

Presenters, funders, artists and performance/theatre scholars are so isolated and “professionalized” that their common interests are hidden.

First off, everyone wants more funding. (More on this in the next section.)  But fundamentally, there are different professional norms and values driving these groups that, theoretically, could work together toward common aims.  One of the biggest ideological divides is between those who protect and fund “high art” and those who champion and fund “populist art.”   There may be different ideas about the “value” of different offerings, but that shouldn’t prevent us from coming together on environmental issues. When it comes to touring, we all fly in planes and we all need the stage lights UP!

There are many ways that our role-specific behaviors negatively effect the environment.  Here’s one example: touring relies on marketing.  Of course it’s best to see an act live, but that requires a huge amount of jet fuel and hotel waste, not to mention time.  Most of us now use the internet every day, and yet, physical materials and face-to-face meetings are still the most respected ways for a performer to share her/his work. 

I’ve been surprised by the dismissal (and occasional hostility) of my new practice of letting additional presenters know when I’ll be in an area.  My assistant sends out a brief, polite email to invite the presenter to the show, or add a date to my schedule. It’s an unpopular statement, but honestly, we could dispense with the flurry of postcards and brochures if presenters would only open and read professional, timely emails with greater consistency.

Additionally, artists, scholars, presenters and funders could share the wisdom of their varying positions if there were forums for discussion.  In order to “brainstorm” ways to broaden our audience or reduce our impact, we need to learn to put aside our “primary identities” in order to focus on a specific issue.

3)  The fear of scarcity

Often times, a presenter contract precludes an artist from accepting any other nearby performance.  This makes sense using traditional “dilution of the market” thinking.  If a presenter assumes that the same 100 people are on every arts mailing list in town and they want those 100 people in their theatre, rather than someone else’s.  In a sense, however, it’s scarcity thinking that has gotten us into our current environmental mess.  If you’re the oil supplier (the artist) you want to market to as many distributors (theatres) as possible.  If you’re the distributor, you want to limit the number of distributors with whom you’re in competition for the buyer at the gas pump (audience member).  And in a culture where press is purchased (via a publicist or “professional” materials) rather than prompted by the public, this equation becomes all the more compelling.  For some presenters, cooperation is mission-driven.  This can seem like extra work, but even if that’s not a barrier some find it hard to do so because of this model – and because this scenario is further complicated by the failure of “the public” to support the arts. Unless the art is popular music – and even then – it’s difficult for artists to make a living from ticket sales and nearly impossible to keep a venue open if creative work is the only thing for sale.

Perhaps I’ve been befuddled by this scarcity model because my work enjoys a few different audiences which don’t always overlap. This may be true for others too. What if the artist were a tool for growing the audience?  For example, with literary and spoken word audiences, my work is poetry and literary story-telling.  For theatre audiences, it’s solo performance art.  For colleges and universities it’s engaging “lecture” on sociological themes.  And for participatory arts groups, I offer empowering workshop and coursework.  My best visits to a city involve multiple appearances in which the different audiences of these events can come together in venues they don’t normally patronize. It’s been true that the final few engagements in a city benefit most from this “audience-building” but in a sense, all of the presenters benefit from the greater exposure, even if it wasn’t for my show.   (Incidentally, this potential is often devalued and underutilized by presenters.  Having multiple identities, multiple specialties is seen as a failure to “brand” oneself.  And this goes counter to the norms of professional identity outlined above!)

Scarcity thinking is frightening on a number of levels.  Presenters compete with one another for funding and artists often guard their contacts and strategies from other artists.  I started offering something called “Minding the Artists’ Business” as an add-on workshop when I’m mentoring other artists and I’ve been surprised at how grateful the newbies are and how shocked some of my peers have been that I would “give away” my resources that way.  Whenever we isolate ourselves and our talents, we all lose – and so does the environment.  Just as we’re going to have to give up some of the personal space of driving alone in a private car, we’re also going to have to get to know one another a little better artistically and professionally if we’re all going to thrive.

Audiences for live performance need to grow – and they can – if we figure out how to work together and reduce our environmental impact.  Stop making the arts into “an industry” with professionalized roles that are so rigid we can’t respond well to change, and start seeing the appreciation of creativity as our birthright.  By focusing on creating greener theatre touring practices, we may well solve a variety of other problems too – and invigorate the American arts audience.  However, we can’t do that if we hold onto our rigid identities as presenters, consumers, artists, funders, scholars and audiences.  I’m excited to be in the conversation at this point in time.  Let me know if you’d like to keep talking about it.

Kimberly Dark is a poet, performer, professor and above all – a change artist. She can be reached online for questions or commentary at Kimberly@kimberlydark.com.  Her website is KimberlyDark.com.

 

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