Have no fear, artistic friends. There are still many a corner of our theatrical world where individuals, corporations and institutions still support and fund artistic programs geared to our youth.
Sure, we read all the time about this program getting slashed, or that company folding for lack of investment (see last week’s blog Power to the Artists for more information on the effects in the professional world). But today, we want to take a little time to celebrate those places and people who still scratch and claw to proclaim the vital importance of theater and how its inclusion in a person’s education has a profound impact on future success.
Let’s start in the Midwest - Muncie, Indiana, specifically, and a heartening story out of Ball State University. It is that time of year when the state-assisted (read: public) college submits its annual capital budget requests to the State legislature. In that $108 million dollar ask is $27.5 million for the College of Architecture and Planning and $6.2 million for the Department of Theatre and Dance.
“You can make an argument that, next to athletics, no area is as important to a university’s connection with a community as the arts,” says Bill Jenkins, chairman of the department. We couldn’t agree more. Over the past 5 years, multiple studies have been conducted in several regional school districts (most notably in New York in 2009 and Missouri in 2010) citing the direct impact that access to arts resources has on high school graduation rates.
“As budgets have been slashed and programs eliminated at the secondary school level, our theater education students have taught drama to students at the Muncie Children’s Museum, Muncie Civic Theatre and Burris High School so that no student is truly left behind as the arts continue to become more and more of a luxury at the high school level,” Jenkins is quoted as saying. So not only are art, design, theater, and stage management students finding support from the university, the students are deepening their understanding of the work by sharing their knowledge with others, truly linking generations through art and lifting up the community. Bravo, Ball State.
Out in the Pacific Northwest, we took note of two more stories, highlighting companies pushing arts education forward. The first highlights new development, as Seattle Music Theatre, Solid Ground, and Theatre of Possibility have come together to create new summer theatre camps for at risk youth. We linked to this article on our Facebook the other day but wanted to feature it again. There are sound business minds behind this venture and they make a compelling case for the importance of arts education in laying the framework for significant personal growth and maturation. At the same time, Oregon Children’s Theatre received a $50,000 grant from the venerable Hearst Foundation to support its outreach programs, especially those geared to anti-bullying efforts and bringing artistic opportunities to “economically disadvantaged” schools. When these stories come across our desk, we can’t help but do a little happy dance.
Lastly, a huge round of applause for the State Theatre of New Jersey. The nonprofit, New Brunswick-based institution has maintained a balanced budget for six years running, while reporting its highest revenue in its history this past producing season. As part of that, the company’s arts education programming participation and programming levels also reached new highs and the company was able to provide more than $150,000 in free program to disadvantaged members of the community.
All of this lifts our spirits in ways we cannot even describe. So much of what we at Propared maintain as a core value is raising the bar for and providing new opportunity for the next generation of artists and managers. Without a solid arts education, we would not be in the position we are today and we worry that there are those who do not see the kinds of value creation these stories above outline. So what do we do? We provide tools that support companies willing to take risks on teaching the arts. We work with amazing educational partners - SAE Theater in California, New York University's Tisch School, North Carolina School of the Arts, and others — to help drive up return on the investment in a solid arts education. Combining solid business planning with artistic opportunity is the strongest path to ensuring the survival of our industry, especially for our younger counterparts.
It is weeks like this that make us smile.
It has been a whirlwind 10 months since Propared first embarked on this amazing journey to transform the processes by which we all manage live events. This week we proudly launched Propared in full Beta testing, inviting the first users into the system that can actually supplant the "old way" of live event management. We'll be hearing from CEO Ryan Kirk in the coming days about what this time has been like. But today, we want to spend a bit of time talking about the massive shifts in our industry over the past 5-10 years and how we see Propared stepping up to support it moving forward.
We came across an amazing article written by Rebecca Novick, founder of San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theatre Company. In it, she makes a bold case for putting artists and the work at the center of a company's financial/business decision making. In other words, a theatre or artistic collective is only as good as the art it produces and the quality of the art relies solely on the procurement and retention of the highest quality of artists. So if an institution has, over time, engaged seriously talented individuals and that institution has benefited from the work, great, right? That institution is now worthy of our patronage and financial support forever. Hang on, Ms. Novick writes. Past success alone should not be a reason for continued support of that institution. It is the artists - new, seasoned, and master - that we should invest in and it is the institution's responsibility to nurture that talent. Ultimately, she writes, what does it matter how this art is produced and in what house? Administration and support should grow up around the art out of necessity. Art should not be procured in an attempt to "pay for" that system.
Some very big ideas - granted, her piece was written in 2011. But looking at the events of the past few years, clearly, something needs to change. Let's start with some big news over the past two months. We were saddened to hear of the continued struggles of the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC), as it fights to regain solvency and retain its powerful voice in the development of thoughtful, provoking new American theatrical work. There is still a distinct possible the company will find angels in the community to financially support it for its 40th season and beyond.
(Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)
However, there was no 11th hour reprieve for San Jose Repertory, which was forced to shutter its doors under increasingly heavy financial obligations and decreasing sales (side note: erstwhile SJ Rep artistic director, Rick Lombardo is currently helming The Snow Queen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, having first premiered it in San Jose in 2013). Carousel Dinner Theatre in Ohio, Intiman in Seattle, Theatre of the Stars in Atlanta, NYC Opera...the list of reorganized, gutted, or outright shuttered companies over the past 5 years, many of them venerable old standards is alarming.
While there is no smoking gun that points to the crux of the problem, one thing is certain. This damaging cycle hurts individual artists, managers, and stage crew the most. When a company goes under, not only does an artist lose an outlet for work, the very freedom and creativity that ultimately drives them to take on so many different projects becomes stifled in a search for "safe" and "secure" employment. It is completely understandable. How long can a person be expected to take risks without the promise of stability? Doubtless this applies to producers and managers as well. Bills need to be paid - it must be incredibly difficult to make the decision to pass on a new, challenging piece of art because it won't meet debt obligations the way a 40th revival production of an older, tested work will.
As freelancers ourselves, we understand this stress. And we also know that we can't change the decisions that companies make - how to staff, create, market, and innovate within their frameworks (for-profit or non). What we can do is try to offer as much power and efficiency as we can to the individuals. This is one of the principal tenets behind the development of Propared - to give the power back to the artist. And when we say artist, we truly believe that everyone who works on a show or a live event production is an artist in his or her own right. When we lay a foundation of sound business practices, it can create a greater sense of freedom, encourage more risk taking, and hopefully increase the engagement of our audiences. We would see longer careers, increased diversity and variety of work, and stability where there is currently little to none.
Of course, Propared is just a program, right? Or is it part of the new way artists create and manage live events in years to come?
It is safe to say that a good many of us create digital personalities that are representative of our real selves. Sure we may embellish. We may highlight the good and limit the bad (at the Propared offices, Eric thinks he is much funnier than he is) And there are certainly those who use the veil of social media to hide who they really are. But in general, we are pretty recognizable. We read stories that interest us, we comment when we are inspired, we "like" and "retweet" relevant and interesting content.
So even if we were misrepresenting ourselves to each other, we are certainly exposed to the companies whose services we use - Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. They see everything. More specifically, and to the point of today's blog they are developing mechanisms that allow them to intuit everything as well.
Let me explain. Recently, Facebook revealed that it had manipulated hundreds of thousands of users' news feeds in order to determine whether the content users had access to would affect their emotional states, and ultimately, the quality of those users' future posts. Translation - does content that is highly skewed negative make you post more negatively? Vice versa? The answer, according to Facebook data scientists, is a resounding YES. Even third-parties are building tools to map user emotional response using "keywords" designed to capture the reactions around particular events.
What if that information is shared with other companies? How would they use such data? The first thing that comes to mind is target marketing. But open up a browser window today and we already see ads, offers, banners, panels, and who knows what else enticing us to engage with products. These are ads carefully selected to connect with us based on our shared social information. But these ads are generated based on our interests, buying history, “likes,” “shares,” websites frequented, and other hard data. Though that information may have an emotional component for us (for example, going online to buy a birthday gift for a family member), the ads generated were done so after the fact. This new research suggests companies would be able to influence our behavior before we even go in search of fulfilling such needs. This ventures into dangerous territory – consumer protection, informed consent…
Our CEO, Ryan Kirk, wrote a piece last week about Propared's values. One of those, transparency, crops up again here. In the many discussions about the "look" and "feel" of Propared, we ultimately decided to leave the marketing material outside of the program itself. We believe that if it truly is our mission to make work easier, more efficient, and more cost-effective for live event professionals, we must not interfere with their ability to get their work done. But outside of the application, of course we market. We market because we don't know everyone yet. We market because we believe that with your input and feedback, Propared will help you become a more effective manager.
We hope that excites you. We hope that it engages you and inspires a positive reaction to us and what we have to offer. But no, we won't be mapping your emotional state anytime soon.
We at Propared are always seeking out new and inventive ideas that push the arts forward. So you can imagine how excited we were to come across an amazing new application from the creative minds at 2wice. The artistic nonprofit based in New York City lives at the intersection of art and technology – generating work that educates and inspires through alternative mediums. Its most recent app, entitled Passe-Partout is no exception and it gets a lovely walkthrough this week, courtesy of the New York Times.
This got us thinking about our role in education. What is our responsibility to not just build a product that aids our colleagues today, but assists in developing the stage and production managers of tomorrow? Passe-Partout is providing new insight into what it means to choreograph. This has serious implications not just for fans of the art form but for aspiring choreographers seeking creative spark from novel sources.
So how does Propared get involved in education? And what exactly does it mean to “educate” someone?
Many of our colleagues came through traditional institutions of higher learning – they studied and honed their craft. Many of them would also tell you that the real learning didn’t happen until they booked their first jobs. With complete respect to teachers everywhere, this is completely understandable and natural. There is only so much a person can absorb by watching. Eventually, we must get out and DO. We must be thrust into a real environment with real problems, real stress and learn on the fly. Yes, make mistakes but also learn. Allow our supervisors and managers to educate us in the methods they have developed over years of trial and error. Some companies out in the corporate world believe so strongly in this principle, they create their own universities!
This has its flaws, too. We think back on our own processes and marvel at the length of the learning curve. How long it took us to get to the point where we were actually managing. Which seems crazy, in retrospect – the word manager is right in the job title!
So we come back around to Passe and Propared’s educational duty. We want to give the next generation of industry professionals a stronger, sharper, more powerful set of tools. We want to deepen our collective learning and accelerate growth potential. We want to reclaim our job titles! And most importantly, we want push our industry forward through the harnessed power of creative innovation.
Some big, hairy, awesome goals to wake us up on a Thursday, no?
Recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his company is opening up all of its patents to other innovators in the “advancement of electric vehicle technology.” As long as these companies use the technology in good faith, Tesla will not initiate any patent lawsuits.
As a startup making a new product this struck a chord. We at Propared have had loads of internal discussions about intellectual property and the copying of ideas. What should we do? What will be our best path forward?
Should we file for patents or trademarks? Should we keep our cards close to our vest until launch? Or should we throw open our doors in support of, as Mr. Musk terms it, “the open source movement?” We even consulted with a patent lawyer along the way.
It turns out, filing for patents only gives us the “privilege” of pursuing expensive lawsuits (if our patents are ever infringed upon), ultimately accomplishing nothing other than distracting us from what we really want to do with our lives.
In the end, we decided not to worry about it for three reasons.
First, being secretive about what we’re doing stifles contributions from everyone. When we set out to build Propared we knew what we knew. And we knew a lot. We spent a great many years among us clawing our way to where we are today and we have amassed some amazing stories, ideas, and experience. But we also knew that we had much to learn. Despite the similar needs that we share as managers of live events, there are many types of projects out there and many ways of working on them. Not just that, there are entire sectors of our industry that we have yet to fully appreciate! The only way to learn is to share what we think we know already and continue to grow by way of the perspectives and feedback of others.
Second, it’s very difficult to generate interest about a new product without sharing details about it. How will you know that Propared is going to revolutionize your work-flow if we don’t show you the process? Sure, we could be secretive, shut the factory doors, and then one day, out of the blue, release five golden tickets to five lucky individuals. That might work for a well-established (albeit fictional) candy company. But we are still in the “getting-to-know-you” phase of our business. It would be awfully presumptuous and frankly annoying if we just expected you to “take our word for it.”
Finally and most importantly, Propared’s goal is and has always been to set a new standard for management and communication among live event professionals. We are working together to make our industry a stronger, sustainable, and ultimately more enjoyable home. Sure, at the end of the day we all need to earn a living, but profit does not drive our decisions. I founded Propared with the same mindset that prompted me to form Tinc Productions:
Do what you believe in and everything else will take care of itself.
This is why we have shared so much with you at such an early stage of our development process and why we will continue to do so at every step. It’s gratifying to see such a powerful innovator and entrepreneur reach the same conclusion.