Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Narcissism: How dumb is my audience?

Minneapolis, Minnesota

For some of them, getting hit in the head with a 2" x 4" would neither wake them up nor make an impression. They are God's gift to the world and prima donnas – very important people who have paid their money and can do what they wish. They may be bored or disengaged (not their fault!), but they are not selfish, arrogant, or rude. Rules and other people just don't apply or matter to them.

"They" are the miscreants who leave their cell phones on during performances; answer those cell phones during performances; check email during performances; text with friends during performances; take still and moving photos during performances, with and without clicks and flashes; talk to members of their party during performances; sing along with the lyrics from the stage; leave and re-enter the auditoria during performances; and trip over everyone in a row on their race for the exits before the curtain rings down. In Minnesota, particularly in Minneapolis and at Orchestra Hall, "they" also are the unfortunate souls who cannot restrain themselves from hacking and coughing throughout performances regardless of the season or weather.

"They" are our cultural narcissists and, judging by reader postings on today's New York Times blog by Dave Itzkoff (Arts Beat: Cultural News and Views), a vast majority of us want "them" to go away.

Itzkoff recounts his Monday report about a Sunday incident at the Orleans hotel in Las Vegas when two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone stopped mid-performance to confront a patron who was using an electronic device. Itzkoff apparently thought LuPone was playing the diva and implied she was wrong. That prompted a letter from LuPone to Itzkoff, published today, in which she asked: "What do you expect me, or any performer for that matter, to do?"

Itzkoff's blog, inviting readers' comments, was posted at 10:37am this morning. The first reply came at 10:58am. Response #500 went up at 4:10pm. While somewhat repetitious, it is entertaining and often compelling reading.

Respondent #258–Karen suggests issuing hot pink rule sheets as people enter the theater, informing them they are subject to ejection. Respondent #275–Andrew suggests that performers deal with it as athletes must when ignoring unruly fans in the stands. Respondent #411–Christopher favors allowing performers to use pistols from the stage in order to clean up the gene pool.

A small number of miscreants seek to justify – or bully – themselves; most notoriously, Respondent #18–Charles C.:

I paid my money, and I’ll do damn well what I please as an audience member. If I want to talk or tape or film, ehtier out in the open or sereptitiously I will do it. Look back at the days of Shakespeare when the audience participated in conversation, and now we have prima donnas who strut like a Perez Hilton on a stage acting as they want and feeling immune from appropriate reaction. Here’s what I will do in the future, I will have eggs and rotten vegatables with me and I will offer you a serving it you confront me, ot if you demonstrate haughty aires on a stage that I am financially supporting. [sic]

Respondents #244–Garrett, #332–Anna, and #488–alice563 have several thoughtful and specific words for Charles C. – including the information that in Shakespeare's day the players also could throw stuff at the audience.

Overwhelmingly – overwhelmingly – readers support LuPone, even though a sizeable part of their number question whether it is a performer's place and duty to tell off the crowd. A strong consensus favors greater enforcement by ushers and theater managements. Although one might agree that theater managers, rather than performers, should enforce standards of etiquette and decorum, what are the performers and the rest of the audience to do in the face of management's indifference?

We do have leverage. The collective we have made an art form of our willingness to restrain the behavior of those wanting to smoke $5 packages of cigarettes in our midst. Can we be no less effective on behalf of many who pay much more than that to patronize theaters?
Maybe we should risk ejection ourselves by standing up, mid-performance, to call-out the narcissists who believe it is all about them. That might be a 2" x 4" that could get management's attention and lead to change.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Investing for success

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Where do you want your business to be after this harsh recession and how bold do you plan to be in achieving that goal?"

That's the question posed by Nelson Davis on huffingtonpost.com as he recounts the pitched competition between cereal company rivals W. K. Kellogg and C. W. Post in Battle Creek, Michigan, during the 1930s. Their story is a classic illustration of the adage that one cannot cost-cut one's way to survival and success during tough times. Traction and dominance in the marketplace follow from investments in products and their marketing.

Michael Kaiser, the so-called arts-turn-around guru who now leads the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, has long voiced the mantra "Good art, well marketed."

Many artists and their organizations will not survive the current recession and, indeed, many of them should proactively cash in what few chips they have. I have been working with several excellent artists in recent months, however, who are just warming to the challenges before them.

I have been telling them to do what they must in order to "survive," and to use this time to plan and position themselves for the recovery: order their financial processes, build their networks, hone their artistic craft to an engaging excellence, and own their niche with the most effective visibility.

With 10% of America's workforce now under- or unemployed, individuals can adapt the same advice to their own particular circumstances. It is not always a pretty effort, as the Kellogg-Post story showed, but it is a necessary one, and a part of life's grand adventures.