The Revenge of the Bored and Unaware

Diane Ragsdale has a thoughtful piece in her Jumper blog this week about the regional theatre movement, which she fears has crept away from its noble artistic roots in pursuit of audiences and revenue. We’ve been down this road many times, of course, but Diane always manages to add perspective and depth to such discussions, and in this case she’s sparked a conversation that’s truly fascinating to read.

As a marketing professional, I don’t concern myself much with the art vs. commerce debate. It’s been going on as long as I’ve been in the arts and it’s likely to continue long after I’m gone. What I do care about, though, is the effect this discourse has on audience development and Diane’s post reveals an industry attitude that I believe is pure new audience poison. To support her thesis she quotes Zelda Fichandler, who said:

“Nobody was looking for us, peering through the window, watching for us to come to relieve the boredom and unawareness of their lives. It was we who had to teach and persuade them to want what we wanted to give them. And we had to insist on it for their own good, but, really, for our own, if we were honest enough to admit that. … Nobody called us, but we came.”

Then, after repeating the same Fichandler quote, she adds this little gem from Taylor Mac:

“We are here to give people what they need, not what they want.”

I gotta tell ya, as someone who’s spent the bulk of his career engaging with and advocating on behalf of ordinary audiences, reading these quotes made my stomach turn. The presumption is shocking and the condescension is so insulting that I find it hard to believe any arts professional would perpetuate such sentiments let alone defend them on moral grounds. Is it any wonder that new audiences are running in the opposite direction when elite arts insiders continue to talk like this?

Fichandler may have believed that she was rescuing bored and unaware Washingtonians when she arrived to “shape their process of living,” but the reality is that when she and her peers established regional theaters they were satisfying a pent up demand in the marketplace for serious theatre. In the middle of the last century there were plenty of literate, educated, affluent consumers who wanted the kind of theatre that regional theatre artists wanted to make and sell. It wasn’t a triumph of art over commerce, it was a simple matter of demand and supply being, for a time, well balanced. And the subsequent creep away from founding missions that Diane so eloquently laments may have been more of a natural, necessary, appropriate response to evolving market conditions.

We can probably forgive the founders of the regional theatre movement for being presumptuous and condescending because they emerged in a broader culture that, to a large extent, agreed with their point of view, and because they had a solid base of consumer support to back up their claims. But today, there is no such cultural consensus and the simple fact is that regional theatres need audiences more than audiences need them. You can’t sustain an institution by trying to give people what you think they need if the need is questionable and the people don’t already want it. The regional theatre movement couldn’t do today what it did in the middle of the last century because the market doesn’t contain enough demand for the products it wants to sell.

As for the effect this type of thinking has on audience development, the problem with the “you need us because we know what’s good for you” attitude that still lingers – and still shapes the way theatres talk to the world around them – is that it encourages us to speak to our constituents as if they’re bored, unaware, lesser beings who are waiting for people like us to brighten up their humdrum little lives. It’s why, some sixty years later, arts marketing is still comprised almost entirely of self-centered, self-important, self-congratulatory bombast, and it’s why new audiences, who are neither bored nor unaware, find us so unpersuasive.

I know that Diane was arguing for a return to core values, but some of those values may be inappropriate and possibly even detrimental to our current situation. If I were trying to make such an argument, I’d avoid the Zelda Fichandler quotes (which should probably be quietly retired to the Arena Stage archives) and opt for a more audience-centric set of foundational assumptions that goes something like this:

We are not better than the people we serve. We need to learn from the people in our communities how to create art that resonates with their needs and desires. We understand that audience members are fully realized human beings with stimulating lives full of attractive choices, and that our job is to convince them that our products are among the best choices they can make because they offer the greatest personal rewards. We must strive for the greatest common good by working with people in our communities to find the place where art and audiences come together most productively, and we must remain constantly aware of, and be prepared to respond to, changing tastes, attitudes and understandings in the marketplace.

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11 thoughts on “The Revenge of the Bored and Unaware

  1. In the museum world we have a similar conundrum. It’s almost an “You’ll eat everything on your plate and like it!” situation (how many of my generation heard our parents say that at dinner, LOL?)Old-school exhibitions with labels and things under glass are often not audience-drawers. But if we partner with the local LEGO society to do a themed LEGO extravaganza (which is really fun for the staff) we have a huge response. We are located in a large bedroom community and people don’t come out to intellectual lectures. We need to offer programs and lectures that are relevant to people’s everyday lives. The Catch-22 is that our government funding requires that we offer these types of lectures and exhibitions. What to do, what to do!

  2. I find both arguments petty and wrongheaded — and sadly, it sounds like much of the same rhetoric our political parties use to address each other. Seasons, playwrights, productions — each much be considered individually and on merit. Audiences will pay for quality. And if you are running a theatre and cannot be honestly objective about the quality of the work you present, you need to move on to another job,

  3. The worst marketers ask people what they want. They ask questions that figure out their beliefs, habits, routines and where their needs are not being met. They learn how to take the perspective of the people who make up their market. As Steve Jobs said, “Customers don’t know what they want until we show them.” They don’t know. Or as Henry Ford supposedly said “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” To try and give them a faster horse is empathy, to give them a car is to understand the customer’s perspective.

    Maybe “give them something they will want or need” is a better formulation.

    It is the expertise of a doctor to know, or be able to move through R&D, to address that need for a patient. I would hope it is the expertise of the artist to do that in art. I want a playwright who has used skill, training, and work to bring together something of quality that I might want. I want a director, actors, stage hands, etc to use their skills and expertise to bring it to life. I would hope that their marketer helps them in both being able to understand the perspective of their potential audience, and be able to help the advertising appeal to those people. Does this make anyone better people in a moral sense? No. But the value of the artist is that they are better at something. We are not the same as the audience. Since this ends as the product the artist brings to the transaction table, those traits better count for something.

    Lastly, If one thing should be left in the archive it is the utilitarian “common good”. JS Mill really dealt with that in 1869. It is a tyrannical idea that generally can’t be usefully defined by anyone, let alone agreed upon by even a common majority. One of the great things about the arts is the more experimental nature that Mill would have been all for. All that is necessary in an art as business (artist supporting sense), is that it find enough of an audience to support it- a much more realistic, and quantifiable number, than the “common good.”

    Morals and themes can be great within art. But honestly, art is not by its very nature a moral endeavor. It does not necessarily lead to some progressive goodness. Though thankfully theater is not the evil that Plato would give either. I guess I’m for leaving the morality out of it here.

    • Thank you for weighing in, Edward. I’m afraid I can’t agree with the Steve Jobs quote, though. It is utterly irrelevant to our situation and it’s perpetuating the dangerous thinking that I addressed in this post. If we were selling miraculously innovative communications devices or revolutionary transportation machines that everyone wants, the quote would be apt, but we’re peddling an established and largely unchanging niche market product that’s declining in popularity.

  4. I don’t disagree with your directive to communicate with audiences about what they truly desire, but neither do I think Fichandler is (was) being condescending or wrong-headed. Theater can not be relevant when it is not in direct and intimate communication (both onstage and off) with the community in which it is situated, but at the same time, we are the experts on what is out there available to offer to that community. When we ask them what they want, they can only respond with what they already know, and it is part of our jobs as leaders to know more than they do about our subject, just as it is a surgeon’s job to keep up on the latest, best surgical techniques to cut down on risk and recovery times and the auto manufacturer’s job to create not the car we bought and loved 20 years ago but the one that keeps us safer now. When an audience member tells me they want to see Our Town, it’s true I can offer Our Town, but I can also offer something that moves him or her in the same way as Our Town and is as boundary-pushing now as Our Town was in its first incarnation. When I go to the library, I don’t only want to get the book I ask for, but also to have a librarian say, “Oh, if you like that, you ought to try this!” That’s the service that our expertise gives our audiences, who come to us for that reason, and offering them something they didn’t ask for never has to be about telling them they are wrong to like things they already know. Audiences all over are interested in new plays that they couldn’t have found on their own once they trust a company to give them ones they like. So yes, it is about curating, it is about marketing, but not in the way you find so demeaning. The good theaters, the trustworthy ones, say to their audience not, “No, but,” but “Yes, and…” and let them know through marketing what to expect for a given show so they can decide whether they want to see it. People like the old standards not just because those are good plays (well, most of them) and revive fond memories, but because they know their evening is likely to be enjoyable, they can look forward to revisiting an old friend. That’s lovely. But there’s no reason they shouldn’t be put in a position where it’s safe for them to make new friends too and be present for the creation of new classics. And who is more likely to find those new classics—a person who is working another job, being an expert in something else, and going to the theater several times a year to watch something or a person who is reading 100 plays a year or in the trenches making plays or, like me, seeing 100 plays a year all across the country? Don’t sell our usefulness so short. We can know our audiences well enough to offer them a glimpse of the new world without shoving anything unwanted down their throats. And finally, I can no longer count on my hands the times someone who is used to only going to what they think they want to see (big, expensive musicals!!!!! Broadway!!!! a wacky comedy about marriage!!! Disney!!! in short, all the clients you represent) takes my advice and tries something supposedly more challenging and says, “Oh! I really liked that a whole lot more!” Because the big crap is what has the marketing dollars, and those dollars tell people what they want in a way more bullying way than what the companies you’re accusing of elitism can ever do. Most of us are in communication with our audience in way deeper ways than these bigger splash things can ever be. People think they want Capn Crunch or the newest biggest tech gadget because they are told every day that they want it. The smaller, non-profit “so-called elitest” theaters give them a chance to experience something intimate and truthful and in a world where big and loud prevail, a lot of times small and true really is what those people want.

  5. Trevor, your wrong and I’m going to try to tell you why.
    But before I tell you why you are misinterpreting the quotes you cite I’m going to call you out on being over dramatic, equating artistic ideology with something that makes you sick, as if what artists believe is somehow foul or immoral. That is an extreme value judgement that, frankly, isn’t based on any fact.

    What you attitude is based on is the sentimental notion that there is this thing called a public body and they know what they like and what they need and marketing’s job and job or artists is to give them what they want. Well that’s a myth, even in your field.

    The public didn’t tell Steve Jobs what Apple products should do or more to the point what they should look like. He told them. If product designers and screen play writers and painters who paint paintings had to ask the public what it is they demand we would get the same thing over and over, nothing new would ever happen because in the arts it’s not the public who says what gets created, it;s the artists.

    You are confusing what sometimes becomes successful with public expectations and demand. The public didn’t predict, expect, plan for, or make suggests to George Lucas to make Star Wars, but they ate up the fresh new vision when he created it. The artist creates and the people follow. It’s always been that way ever since Modernism. People really don’t want Lion King 2 or 3 or 4. What they want is something else as exciting as the Lion KIng.

    Taylor Mac is absolutely correct when he says ““We are here to give people what they need, not what they want.” Artists, screen writers, authors, movie directs, musicians are as professional as marketing consultants. Art isn’t simply willy nilly entertainment or a mindless way to pass the time. It’s a field of expertise just like your field. Marketing is hardly just a means by which you find out what people want and give it to them. It also involves finding ways to introduce people to new ideas and concepts they have never dreamed of before. The arts share that mission? Why does it make you sick to your stomach to think of an artists as an expert, or special talent with special abilities?
    I’ll tell you why. Because you are taught to think that way. It’s the new neo-liberal view of the arts. To the politically neo-liberal the arts are not something that should be funded by public tax dollars. The arts, to them, are simply entertainment that should live or die like any other commodity and they have been basing their arts policy language on convincing you that if an artists is someone special then that is being elitist and elitism is bad. In reality eliticim is nothing more today than someone who is an expert, who is the best in their field, someone who isn’t bored and unaware . And just what is so wrong with that?

  6. Hi, Richard, Thanks for adding your perspective. I admire you for mounting such an impassioned defense. And I’d agree with you if it weren’t for the fact that it’s not working. Audiences are in steady decline across the sector and the old “you need us because we’re good for you” approach is failing to attract enough new audiences to keep things going.

    You and Edward Brennan both mentioned Steve Jobs, who is thought to have said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But it’s only part of the actual quote, it’s got nothing to do with the arts, and it’s a dangerous thing for arts pros who don’t have much marketing expertise to go around repeating.

    I think I’ll write about that in my next post.

    • I obviously agree more with Richard. Likewise, although I find quality hard to define, I would agree with Brenda and would extrapolate that the same qualities required of the people running a theater also applies to those who market for them- so I generally find the balance of art vs. commerce as an issue that constantly has to be weighed. I would point to Edwin Catmull at Disney and how they work that balance. I think that Erin nailed it when she talked about the curating nature of these institutions.

      I really don’t see how the qualities of the arts themselves seem like such an anathema to you. As an author must be in some ways authoritative- they must have a belief that what they say in some sense is not a waste of time to at least some other people, I would say the same holds true of any human endeavor that one wants to share or sell. Sort of an I’ve got this, and this is what I can do for you. I am sure that the arts are important to you, that there is some value to them that you wish for a greater portion of society to share, but I don’t see that here.

      I respect your opinion that Richard, Diane and the rest of us are wrong. But without the part of the equation that actually addresses the actual product, I fail to see the relevance of your point here. It is as though in your love of the audience and the marketing, you have lost the arts. I imagine I am entirely wrong here, but that is how your argument reads to me right now.

      I look forward to your next post, because I honestly feel like I am missing a key point here on how it all comes together for you.

    • Trevor, you bring up another of the neo-liberal talking points that I hear all the time in the arts policy field, “People aren’t going to theaters or museums anymore so that means that creative people aren’t giving the people what they want.” That line of thinking completely exonerates the public from any responsibility for their own interest in the field of the arts.
      Could it be that people are less and less interested in the arts because we are teaching the arts less and less in our schools? When I went to a small rural high school were took a Shakespeare class. What high school as everyone do that today? We as a society don’t spend any money on the arts. Our NEA budget is less than we spend on one new fighter jet, and the Pentagon has order 2000 new ones. Is there any surprise that people’s awareness of the arts, their access to real artistic merit, their ability to comprehend quality in the arts dwindles ever year?
      Yet according to you it’s the artists themselves that are to blame. In the 1980’s the NEA was attacked because artists were immoral, today it’s being delivered it’s final death blows because artists aren’t stepping in line with the neo-liberal economic plan and giving the public what they want for a ever decreasing rate of pay.
      Here is something you should write about. What has been the public’s role in the decrease awareness and knowledge about the arts? What responsibility do we as individuals have in learning about the arts so we can better appreciate them? How do we change the publics erroneous perception that the arts are simply entertainment as opposed to the field of knowledge that they are?

  7. All the quotes work for some people, not for others, at some time, but not always. Some are useful artistically but not in marketing terms. Need to distinguish there. From a purely marketing viewpoint, let’s compare theatre to breakfast food for a moment. Cap’n Crunch is easy to sell, it’s an all-singing all-dancing crowd-pleaser. Oatmeal porridge is a classic and will always sell, all you can do is try to put a bit of spin on it, or a new flavor in it. Sprangles and Fordes Fishfart and Lewies are new products under development in the R+D department. Most of them will never be heard of again. You try them out in focus groups – or breakfast food clubs, or fringe establishments or festivals – but you aren’t going to market them to the general public unless they catch on. But it is crucial to remember: without an R+D department, you aren’t going to have anything to offer next year, so investing in new and experimental work is really important to the industry. And in a healthy theatre every generation will come up with a new version of Springles and Foordes Fishfoot and Lucies. Like everything in theatre, it all comes around regularly. Catcall heard at Living Theater performance of Frankenstein in 1971: Seen it all before! in 1929… As Preston Sturgess said: They loved it in Pittsburg./ What do they know in Pittsburg?/ They know what they like./If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburg.

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