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TCG Conference — Douglas McLennan

Theatre Communication Group

Just jumped in on the last half or two-thirds of the keynote at the Theater Communication Group conference in LA: The Community Formerly Known as the Audience, given by Douglas McLennan, Editor of artsjournal.com/diacritical.

It was some pretty encouraging stuff to hear, see. I would say provocative, and maybe perhaps to some people it is just that, but I have been hearing some of the ideas far too much lately and not just from conferences. That is, I just attended the Dramatist Guild conference at George Mason, and some of the same persons were there as are now at TCG. While I heard some of these ideas at DG, many of the “provocative” notions that I am hearing from McLennan I have heard voiced from peer playwrights and, having recently gotten a certificate in nonprofit management at Case, ideas that I have heard expressed in many of the nonprofit classes (read, “marketing” and “fundraising”).

One of the more interesting ideas I came in on was when McLennan was speaking about a “Ladder of incentive if you interact with us.” Us being the theater. That is, the traditional nonprofit model is that there is a ladder of incentives if you donate to the organization—which can culminate in board membership or some “truly meaningful” (organizationally speaking) relationship with the theater. But in this case, McLennan was talking about finding ways to incentivize the patrons who most participate.

The point McLennan makes is: who do you value more, the person who gives you $1,000; or the person who buys $1,000 worth of tickets, sees all your shows, and brings their friends? If you know anything about fundraising, you damn well better value the latter person more than the former (unless they’re the same person).

McLennan comments, what if the Seattle Mariners call you up and say, “you bought a ticket on such-and-such a date, and your ticket only pays for 40% of our operating budget, would you like to donate to our organization?” McLennan notes that most people would laugh. So, he posits, why is it okay for theaters and other arts organizations to do the same?

Again, I just got a certificate of nonprofit management from Case, so I understand that nonprofit organizations are charitable organizations, that they exist to provide services that are of community benefit or toward a community purpose, but may not be services that are supported at the levels necessary by each community member/individual. For instance, clean air. Everyone values clean air; i.e., no one wants to breathe soot and smog and crap and die young. But who wants to pay for it? You? Your neighbor? The guy/gal down the block? Trying to get individuals to pay for clean air would be nearly impossible; but, get a nonprofit to advocate on behalf of healthy society, to monitor the government, EPA, etc., can achieve the goal of clean air. In this way, nonprofits are also an indirect way for the federal government to incentivize certain positive behaviors. This is one way to view arts organizations. Important, yes. Does everyone want to pay for them? Not really. Where am I going with this? To McLennan’s point. Why are there so many goddam nonprofit theaters? Why can’t theaters make a profit? Why is Broadway the only way? Why can’t we engage audiences in such a way as to bring them in and demonstrate the power of theater? Get them to participate with us? Why is “let’s pretend” encouraged when we’re children, but killed in us as adults? How can theaters tap into the new trends of engagement in our society, in the form of online participation? Perhaps a more brutal way of putting it: do we really so de-value ourselves that we believe that people won’t pay for what we offer?

McLennan put up a chart demonstrating his thinking on how arts organizations work: a hierarchy or pyramid where the institution is up top, artists are down a bit to the left, and the community is farther down to the right. That is, the theater as an organization sits as an arbiter over both the artists and the community. McLennan thinks, instead the model should be one of service on the part of the organization: artists <--> institution <--> community. The institutions connects both artist and community and works on behalf of both. It does not work as a filter or a parental figure, a regulator.

McLennan asserts that the most potent currency today is visibility. Your or your organization’s ability to get out in front of the community. The key, of course, is how you achieve this; how do you find a way to get in front of your audience and those who you would like to be your audience. McLennan asserts that not only do you have to find a way to engage your audience once they leave your building, but get them to engage each other about your organization. As McLennan pointed out, 78% of people trust peer recommendations of a product, whereas 14% trust advertising.

McLennan showed a television ad for the Australian chamber orchestra, the focus or meaning of which is that the purpose of the orchestra was to provide the audience with a great experience — hair blowing, knee grabbing, eye opening – that is, the “experience of the music”. And, further, that the “experience is not complete unless the audience has the ability to share it.”

Someone tweets in a question such as, ‘then why aren’t these people attending talkbacks’? – to which McLennan notes that the word itself is problematic. And if you think about it, he’s right. What does a parent say to their teen? “Don’t you talk back to me.” A “talk back” is not a conversation; this is an inherent problem in the nature of the dialog—or lack thereof. McLennan posits that “institutions have control of the relationship and they want to own it…that they are afraid to release that control.” McLennan thinks that theaters want a “perfect” product, and to get that product they have become too controlling. He posits that a better option is to give up control to gain influence: that it is “more powerful to be in the center of a community having a conversation; than being up on a stage preaching.”

McLennan recommended TED — Chris Anderson — crowd accelerated innovation and mentioned Clay Shirky — algorithmic authority; reputational capital; community capital.

The key, for McLennan, is to “incentivize your audience because they’re getting something out of it and you’re getting something out of it.” That there needs to be engagement and sharing and involvement. As examples, McLennan mentioned Netflix, which held a programming competition; Dragon Naturally Speaking, which enhances its product through its users , and Doritos, which found its best advertising by getting its eaters to create the advertisements during the SuperBowl.

Websites: ushahidi, indianapolis museum of art website, art babble. McLennan stresses the need for organizations to “shape your aesthetic.” That, for instance, your website needs to be not a brochure but split into two important goals: the first is the essential 411: ticketing, performances, info; and then there is the second: what McLennan calls “the daily you”: dynamic community, visibility, artists, institution, community, promote your artist who are out working in the community.

For instance, I have tried to get convergence to use its blog to share the elements that go into a production: director decisions, actor choices, character development, lighting and design discussions, also more dramaturgic stuff about a play. Additionally, for a while Lucy Bredeson-Smith was running a calendar on which company members could share what they’re up to in the community. McLennan asserts that this is a great idea. This is a great way to engage your audiences, not just for the organization, but to expand the reach of the organization into the community by demonstrating the reach and participation of your company in the community.

Other comments: that we are experiencing a “revolution in communication with our audiences in the arts world.” How are we going to interact with them? Our conversation right now is asynchronous, rather than two-sided, which has implications for the arts.

Escalation of expectation; paradox of choice; Barry Schwartz; the secret to happiness is low expectations

You can tweet or find tweets on TCG at #tcg2011; and you can hit live streams of the conference at http://www.livestream.com/tcgconference. There was a great moment where someone tweeted McLennan that his shoe was untied; he hadn’t noticed until he looked at his iPhone. Classic.

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