Le Grand Chapiteau has begun to dip and sag under fallout from the global recession. Will Founder and CEO Guy Laliberté be able to save his company? Not if he keeps up his quantity over quality initiative that has plagued the French Canadian troupe over the past five years. At present moment, the company has 19 shows running, seven of which are sit-down productions within Las Vegas hotel casinos, far more than ever before.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a huge fan of Le Cirque for a long time. For years I couldn’t say a bad word about it, but now my thoughts have changed. Discovering the company in late 2002 with La Nouba, there was a period where I was routinely traveling across the country, seeing 6-8 productions a year at $100-150 bucks a ticket. I helped represent the company to underserved demographics and did outreach to new, young audiences. I even worked with the company’s online presence across message boards and forums. I had travelled thousands of miles and had seen almost 30 productions. Then in 2008, the pieces began falling apart, drifting, and so did I. Despite having more disposable income and better geo-flexibility for traveling shows, I’ve only seen 2 since 2009. I didn’t enjoy either; the magic was gone. For generalist understanding, I won’t dive into specifics with names of productions, staffing changes, and artists. Instead, I’ve tried to use show trailers for accessibility to chart progression. If you want to talk in-depth, email me — I love chatting with other fans, especially with those who’ve been disappointed as of late.
The massive company announced late last week it would be laying off over 400 employees (about 8% of the its workforce), shelving scheduled productions, and closing several poor received currently-running shows in an effort to rein in spiraling costs on the financially debt-laden projects. Most of the job cuts will take place at the Montreal HQ, home to 2,000 of the company’s 5,000-strong global work force. Straight out of the gate, Cirque’s press was immediate in saying these huge cuts and slashes were not due to artistic, internal problems, but instead could be attributed to external forces beyond their control, namely surging production costs and the strong Canadian dollar.
“The Cirque is going through a difficult period but not a difficult financial period,” spokeswoman Renée-Claude Ménard said Wednesday at the company’s Montreal headquarters. She noted that the company achieved record revenue of “nearly $1 billion” over the past year and sold 14.2 million tickets to more than 20 shows around the world. “Basically we’re lucky that with a very difficult economic and financial situation we’re still pulling a rabbit out of the hat,” she said. In addition to runaway expenses associated with its rapid expansion, the company is facing a shortage of outside investors in its production and ongoing difficulties caused by the strength of the Canadian dollar. The company incurs 95 percent of its expenses in Canada and 95 percent of its revenue elsewhere, Ms. Ménard said. “Each one-cent increase in the dollar has a $3-million impact on our profits,” she said. The company, founded almost 30 years ago by stilt-walker Guy Laliberté and fellow street buskers, also announced Wednesday it is closing four shows to trim expenses. “We would have been much happier to tell you those shows weren’t closing,” Ms. Ménard said. “But it’s not a revenue issue, it’s an expense issue.” – Bertrand Marotte
Yes, these external factors are at play, but it would be remiss to operate under the assume that the Cirque themselves are not at fault. The pivotal issue, I believe, is due to the reckless and furious expansion of the company since mid-2007. With a string of Dragone-directed hits in the mid 90s and Dominic Champagne’s vision guiding the company through the early 2000s, the CdS was moving steadily forward, debuting a show every 12-16 months. At this time, storytelling and spectacle walked hand in hand. The company was in a great place with it’s marketshare and name-recognition growing around the world. The company’s founder and CEO Guy Laliberté rose from a poor street performer to one of the richest men in North America.
All fairy tales however, especially in business, must come to an end. Greed sets in and original values are lost. A company’s mission statement is traded in for a stronger balance sheet and higher net worth. Twenty years after the innovative company’s formation, the tides shifted and spectacle took the forefront and artistry/storytelling was abandoned. Production budgets initially spent on new act R&D, talent travel, and innovation was spent on massive, unimaginable theatre renovations and special effects so far reaching from the company’s start in the mid 1980s. All one must do is take a look at La Magie Continue to Saltimbanco to KA, the transformation is astonishing. KA’s 2004 production costs surpassed previous records of $165M, dwarfing that of even Broadway’s Spiderman: Turn of the Dark ($65m) almost ten years later.
Saltimbanco, 1991. Humble beginnings.
Alegria, 1994. Astonishment through performance. Entering the Golden Era.
O, 1998. Design and technology’s emerge, but they walk beautifully hand in hand.
Varekai, 2003. The final show in the 10 year Golden Era.
KA, 2004. Amazement through technology and design. The decline begins.
Viva Elvis, 2010. What happened to my beloved company?
Prior to this slip up, Cirque’s development had a near perfect record. Shows rarely stopped touring and were often sent out on third and forth trips North America, European, Asian, and Australian tours; not a single permanent show in residence had closed. The company faltered. Adaptation replaced innovation. The root of the “wow” shifted from the performers they celebrated at their core, to stage automation and moving elements. Partnerships with unlikely sources (The Beatles, Criss Angel, Broadway and Elvis Presley) changed the company’s artistic landscape. And most importantly, having several shows playing on every continent (and the complete over-saturation in Las Vegas) was more important than what was playing on each stage every night.
Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 by Laliberté – now, of course, the world’s first billionaire stilt walker – and in the first 25 years of its life it opened an average of one new show a year, sending out a new touring show or further colonizing the Las Vegas strip. In 2001, Daniel Lamarre, who had previously run the private television network TVA, came on board as CEO. Lamarre told Bloomberg around that time that he wanted to expand the half-a-billion dollar company at a rate of 25 percent a year. Some observers might locate the beginning of Cirque’s fall at that moment, but for me it came around 2008, when the company decided to triple its output to three new shows a year. It aimed to create permanent shows in new markets: New York and Los Angeles, and, further abroad, in Tokyo and Macau. And it tried to create new kinds of shows – magic, variety, musical. “If we succeed in creating new categories of show, content diversification, then there is no limit,” Lamarre told me at the time.” – J. Kelly Nestruck
The company needs to stop now and reevaluate itself, rediscover its roots. High level management and artistic staffing changes and turnover have led the company astray. Original act and artistry designers have since left the company and begun their own practices (Creations du Dragone) or returned to their respective corners of the globe. The first to go must be Lamarre; he simply does not understand the logistic challenges of running such an operation. Production at HQ must cease and projects currently under development must go through a full “Lion’s Den” ceremony circa 1998-2002 standards of quality. Resident show (especially Las Vegas) must be reexamined with a fine-tooth comb and their sit-down aspirations questioned, as these are the ones to suffer the brunt of failure as of late. In 2010, its Banana Shpeel vaudeville-type venture flopped in Chicago, New York and Toronto before it was finally cancelled. Zed shut down in Tokyo just over a year ago, earlier than expected, while Zaia closed in Macau. Viva Elvis folded in Las Vegas this summer, while Iris, a cinema-themed show playing in Hollywood, is closing this month after poor ticket sales.The by-products of these stints have bled into the company as a whole. Cultural reporter Marc Cassivi wrote in La Presse this week that Cirque’s prestige has eroded in recent years, partly because it is so closely associated with the “kitsch” of Las Vegas. He also said the company has become so structured that it does not allow individual performers to reach their full potential.
Flipping through my Flipboard (is there a better way to say that?) Friday morning on my train ride into work, I saw a trend I couldn’t believe. Article after article speculating on the rumors that Apple was in late-stage negotiations to acquire Waze, the social-navigation startup out of Tel Aviv (now Palo Alto).
The Cupertino-giant, still reeling from its Forstall-driven Mapgate this summer has been grasping at company after company to help solve their problem. It’s very unlike Apple to do this with startups, a reason why their continued pursuit of Foursquare for major partnership is so intriguing. With Google Maps resurgence on iOS in late December, Apple’s stock app has been hemorrhaging users at an alarming rate. The fear among Apple executives is that once these users return to the handsomely updated iOS 5-style comfort, they’ll never return to Apple Maps, regardless of what improvements are to come. This advanced acceleration is problematic — substantial marketshare leaves the stock app daily. Rather than continuing to build in-house, the mentality is now to acquire other’s IP, tech and talent to push out a game-changing update NOW.
Waze is the world’s fastest-growing community-based traffic and navigation app. It relies on the idea of crowdsourcing information — drivers help each other find the most accurate and up-to-date information for anything related to the road. With over 30 million users, Waze’s strategic model believes that by working together, drivers can get to work faster and more safely everyday. WHAT?
“Waze is designed, even if not intentionally, to distract. For mere mortals, I reckon it’s next to impossible to not be wholly distracted while using Waze. For goodness sake, they use the slogan, Waze: Drive Social.” Each little icon on the map invites a tap. What’s this? What’s that? Who’s over there? Wow, there’s somebody in the car next to me using Waze! Damn, she’s cute! When you see a fellow Waze user on the map, you can tap their icon and message them, see their “points” and ”rank.” The more you interact with Waze, the more points you score and the higher you rank.” – Rocco Pendola, The Street
So it’s gamified driving? There’s no good reason for Apple to buy Waze, now or down the road. With the fragile state the company is in, why take such a risky venture with a dangerous app. Encouraging not just 30M users, but ALL users in the Apple ecosystem to be socially-conscious while they drive. It’s a lawsuit, a potential killer, waiting to happen.
Waze asks users to report police activity, accidents, road hazards and traffic jams, in real time; “It’s like a personal heads-up from a few million of your friends on the road,” the company says. They even recommend you attach photos to these “social reports.” They want you to connect with friends on Facebook to see where each is on the road at any given time on the road? Foursquare for your car, if you will.
Thankfully, the deal is off. There’s been wild speculation as to the reason, most tied to money. Apple capping out it’s offer at $500m with Waze refusing to accept less than $750m. I’m all for social advancement, especially in new sectors, but for the road? And requiring so much user action? I can’t even imagine it.
With only a few days until 2013, what new, innovative mobile surprises have we seen this year?
Over the past few years there’s been expansive growth in mobile every quarter. Innovation, disruption, adaptive technologies and clean UIs have pushed social networking, management, payment and news apps further faster than many imagined. This year, mobile dev went from boom to bust. It was a year of clunky dot updates and app-for-app substitutions, many of which were downgrades from their previous iterations (just think Apple Maps as the prime example). On top of that, this year was focused one of the most lackluster and disappointing sectors:
Dear 2012, You were the year of list making and email organization apps. Dear 2013, Please don’t be as fucking boring as 2012.
— schneidermike (@schneidermike) December 29, 2012
Many consider access to email to the most important tool (and original purpose) in having a smartphone. Now, we hate it. Some will say this is because we’ve found better, more platform-oriented messaging apps, or that we have strived to develop more casual means of communication. Maybe the reason we’ve chosen to flee email is because after years of using it on mobile, no one has done it right. The monetization simply isn’t available as it is elsewhere. The only way to bring it money is as a pay app, and a majority of people refuse to fork over a few bucks to a developer….for no real reason.
This year we saw launch after launch of email apps, each more fundamentally flawed than the last. Whether paid or free, App Store ratings showed user discontent. Each release made an advancement in one direction at the expense of all others. Even with talent, partnerships, and investment starts aligning, a true “leader of pack” in email management failed to materialize. Take Gmail’s acquisition of the Sparrow team, for example. While Sparrow’s iOS app never had the power or simplicity its OSX client was praised for, it brought true Gmail support to the iPhone in a way Apple’s Mail.app never did. Sparrow on iOS lacked great syncing capabilities and never really helped me get through my messages. After humiliating themselves on the 1.0 release, Google acquired the small company in a talent acquisition and the promising Sparrow app fell into disrepair (despite a small .0.x release). Gmail’s recent 2.0 release for the iPhone was expected to be the perfect marriage, but lacked major functionality behind a pretty design. Disappointed, many of us hung our heads and returned to the iOS stock app.
While I always strive for Inbox Zero on the fly, being overwhelmed by email is a problem everyone faces. Some require action, research, response, or (if you’re lucky) just archive. However most people use their inbox as a “Save For Later,” with all messages grouped together, no distinction between them. Unfortunately, no apps (at least that I’ve discovered) really help users deal with those decisions. Instead, it’s a sort by timestamp and call it a day.
“A lot of people loved Sparrow, but I could never get too excited about it. It provided a pretty rich set of tools for moving emails around and making sure they got archived and were searchable — basically improving on things that the iPhone’s native mail app did poorly. But for me, Sparrow was always a little too feature-rich. It didn’t make getting through my email any easier, it just gave me more stuff to do with it.” – Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch
After a year of dozens email management apps, many of which never made it past one iPhone sync, I’m excited about ONE in 2013. Mailbox, by Orchestra, announced just over a week ago. Mailbox, from the same company who brought us the amazing task management to-do list app in 2011, takes a stripped-down approach. UX for 2013 is really driving artful simplicity home, and Mailbox will be the first app to do that. As soon as an email comes in, the road forks: keep in your inbox, save for later, or get rid of it. How do you sort? A short swipe: to the left, to the right, or all the way across to toss it out.
If the concept of “save for later” frightens you, don’t worry, Mailbox has already ensured all your mail won’t find it’s way into a toxic wasteland. You have to decide: later today, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, and so on. Mailbox will then prompt you when it’s time to take action. ”Email was designed 30 years ago for computers chained to desks,” Orchestra CEO Gentry Underwood says. “Everything about it is slow and clunky. If you want to make it fast and mobile-friendly, the entire experience needs to be modernized.” [I'm bouncing up and down in my seat writing this -- this man gets it!] From what I’ve seen and read from various industry beta reviewers, Mailbox excels in a few key areas. First, it’s stupid fast, surpassing the speed of Apple’s Mail.app. by first processing messages through the cloud, before pushing them (Yes. Push.) to your phone.
“Composing and sending a message feels (and looks) more like sending a tweet than an email. Mailbox also excels at displaying message threads as if they were texting conversations. When you tap into a message or conversation, you notice that instead of conventional emails, you see small chat bubbles displayed tactfully. Mailbox does its best to hide signatures and only show the meat of each message, but tapping any individual message lets you see any message in its expanded state.” – Ellis Hamburger, The Verge
Mailbox is expected to release early next year. If it can keep a price point between $5-8, I think we’ll see mass adoption and a real shakeup in the category. I’ve already heard rumblings of OSX release as well — I think Orchestra knows they have a hit with this one. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
The Dark & Stormy – a highball cocktail – is trademarked by Gosling’s Export. In layman’s terms: ginger beer and rum.
The drink, now beginning to resurge in the States, sees its highest popularity with the sailing community up and down the East Coast, having originally been brought home by sailors who frequented Bermuda. Most upscale bars in port towns from Portland, ME to Newport, RI to Annapolis, MD and beyond have the Dark ‘n’ Stormy on their menu.
I first met this drink last year at one of Boston finest restaurant, lounges and watering holes, Eastern Standard Kitchen and Drinks, right in Kenmore Square. The spot’s mix of locals, out-of-towners, and classy college students gives the place a sophisticated, yet welcoming and warm feel. If you haven’t been, it’s certainly worth a night or two of your time when you’re next in the city. For a year I was utterly content, thrilled, with ESKD’s concoction. It was just what I was looking for, every time. In April, everything changed.
Smuggler’s Cove, a Caribbean speakeasy on Gough Street in San Francisco. A Prohibition-era Havana. With over 400 rums in-house and a few of the sharpest mixologists in the city, this place had it down. A quiet night, I began with their traditional, most basic DnS. What happened next blew my mind and was anything but “traditional” – he began with a fresh batch of cooling ginger beer, made only an hour earlier. Many upscale bars are known for making their own syrups, flavorings and essences, but this was a first. Super fizzy, super ginger-y, and super dry. For those of you who’ve never tried it alone, ginger beer is essentially ginger ale but with a sharper, more upfront ginger taste, and far less sweet. It isn’t alcoholic, but because of its more strong flavor, it holds up in cocktails as the soda never could. Perfect balance. In my head, the drink is changed. And after a bit of research, it’s easy enough to do – quicker than heading to three or four stores to find one who actually carried ginger beer by can.
The below recipe comes courtesy of Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian chef raised in Sweden and trained in Austria. While Samuelsson isn’t a mixologist, I’ve found his recipe to by among my favorites.
The HOMEMADE Ginger Beer
- Juice of 4 limes
- 1 cup orange juice
- 4 cups water
- Two 3-inch pieces ginger, peeled and coarsely grated
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 cloves
- 4 cardamom pods
1. Combine the lime juice, orange juice, water, ginger, sugar, cloves, and cardamom in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour into a bowl, and let cool.
2. Cover and refrigerate the ginger beer for at least 2 hours. Strain before serving.
Dark and Stormy
- 2 oz dark rum
- 3 oz Ginger Beer
- Lime wedge
Fill a collins glass with ice. Add rum and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge and serve.
Today’s post is off-topic and I am using this blog as a platform for dissemination of what I was mulling over last night while trying to fall asleep.
After gathering my thoughts and taking a day to think about yesterday’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I feel I’m finally able to fully articulate an opinion. After listening to and reading the remarks of men and women smarter than I, my current notion borders on a less popular school of thought. I am FOR much harsher legislation on firearms in line with much of the country’s population, but am trying to look at the issue from a few steps further back. Some partially disagree with this – I’m not even 100% sure of everything right now – but I think it may be worthy of some thought.
Portions of my opinion below have been adapted from the thoughts of others (many privately said/posted); due to the sensitivity of this topic, amalgamation, and public nature of this platform, I will not be citing them).
“A peaceful man with 10 firearms is much less dangerous to society than a violent man with no firearms”.
The issue at hand is not the possession of firearms. The issue is a human issue. A sociological issue. The problem is not that people have firearms. The problem is that in our country, people want to kill other people.
With many tragedies within recent memory, our society has begun to use firearms more and more as the scapegoat with each passing day. It is human nature for us to shift blame – we would rather choose to take out our anger on a tool than a perpetrator, an instrument rather than a mechanism. We assume, or at least would like to assume, that human nature is inherently good. In cases like yesterday, we instantly become numb and cannot comprehend how a human being in our society can carry out such a violent act of atrocity. Instead, we blame the least humanistic aspect of the equation: a cold piece of metal. We ignore and fail to recognize the true, underlying issues at hand and take responsibility for them.
It is much easier to blame firearms, the Second Amendment, “crazy” people, than it is to admit that we (collectively) as a country might have a problem.
In instances like this, we cry for guns to be banned. However, with a sociological problem, a problem with the people, firearms are simply a tool for destruction. While banning firearms may be calming and comforting to us (jailing the scapegoat), it is a shortsighted solution. What if people decided to strap homemade bombs to themselves? You only need to take a quick look in the news to realize how likely of a scenario this could be. Would we be any safer? Would we call for a ban on fertilizer, hydrogen peroxide, matches, alarm clocks, nails, ball bearings, and cell phones?
How about the kitchen-built backpack bombs that killed 52 people in the London metro system in 2005? Or in 2001 when men with box cutters killed thousands in the most harrowing act of terrorism ever seen on American soil. Even yesterday, on the same day we saw violence in Newtown, a man in the Henan province of China stood outside an elementary school and stabbed 22 students between the ages of 6-11 years old. Similar to the war on drugs, making a product illegal does not stop its proliferation and resulting crime. A gun ban would quell gun violence, but perpetrators bent on causing destruction would only move to another medium, similar to the uptick in UK gun violence following their own firearm crackdown. As stated at the top of this article, I am for harsher firearm legislation and bans, but unfortunately it does not stop the problem at its root. When someone has intent to do incredible damage, they will find a way to do so.
I believe the larger issue at hand is our country’s obsession with violence, morbidity, and death. One simply has to turn on the television to a primetime drama or watch a trailer of an upcoming, highly anticipated movie. Is there a gunshot, an explosion, or a funeral scene within the first two minutes? I’m not blaming the media for violence; the media is people, not self, -serving and delivers what people want to see. We, as a culture, have become comfortable with violence, whether through the 24-hour cable news cycle or through fictional dramatization. Even with tragedies such as this, our society demands more than what is necessary in terms of detailing. First, there are the dramatic recreations of the incident, and how exactly the carnage unfolded. For some reason, maybe because of what we are used to, we need to know precisely what happened and the exact timeline of it. We need to see grainy cell phone footage from inside and hear the screams over a 9-1-1 call. We need to know the first and last name of the victims. We need to know their ages. News networks eavesdrop and research (often times incorrectly), to be the first ones to “break the news.” The media ambushes the parents and families of victims for soundbites because we need to know just how heartbroken and devastated they are feeling, still not being able to fully comprehend what has happened. We do not need to know these things. We need to leave these people alone.
On social media channels, I’ve seen many post a photo of a red, white, and blue gun, showing the number of deaths caused at the hands of firearms across the world. Compared to other pacifist nations, the US number (not adjusted for population differences) is staggeringly high. On first blush, firearms, and each country’s corresponding laws, seem to be the primary issue. However, on a closer look at these countries and a glance at their cultural rearing, the violence factor is incomparable. The UK for instance (our biggest comparison partner), has a vastly different, and generally less violent culture than the United States. As an example, consider the prevalence of jingoism (extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy) in the UK and the US. When was the last time the UK began a war? For Switzerland and Sweden – when was the last time either of these countries took a side or became involved in any international conflict?
Summation: I’ve believe the idea that guns kill should be replaced with the concept that weapons kill people, and it is important to know that for anything to be considered a weapon, it must have an instrument and a mechanism. A knife with a hand to wield it. An airplane with a hijacker to fly it. A pillow with hands to force it over a face. And yes, a gun with a finger to pull the trigger. Anything can be – or can become – a weapon with a person behind it looking to inflict damage. However more and more repeatedly as these tragedies build, many people place more emphasis on the instrument (the gun) rather than the mechanism (the hand that wields it). We cannot remove all instruments to prevent loss of life, for nothing would be left around us. The only thing we can do is to prevent people from becoming the mechanism in that equation. To me, guns aren’t the ultimate problem; they’re a symptom of greater society and cultural ills.
My heart and thoughts go out to all of the victims and families of this senseless tragedy in Newtown, CT. Knowing a family who calls the town home, I wish them and all others the best over the many days, weeks, and months to come as their try to make sense of the deplorable devastation. I hope our nation (and news outlets) give them the space and time they need to recollect themselves and move forward. I wish everyone the best this holiday season and hope all hold their families and loved ones close.
Are you a college student or a young professional?
If so, when was the last time you attended a classical music concert, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony? Not recently I bet.
How about a museum, gallery, or theatre production? Maybe a different answer here.
Did you attend on your own accord? Or instead, were you influenced or forced (either by necessity or social pressure) by a parent, professor, or co-worker?
At some point in time while you were dressing in your Sunday church attire, did a smug grin come across your face when either you or someone else uttered “Oooh, how cultured!?” in a cringeworthy highfalutin tone?
That smirk, while fun and lighthearted to you, is a problem of nightmarish proportions for arts administrators across the country. To them it means that certainly now, and likely in the future, it is not a typical activity or purchase decision from your wallet. The fact of the matter is, all arts organizations — fine, traditional, mainstreamed, and avant-garde — not only want, but fiscally need the youth demographic. Whether through special outreach programs, additional programming, or subsidized ticket pricing, organizations see less naturally colored hair everyday. They’re slowly drowning in a sea of gray and blue hair. While many may be getting by at the present moment, all are concerned about their futures, fearing no one will replace your grandparents; few young people in attendance today do so on their own volition. Instead, they’ve looked to alternative outlets more accessible, trading in the mezzanine for a Macbook.
Prominent former New York Times business and culture columnist Judith Dobrzynski disagrees in a recent article from ArtsJournal. “Many people,” she believes, “don’t have the time for art or the inclination for it until they reach a certain age, which — anecdotally — seems to be somewhere in the 40s, give or take, after most people’s children have developed some independence.” Dobrzynski goes on to cite a recent Euro RSCG study which suggests that 63% of consumers around the world believe society’s obsession with youth has gotten out of hand. An article from MarketingCharts appears to support her conclusion, indicating 6/10 Millennials themselves believe too much marketing value is placed on them and their purchasing habits.
A bet you there are a good few marketers, like myself, who disagree with this thinking, citing brand and product loyalty studies. Many will cite exposure and experience with a product while young to be vital in purchasing decisions as people grow into their consumerism. In the age of today’s Millenials with more productions than ever before and technological alerts of offerings outside of a once-restricted sphere-of-knowing, tapping consumers while young is even more important. Building an affinity early is key, especially given this apparent advantage. Unfortunately, arts have consistently struggled capturing youth in the new long-tail landscape. The landscape has changed.
With the shift of arts and entertainment from experiential to digital, this becomes an even more pivotal and time-sensitive concern. With less and less young people provided with primary exposure of live arts every year, the target has already begun to shrink. Today, the emphasis is instead on a digital equivalent, largely due to cost, convenience to attain, and ease of continued, repeated use. While the digital arts and entertainment revolution has changed the experience from stage to screen, it has also largely impacted the economics behind it. In today’s economy, businesses based on technology continue to become more affordable every year with increased innovation, while those associated with labor only become more expensive (due to inflation and inability to increase efficient production), known as Baumol Cost Disease.
In fact, there is reason to think the situation could soon get worse. As the cost of admission climbs ever higher, the advent of supply-and-demand-based “dynamic pricing’’ ensures that tickets to hot shows [insert: the only shows these “casual viewers” are interested in seeing] are as expensive as the market will bear. On Broadway, there’s the additional scourge of “premium seats,’’ which for “Death of a Salesman’’ and “The Book of Mormon’’ have commanded nearly $500 apiece. Theater, an inherently expensive art form to make at the professional level, is in danger of becoming a boutique business. – Don Aucoin, Boston Globe
With a generation of Millenials suffering from student loans and postgraduate expenses, those without exposure or a cultivated interest in arts will not be motivated to spend the little leftover from each paycheck on expensive arts. When those tickets can be afforded ten to fifteen years in the future, a lack of interest and motivation will steer many away to spend elsewhere, likely on the more economical digital entertainment. To those who say there is too much focus spent on shifting demographics, I say look to fine and traditional arts over the next decade. Those sad negative outlooks you see year after year will spread across across the industry unless a major pivot is made.
Reviewing Etiquette during Previews, Industry Respect Rules, or the Morgan James ‘Into The Woods’ Fiasco
Original Post: 7/25/12 :: Revisited: 8/27/12
Since the beginning of the newspaper, it’s been customary to withhold reviewing a play until opening night. Over the past twenty years it has become customary for productions, especially new plays, to begin with an “out-of-town” tryout or preview. Under this system, an eight-to-ten week sitdown would pop up in San Francisco, Chicago, Tampa, or Boston, often during the spring to prep for a fall New York premiere. Each night producers would hand out comment cards or even field questions from the audience after curtain. They’d staff the lobby, outside, and at the stagedoor to hear what people were saying, “the buzz.” What did they love? What did they hate?
Every night when the curtain would rise, a slightly different show would play. Rewrites were constant. Score, book, and blocking changes were dime a dozen, rehearsing one show during the day and performing a different draft at night. Out-of-town previews allowed the opportunity for composers, lyricists, directors, and actors to work on and tighten their show away from the talons of the New York critics and media. Several months later, the show would open in New York, hopefully with a great word of mouth. Today, the out-of-town preview has become more of the exception than the rule due to the high cost of moving a show across the country and the logistics of booking several precious theaters spaces.
Previews – public performances before critics are allowed in to review – are meant as a kind of insurance policy for producers. The idea is that they offer a system whereby shows can “work themselves out” in front of an audience before any kind of final critical judgment is passed, and that tickets will be cheaper as a result. Over the last half century, they have become the norm in theatre. But it wasn’t always this way – and still isn’t for some other performing arts, such as ballet or opera. Paying previews have only been permitted in the West End since 1968. Before that, producers would either stage out-of-town try-outs for their shows or open cold in the West End. – Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
With the decrease in original plays and musicals and an uptick in revivals and adapted works, the need to workshop entirely new content has lessened. Forgoing the out-of-town, preview periods in New York have instead become longer and more drawn out. Where as previously a show may have only previewed for several days, now it is not atypical to see a month or more pass before an opening night. The flattening of communication, merging of media outlets, and the ability for opinion/thought leaders to emerge across the country, has cut into the advantage of starting out somewhere else. No longer is a show “safe” from review simply because it opens in another city. “While a gentlemen’s agreement between critics and producers prevents newspapers from publishing reviews prior to opening night, there is nothing that can be done about paying customers having their say via blogs and internet sites and, in some cases, these unofficial reviews can be just as widely read,” says Gardner. Critics knew a piece of theatre was still a work in progress and only desired to review it once it was ready. Even in the case of Spiderman: TOTD, major reviewers held off months, and 200,000 audience members, before they eventually were reluctantly forced to go in.
Following last night’s first preview performance of The Public Theatre‘s highly-anticipated transfer of Into The Woods, a short, 140 character review was published:
From several accounts, the first performance was indeed a bit rocky, as was to be expected. Also good to note here that tickets to the production are free. The show is in an outdoor performance space with several days of rain earlier this week, throwing off rehearsal schedules for the ambitiously staged show. Certainly with over a thousand in the audience, several others likely posted their opinions online as well. The difference with this reviewer, however, is the fact that she herself is an up-and-coming Broadway actress, a member of unforgiving New York theatre community. Almost immediately after posting, veiled acknowledgements of her “review” seemed to crop up a from social networks Facebook and Twitter to Playbill.com and several online message boards. Soon thereafter, the fiasco began with dozens of @-replies decrying her premature review. Within an hour rebuttals were streaming through theatre fans’ Tweetdecks from thespians, actors, community members, and leaders in the industry. Composers like Scott Alan and recent co-workers (actors) Matt Doyle and Jason Lamon soon pounced.
And it went on and on (many tweets have since been deleted/made private, making this particular discussion with Scott Alan, more difficult to follow):
@morganajames but you shouldn’t tweet about it either. We should support one another in this industry & that tweet was disgusting. sorry.
@ScottAlanNet I’m sorry to offend. It’s not about ‘not supporting’. The prod/dir was offensive (sexually) and it just wasn’t for me.
@morganajames then don’t tweet your opinions, love. it IS about supporting. It’s a FIRST preview featuring FRIENDS and IDOLS we respect
@morganajames people read your tweets & you need to be apart of this industry & be respectful & feel honored to be working in it.
@morganajames it disgusts me to see performers judging art. Theatre is already judged by so many. WE are the ones who need to SUPPORT.
Likely before James even got off the subway back home, she was in one of the trickiest situations of her career; the entire situation blew up out of control, with hundreds, if not thousands, weighing in. While the number may not seem substantial compared to other recent public relations disasters, proportionally to the community, it is massive.
In my opinion (rarely given here), it’s difficult to stomach an up-and-coming understudy/ensemble performer of three highly-criticized shows (The Addams Family, Wonderland and Godspell) to proclaim the death of musical theatre, especially in a show full of industry idols spanning several decades. While her opinion and thoughts may have been well-founded, the arts and criticism don’t operate in the same relationship as does the rest of the world. A industry of positives, support, tact, respect, and relationships, for a non-reviewer to outwardly criticize a non-finished work is viewed as blasphemy. She works in the industry (and would like to continue doing so, I’m sure) and needs to be aware the cast and crew are former or future colleagues. Publicly she should have nothing but praise for any production, similar to how you don’t see your favorite movie stars give thumbs down to a new box office opening. Behind closed doors or with a group of friends, articulate and nuanced discussion (as we are all taught in arts edu) should be had. Instead, James featured far-reaching, polarizing, and contradictory micro-messages to tens of thousands online and for public consumption.
A lone ranger named Matt summed the evening up best: Tact is an art form and one that should be honed by any actor in the business seeking to advance their career. I don’t particularly agree with censorship, but that’s just how the business works. Be critical, but be mindful of your form of expression. In other words, don’t piss off your potential employers. Or their colleagues. Or their friends. It’s just not a good idea.
Edit: Since posting, Morgan has tweeted several times, apologizing for her remarks.
Interning in the arts can be simultaneously the best and worst thing for you. While no one (in any industry) doubts the value of “real world” internship experience alongside academic coursework, the question of financial compensation for that work is often more uncertain. In almost all pre-professional college tracks, graduating without a few semesters or summers of related, professional work experience can be detrimental to one’s competitiveness for post-grad employment. In many industries even getting a first call from HR for an entry-level job requires a resume long enough to require leaving experiences off. Many companies will tell you working for them provides top-notch networking opportunities, a wealth of great minds, and a peak firsthand into how the industry works. I get that. What trips me up, however, is the next statement — “the experience will be your payment.”
I’m inclined to suggest they [prospective interns] refuse on principle — the practice is certainly unethical and may even be illegal – but if the only other option is to take an unrelated minimum wage position and the internship in question does, in fact, offer useful experience or the possibility of turning into a paying job, then perhaps it makes sense to accept it. There are internships for credit, but in some cases those are worse. Not only does a student work for free, she has to pay tuition for the privilege of doing so. The real solution is for any company offering internships to pay and then figure out how to recover the costs. - Edward Boches, CIO Mullen
Luckily, many top companies agree with Boches’ argument, a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded that an ”unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.” A bold claim, I know, but interpret it this way: a company that pays values its interns for their minds, not just their bodies. While there are exceptions (startups, certain unfunded rights organizations, etc) this rule often holds true. If an intern will be in the thick of things with regular employees, they will be treated as one and compensated/stipend accordingly. If interns are off in silos doing “projects” or manning telephones, they (and their labor) can be forgotten. If a company can’t generate enough revenue to cover an intern’s minimum wage salary, the department should reassess their organization, structure, and hiring practices. Lately, unpaid internships have turned into a way for large, successful companies to get around reduced departmental budgets by establishing an “education” program for the next workforce. With students fighting one another to remain competitive, the wheel, unfortunately, continues to spin. Students lucky enough to secure paid internships, secure better internships and fare much better in the long run. If this were a question for the business sector, the answer would be cut and dry — unpaid internships are unfair and unethical.With the arts, however, it becomes a much more interesting discussion: often times, the money simply isn’t there.
Full disclosure: From my sophomore spring to the end of my senior year of college, I held four internships in the arts. Working for commercial theatre, non-profit theatre, and museum companies I held a position in every facet of the arts industry. Over the course of those four semesters, I clocked in over a thousand hours on the job, paid almost a thousand dollars in internship costs (unreimbursed errands, city travel expenses, etc), and was not paid a cent for my work. While a first unpaid position or two can be attributed to working your way up the ladder and gaining experience, it becomes more difficult with each subsequent semester when an intern has directly-related marketable skills.
Interning in the arts is a hustle. As friends interning (paid) at financial brokerages or with large production companies try to Gchat you to grab lunch at the local gourmet food truck, you pull your pockets inside out to find only the 3cents change from replacing the swinging lightbulb above your work station. You’re often not even seated at your computer. Often because you don’t have a computer. Or a desk. Often times arts orgs don’t even have enough physical locations for their army of interns to work. Bring your own laptop. Connect to wifi of the coffee shop downstairs. And whenever somebody’s about to open the door, get off the floor and step away or else your liable to get hit.
Unpaid work has become the accepted route into the creative professions. Theaters and arts companies have become over-reliant on free student labor and couldn’t run without it — these companies bank of young people’s passion to put in several months…or even years (there’s always one 26 year old intern) of tireless work without financial compensation or even promise of one in the future. Effectively it has become institutionalized. Arts internships are infamous for long hours and taking over the responsibilities of once salaried positions; without secretarial or support staffs, newest interns to the team often must start here to prove themselves before moving on. There is no graduation from unpaid internship to paid internship, simply because no paid positions exist. Arts interns often move between major companies doing the same work, hoping for that big break.
The unpaid internship can provide precious opportunities to learn and gain practical knowledge, or it can exploit the enthusiasm and inexperience of interns hoping to break into a highly competitive field. The model may need some refurbishing, but there is still value in an internship that mentors and educates interns. It is for the art world to think about how to nurture the new generation of arts professionals, so that (in the words of Arts and Labor), “pursuing one’s passion and affiliating oneself with a culturally prestigious entity [does not become] a socially sanctioned rationalization for highly precarious working conditions.” - Ariel Greenberg of the Center for Art Law
The point of it, is that without an “experience as payment” quotient, the core concept of an internship becomes null and void. Arts interns are often doing the work of a temp agency employee with a company that just happens to make/curate art — there is little direct involvement. While many of these companies are located in the major cities across the country, summer arts internships (the most prestigious) are only attainable to those who have familial support, eliminating a major population from even qualifying. In my research, few arts interns feel they get enough out of their experience, wishing for more hands-on work related to the craft. Instead, they are the support. Over and over again. It raises the question as to where the cut-off truly lies for the benefit of arts internships. A young, motivated arts administrator learns through their own experiences — maybe it’s time they embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and set out on their own models and projects.
I’m back! A quick one today, composed on-the-go. Not researched or vetted, but something I’ve been thinking about this morning.
When you hear “startup,” many, from industry laymen to digital CEOs, assume the forward-thinking technology sector. Cloud computing and social enterprises dominate the landscape; entrepreneurs and investors alike are drawn to these high-growth, high-risk, and high-return industries because they are doing something never before seen. Startup organizations pride themselves on creating revolutionary products and services that, before hearing few could conceive, but after learning of, never live without. These businesses attract the most talented, young individuals, adapt to the ever-changing needs landscape, and make it a point to not just tell, but convince people, what they are creating is so groundbreaking, their survival is a necessity. How is that different than what we do?
Every arts administrator from successful commercial producer to the art-for-arts-sake free spirit lives and abides by this concept. It’s an internal truth for all of us. Drilled into our heads (maybe even too much) by BFA academia is that art needs to change, motivate, and inspire. Even the producers of something like the forthcoming Bring It On musical see something inherently necessary about their production. Since it certainly won’t be the financial hit of the season, it’s existence must push, trigger, or inspire something bigger — we just don’t know about it yet. An extreme example to say the least, this desire, draw, and craving is the reason we are drawn into this industry (see, you cringed. we even feel uncomfortable calling it an “industry” because it implies more pocketbook than passion), amid the financial risk and inherent uncertainty.
“It’s not often you hear the words startup and art in the same breath. It’s funny because the low cost, stretched budget and creative use of favours is something common to both worlds. Also, the severe cuts to (public) arts funding and talk of a focus on corporate and private individuals for donations suggests there are more links than one might expect.” - Anne-Marie Imafidon, The Guardian
Despite this inner conflict, we need to recognize things have changed in the last five years. Up until several months ago, we saw an evident dry spell in original, avant-garde, and daring pieces brought to the commercial stage. Non-profits and regionals known for their innovation still went strong, but others simply fizzled with dated, safe revivals and even more paltry film adaptations. With the economic downturn, the producers, backers, and angels couldn’t justify the investment on something “new” — the risk was simply too great. Today, we are beginning to shift out of that; we have finally realized the changes necessary so not only survive, but thrive in this climate.
The talent pool is better than ever — graduates from prestigious programs come out with more diversified, adaptable training. More pieces are being written and produced for older and underserved [population] actors, strengthening the base of faces we recognize onstage; often times, these names we recognize from years past are the ones who prompt our ticket purchases. Technicians and administrators who have volunteered, assisted, and interned under some of the smartest minds across the country (and world) are entering the field with more diverse and thorough knowledge than ever before. Once on-their-own playwrights and composers now have more resources and development programs to hone their voices and workshop ideas. Due to the convergence of the industry, alliances, contracts, and relationships have been developed between universities and arts orgs, commercial enterprises and arts orgs, arts orgs and arts orgs, pooling resources, knowledge, and funds for mutual benefit. Like startups and their investors, arts patrons and organizations have begun investing in one another. Creating a microcosm of what we see in the tech industry, we are finally beginning to realize that while joint success may appear as competition at first, it is vital to the success (financially and for arts innovation/freshness) of all further down the line. This shifted model is more scalable than the status quo ante, in the sense that it can grow rapidly with limited investment of capital, labor or resources. With New York’s first crowd-sourced production successfully funded this year, the shift has already begun. With arts organizations becoming venture capitalists in their own industry, direction and control are maintained, whether it be accumulated personally or shared within the industry (joint productions, etc). The key to success (in every facet of the industry) relies on development by all and adapting the best solution. The only thing that’s certain is that art isn’t — banding together will insure few fail and all will have moderate success. All winners, no losers — a good strategy during these times.
Hello readers! With the last week of classes, final projects (and finals exams), senior events, graduation, award ceremonies, and Commencement, I think a break is in order. I’ve got some great topics in the pipeline — look for me to return to a twice-a-week post calendar sometime halfway through the summer. Between now and then, you ask? I’m sure there will be a few.
While I have your attention, I’d also like to thank you for all of your support and feedback over the past four months. With well over 10,000 unique visitors since January and almost 3,000 referrals from publication like OperaAmerica, Mcleans, You’ve Cott Mail, The Huntington Theatre Company, and the Howard Sherman Digest, I am extremely grateful.