“IT’S POSSIBLE” with the Magic of the Arts

The following article appeared in the January 9, 2012 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight NBYT programs and promote upcoming auditions for Cinderella.

Our Christmas play last month, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas, centered around a group of young friends visiting the North Pole where they met roughly three dozen elves, eight reindeer, and Santa himself. Programs for the coming summer will include the musical Seussical and the magical characters of Dr. Seuss, including Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz, the Whos of Whoville, and more. And the next NBYT production, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, is possibly the most magical fairy tale of all. (Both Cinderella and Seussical even have songs titled It’s Possible!)

As a story about a sad girl and her magical transformation, Cinderella exists in thousands of different versions and folktales around the world. (And the main character isn’t even a girl in all of them!) The story has been told by generations of families, written and rewritten, and adapted into plays, musicals, operas, ballets and films. The Cinderella legend is a story the world never grows tired of hearing.

But aside from a fairy tale, does Cinderella mean much to us anymore? Very few of us go to balls or ever have the chance to meet a prince or princess. And we don’t believe that a fairy godmother can magically appear and change our lives with the wave of a wand. But there certainly are things that can change our lives for the better. The arts are one of them—especially for children.

When researchers working with the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts studied several different children’s programs and activities, they found that young people working in the arts during their out of school hours are four times more likely to have won school-wide attention for academic achievement; they are being elected to class office within their schools more than three times as often; they are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance; and they are over four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or a poem (Americans for the Arts, 1998). By participating in artistic activities and programs outside of their education, children learn to become leaders and responsible members of their communities, of the organizations they take part in, and of their own families. They learn discipline, respect for themselves and others, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Participation in theater especially teaches children and young adults to be both creative decision-makers and team players working together to reach one goal. Another study found recently that students who participate in arts education programs are less likely to drop out of school than students who do not participate in the arts (The Center for Arts Education, 2009). By inspiring their creativity and giving them a way to express themselves, the arts reach the students who might otherwise become drop-out statistics. And if that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.

There Are No Small Parts

Researching facts and figures prior to starting my consulting business, I learned several things about theater in Connecticut that I hadn’t know before. Read on even if you’re not in Connecticut—this applies to you too.

Obviously one of the first things I looked for was potential clients. I found quite a few web pages with theaters around the state listed and linked. When I started looking closely and combining those lists though, I realized that there are over one hundred theater companies in the small state of Connecticut. (There are only one hundred sixty-nine towns in this third-smallest state.) And that number of theaters doesn’t include many children’s and summer theaters or most of the theaters at colleges and universities. It certainly doesn’t include theater programs at high schools or middle schools or many other drama conservatories or clubs either. A large list of professional and community theaters in Connecticut is now located here at this website. (If you know of one that I’ve missed, please comment or email and let me know.)

I also learned, from a December 2006 study released by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, what a significant economic impact the arts have on the state. As a whole, the arts (which includes dance, music, opera and visual and literary arts as well as theater) provide more than 27,000 jobs in the state and support a total of 44,000 other jobs. The gross state product generated annually from the arts is more than $3.8 billion including $2.6 billion in personal income. Combined with other cultural sectors (film, history and tourism), cultural jobs account for ten percent of the state’s labor force and $14 billion in economic activity. That’s more jobs created and more gross product generated than by either the aerospace or the pharmaceutical industries in Connecticut—both of which have a significant presence in the state—but not as significant, apparently, as the arts.

Putting all of this information together, it’s clear that the great economic impact that the arts have on the state of Connecticut doesn’t come only from bigger organizations such as the Long Wharf Theatre or Hartford Stage. It’s not coming only from Yale University art museums or the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s a combined effort of the hundreds of arts organizations—both large and small—that operate, employ, and culturally and economically impact Connecticut.

Certainly, these facts and figures aren’t unique to Connecticut. In New York, the Alliance of Resident Theatres has long noticed that the fastest growing sector of its membership is smaller theaters with budgets under $100,000. And New York is definitely aware of the economic impact that the arts have in the state as well. Across the country, theaters and other arts organizations are generating income, paying employees, encouraging patrons and volunteers to spend money in restaurants and shops, and circulating those monies in their communities.

Why is this important for every theater to know? Because it’s the information that donors and sponsors and patrons need to hear—that they’re not only supporting culture and a few hungry artists, but that they’re contributing to a significant economic impact in their communities as well.

So, if you’re not in Connecticut, go find some comparable facts and figures for your own state.  In any state, mention these facts in a few marketing materials and funding applications. And congratulate yourselves for having made such an impact.

Promoting Past and Current Seasons

The following article appeared in the August 29, 2011 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight past season accomplishments and promote the coming season.

Happy New Year!

No, I’m not four months early or eight months late. It is an odd month for New Year wishes, but for many performing arts organizations a new year is just beginning. Summer programs and performances are over, and a new season of events will soon be underway.

At New Britain Youth Theater, the new season coincides with the start of a new school year. NBYT in-school and after-school programs will be held at as many as five New Britain public schools this academic year—which is NBYT’s second season. Theater programs will return to Smith Elementary School, Jefferson Elementary School, and Smalley Academy. New programs are being planned for Gaffney Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. American Savings Foundation has contributed partial funding for school programs, and additional funding is being sought to cover program costs.

Also in the new season, NBYT will add new programs and expand already successful programs. Performances will include the world premiere of a Christmas play, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas;  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magical musical, Cinderella; the whimsical world of Seussical; and Teen Company productions. The Greater Hartford Arts Council has provided partial funding for these performances. Drama classes will be offered on additional days and hours, preschool classes will be added, homeschool and after-school programs will explore new scripts and activities, and new school vacation week programs will be scheduled in February and April. Demand has also risen for outreach programs in new venues and towns.

Of course, any good New Year celebration includes a look back at the year ending too. In its first season, New Britain Youth Theater produced three plays at Trinity-on-Main—A Children’s Christmas Carol, Babe the Sheep-Pig, and I Know I Saw Gypsies (an NBYT Teen Company production)—for a total of nine performances. Year-long programs in three New Britain elementary schools ended with performances of scenes based on folk tales, fables, and legends. A two-month program at Roosevelt Middle School led to a staged reading of Romeo and Juliet. Back at Trinity-on-Main, eight-week Drama Classes and Homeschool Enrichment Programs also concluded with “Share Day” performances. Summer programs included five weeks at Jefferson Elementary School open to all children, five weeks at Smalley Academy for incoming students, and other outreach programs throughout Greater New Britain.

Over the past year, NBYT held a total of twenty-five performances and share days, directly served over 400 participating children and teens, and entertained over 1800 audience members. Children and teens in NBYT programs came from eighteen different towns in Greater New Britain, Greater Hartford, and throughout Connecticut. Much of the audience attended performances at Trinity-on-Main—bringing many new visitors to downtown New Britain.

As a new NBYT season begins, we’re also making New Year  resolutions. We promise to continue the mission of NBYT: “to enrich the lives of children and young adults by encouraging creative thinking, fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, and developing general life skills through involvement in low-cost programs in the performing arts.” How about you? Will you resolve to make the arts part of your or your child’s life in this new year too?

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Theater…

No, I don’t know everything there is to know about theater. But I do know where to find answers. You do too—because you’re already there.

When I first worked in professional theater about twenty years ago, every production management office had some form of a resource guide. These guides listed leads for finding everything from acrylic paints to zip lights. They were especially great resources for finding unusual props, set pieces, or costume materials. I spent a few years away from theater, and when I came back production resource books weren’t so common. In their place was—and is—the Internet.

The Internet may be more useful to theater and entertainment than just about any other industry. Theater productions are always incorporating new ideas and materials. Manufacturers usually take in one piece and produce another, but in theater there’s always a challenge to find something out of the ordinary or a new way to do something. Each production might call for some new or unusual effect, lighting equipment, set material, rigging, prop or costume.

Resources on the Internet are just as useful for theater managers, marketers and fundraisers. Here are just a few of the ways a theater can benefit from the Internet:

• Shopping and purchases. Theaters used to rely on catalogs and special orders for anything they couldn’t track down locally. Now, just about any item can be searched for and ordered online. This not only takes less time, but prices can be compared to save money too.

• Production resources, effects, equipment, and sound files. Production managers, tech directors, and designers can do more than just order on the Internet. New materials and equipment and ways to use them can be researched. Sound designers and engineers can even find sound effects available for download.

• Play directories. Not only are plays available to purchase and license at sites such as MTI and Samuel French, but theaters can also find many sites to search for plays in specific genres or with specific size casts.

• Press contacts. Marketing directors can use the Internet to find contacts at local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations. Theaters might even search for press and media in an area and find some that they hadn’t remembered or known about before.

• Foundations and corporations. Development directors can research foundations, corporations and government agencies that might donate or sponsor programs at their theaters. Not only are giving histories and guidelines easy to find, but many funders now allow or even require that requests be made online.

• Service organizations and arts councils. Almost all theater organizations have websites now, including national organizations such as Theater Communications Group and the American Association of Community Theatres. Theaters can find local organizations and advocates to benefit from their programs and resources.

• Theater directories and rental spaces. Among the resources that some service organizations provide are access to their membership lists or directories of spaces that available for rent. Some rental spaces might even have virtual tours available online.

• Sample contracts. Not only might directories of rental spaces be available, but theaters can also find sample contracts for renting a space, hiring a consultant, licensing a play, booking a performer, or almost anything else an agreement might be needed for.

• Interns or internship programs. Searches can provide lists of local colleges, universities and even high schools to find contacts for sending internship notices. On the other hand, students can use the Internet to find local theaters and arts organizations for possible internships.

• Forums. If you can’t find answers anywhere else, post a question on a forum especially for theater producers and managers. You’re likely to find someone who has dealt with an issue before or, at the very least, you’ll find a good social networking site. Some good theater forums I’ve found are the AACT Forum, the Community Theatre Green Room, and the discussion boards at Musicals.net.

There are probably countless ways a theater can use the Internet—posting audition notices, researching union guidelines, and advertising job openings are just a few others. One more is reading theater blogs, which can be either official blogs of theater companies, reviews by professional or amateur playgoers, journals of theater artists, or articles and discussions by people who care about the future of theater. Check out the few that I’ve included in a new blogroll—each of them is a great resource too.

Why Aren't You Blogging?

I write one, in fact I write for a few.  You’re reading one.

A blog or “web log,” as you probably know, is an online journal with regular updates written by either one person or a few, and usually allowing either blog subscribers or any readers to add their own comments and reactions.

Blogs evolved in the early 1990s from simple online diaries.  With the popularity explosion of websites in the later 1990s, not only personal homepages but also corporate websites included updated news sections.  Blogging spread with the development of software to simplify the maintenance of blogs and allow for readers’ commentary.  These software tools expanded blogging beyond those who had the know-how to draft their own web pages and blogging gained popularity.

By 2001, several still-active blogs had become popular by focusing on specific topics such as political commentary or specialized news.  The next year, popular blogs were receiving up to one million visits a day.  In 2004, Merriam-Webster declared “blog” as the word of the year, and politicians and celebrities were joining the blogosphere.  Bloggers and other contributors to websites with user-generated content were the reason for Time magazine naming “you” their Person of the Year in 2006.

Today, Technorati, a popular blog search engine, tracks more than 70 million blogs and many of them are recognized as legitimate news sites.  Even the Columbia Journalism Review now covers blogs and blogging, and Harvard Business School has recommended to all businesses that they have a blog.

Blogs have grown far beyond personal diaries and soapboxes for individuals.  Among the millions of corporations and organizations that blog are Fortune 500 companies in the tech industry (such as Dell and Google) and those not so techie (such as Nike, General Motors, Kodak, and McDonald’s).  Print and television media have blogs at their websites (such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show).  Respected schools and universities have joined the blogosphere (such as Columbia School of the Arts, Columbia School of Journalism, and Harvard Law School).  Even Internet networking sites include blogs in their pages (such as LinkedIn and Facebook).

Blogging hasn’t completely passed by theaters.  Some of the most established, most active, most creative, and “hippest” theaters are already blogging:  Hartford Stage; The Guthrie Theatre; American Conservatory Theatre; Trinity Rep; Arena Stage; Seattle Rep; and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Without a doubt, blogs are helping to sell tickets at these venues.  Concerned that your theater couldn’t possibly update a blog as often as these big players?  No problem.  A blog can be updated as often as you’d like, can keep readers involved in what’s going on “behind the scenes” during non-production times, and can give them “backstage” progress reports during rehearsals and performances.

Still not convinced that a blog is for you? Read on.

Blogging is a relatively cheap yet invaluable means of marketing over which bloggers have complete control.  If you knew a method of quickly and easily sharing up-to-the-minute news and information with members, subscribers, patrons, donors, volunteers and anyone who could potentially be any of these, would you use it to your advantage?  That’s exactly what blogging is.

Aside from the obvious communication and marketing uses of blogs, blogging has other advantages.  A blog can give a human voice to a website, whether it’s that of a theater director or staffer, an administrator or writer hired specifically for blogging, or a ghost writer—as long as the writer connects with the theater and the blog’s audience in a personal way.  Compared to traditional advertising and publicity, a blog should be personal, informal, and even quirky.  It’s an opportunity to have fun with your readers, to let them feel that they’ve read some “privileged” information.  Blogging will also make readers feel like they’re part of your company.  Especially if they comment on a blog post, they’re going to feel that they’re involved in what you’re doing, and be more committed to your organization.

Blogs can also provide some “free” market research.  Comments (which, by the way, can be moderated, deleted, or turned off and on) can let you know what your readers think and want.  Where else can you publish information that you’ve written and have responses and opinions come right back at you for free?

Last but not least, blogging—and making your community aware of your blog—will draw visitors to your main website on a regular basis.  They’ll return daily, weekly, or (through feeds or readers that notify them of updates) as soon as there’s new content to be found on your blog.

Have you ever tried to search for the website of a company or organization only to find out that the place doesn’t have one?  In 2007.  Frustrating, isn’t it?  It may not be long before consumers expect businesses to have a blog too.  Blogging may still be evolving, but it isn’t going away.  So the question remains:  Why aren’t you blogging?