Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Bread and Circus Worth $60 Million

The Director's Notes Blog is back from a wonderful summer hiatus.

I love the fall. For me this period of the year marks an end one season but the beginning of another one. Arts organizations announce their upcoming programs, fans and AC are off in favor of more cooler nights for sleeping, and one of this nation's favorite past-times gets underway as the ol' pigskin is kicked-off from the tees of Pop Warner sandlot leagues to the overpaid, gladiators who don NFL licensed and Nike sponsored gear.

As strange as this may sound from a blogger who dedicates his time on writing about topics that surround arts organizations, I deeply love football. 


Get me a good game of college ball or a rivalry between pee-wee leagues or high schools, and I am into it.

Indeed, football has a place in my heart...and schedule book.
Don't know why. I never experienced going to a large high school or grew up in a metropolitan area. Our "midget" football teams were part of small farming communities going by the names of Brocton Bulldogs, Ripley Eagles and the Sherman Cowtippers. These small towns fielded squads of 25 or 30 kids, with numerous players holding defensive and offensive positions, or scrupleously known to innocently go "both ways".

Rivalries did exists but nowhere on the magnitude of two large schools going at it over the past fifty years. No sir, these games were played under dimly lit fields or in daylight with hometown crowds topping out at 350 with packs of kids playing "kill" behind the bleachers. League champions took home $1.50 "gold" plated statues of facemaskless players in some unmovable Heisman contortion.

When I read about the recent opening of a $60 million dollar high school football stadium in Allen, Texas, a small suburb outside of Dallas, my jaw hit the floor.
Approved by a school board of 5,000 student in May 2008, this state-of-the-art stadium will host the Allen Eagles, a high school team noted for excellence with state championships displayed in the trophy case. This highly touted program generates 15,000 to 20,000 fans per game and filled the sprawling Jerry Jones' (owner of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys) Taj Mahal 100,000 seat stadium with 50,000 fans during championship games.

With a high school band numbering 800 there is no doubt this is big-business in Texas.
But is this necessary?
Although this was part of $120 million bond package that included a modernized performance arts center worth nearly the same amount, was it necessary to spend this much money on a football stadium at a time when nearly all school districts in American are making deep cuts to budgets and the laying off teachers.

Yes, to the "state-of-the-arts" performance arts center because of the long reach of influence this has on the student body and, ultimately, the community, but, a football stadium? I don't understand how that will benefit the entire Allen student body.

Of course it is a matter of economics and part of that Texas mentality of "big, big, bigger" pride, but one cannot help but to think about the ever ongoing arguement to whether or not sports should be a tax-funded program in the educational system.

Let's just assume that the Allen school board decides to not fund construction for a new stadium and reinvests the $60 million into developing a job-training facility? Or creates a research facility for student to devise new energy technologies? Either possibility would result in a well-trained student body prepared for the 21st century.
What then to do about all those rabid fans clamoring over their Eagles?
Much like cultural institutions, a majority of funding for a new stadium can could from the private and business sectors with members of the football team and coaching staff coming up with creative fundraising events. If these efforts fall short of the $60 million, then as is the case with cultural institutions, the stadium will have to be built with limited funds and within budget restraints.
Unfortunately, the Allen Eagles stadium has been built, opened the 2012-13 season and currently is 2-0 heading for another state championship. I am sure the next new $60 million dollar stadium is in planning, precidence has been set, and some school board is itching to have their monument to amateur football. 

And built it they will. 
Meanwhile, American children lag far behind in science and mathematics, their communicative skills are being reduced to 145 word tweets and do so as communities continue to undervalue the importance of Arts in education by approving budgets that cut programs and teachers. 
Oh well, right? We have our bread and circuses under the Friday Night lights, and do so in 60 million dollar comfort. 
Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY and is a avid football fan. His passion for the game came from his father Louis and his uncle Steve Nichols from his Pop Warner "midget football" days as a member of the Westfield Golden Hawks.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Lazarus Arena

In early May 2012, an announcement that WNY regional production house, Shea's Performing Arts Center, was purchasing the 710 Main Street fossil called Studio Arena. A collective "yea" was raised among the community as the lifeless shell of the once proud LORT house had new life breathed into it. 

This prompted a positive reaction from numerous representatives from the Buffalo Theater community as all saw some sort of benefit to be had by this resurrection. Spokesperson and board-member for every conceivable Arts agency, Randall Kramer jumped at the PR opportunity and happily announced "Its an exciting day for theater, but also for arts in Western New York." 

Scott Berhand, who's company Rod Less Travelled had the distinctive honor of being last production that closed the doors on Studio, generically exclaimed "...a big win not only for the theater district but also for the entire theater community." 

How so? 

Shea's Executive Director, Anthony Conte indicated the new theater would accommodate production companies from Cleveland, Rochester and, even, New York City. "The key on our part is to assess, evaluate, if we think XYZ show can sell in Buffalo" as Conte indicated the focus is to sell tickets and not originality.

This would mean Lazarus Arena would be importing productions and exporting revenues (minus the portion of what Shea's takes out) to communities outside of Buffalo. 

Not so the case as Conte also indicated that local theaters and college companies will be included into the production scheduling. The stipulation is that a 625 seat theater will certainly require local theaters and college companies to have XYZ shows to fill atleast 200 per night to cover costs.

Again, not sure how this will benefit Buffalo Theater. 

Perhaps those local theater representatives most overjoyed about this announcement will be the only ones with an active part in bringing in their own productions. 

And why not? If you're aiming to fill 625 seats on a nightly basis to cover the production cost alone, then safe XYZ bets are sing-along, jukebox musicals or celebrity endorsed (or casted) productions. Hell, that model worked well for Studio Arena in the past why not follow the same plan again?


There is acting method to understand a role by looking at the "sub-text" of a script. This in-between-the-lines method assists the director and actor in gaining a sense of the character and scene, thus having insight into story's bigger picture and the characters placement within it.  

What is the "sub-text" of having Lazarus Arena back among the living theater scene? 

Lost ticket revenue. All those lost-souls Studio subscribers who sought out other companies and supported them in the absences of Lazarus Arena will now funnel their money back to this establishment (providing they're still alive). 

Lost Public and Foundation money. Having the reputation through Shea's parental affiliation, this new production house adds its tin-cup to the thinning soup-line of public and foundation money and will get a greater, warmer portion than the ones in the back of the line. 

Placed in a region of shrinking populace, the emergence of another entertainment source furthers dilutes the artistic diversity this city prides itself on. If there was a sense that Buffalo was on an economic rebound and a hard-factual indicator the population was on the rise, this rising of a dead dinosaur would seem appropriate. This is not the case. There is not enough dramatic art supporters to spend money on Lazarus Studio and then find the resources to attend lesser known companies putting on diverse and unfamiliar works. 

An argument could be made that those patrons who actively look for diverse and unorthodox theater will continue to support theater who maintain this creative mission. For these companies, the existence of the new Studio will not effect their box-offices. It just means companies are left to fight among themselves for the "scraps" of these particular patrons' support. 

Finally, when it was mentioned that theater companies would rather sell 625 seats instead of 90, there is an underlying message sent to Western New York theaters. Pack the patrons in, put on safe XYZ shows with celebrities or out-of-town talent, and don't spend your money on diverse and/or  unfamiliar works (unless these have been commercially successful elsewhere). 

With all that said, alongside the giddy automated generic responses, some sort of positives takes should be taken from this Lazarus taxon. 

The job creation from the resurrection will mean several folks will find employment as box-office people, lower-teir admin positions or production crews (providing the Local #33 is brought back). 

Having the "lights back up" on 710 adds a nice touch to Main and is crucial to the rejuvenation of downtown Buffalo. This boost could mean increased profits for local businesses resulting in an increase of job opportunities for out-of-work waiters, dishwashers, bartenders and pan-handlers. 

Hotels could see an increase in stays as out-of-town performance companies need to house their imported talent for a performance's run. 

And... I'm running out of positives.

Who knows what type of impact this will have on the community? No official studies were made public, no questionnaires were submitted to the community, no polls, no input and no plans were to be seen. 

Just a solo 2.1 million dollar bid for a building left dark for the last four years. Faith would have us to believe that the business plan put into place to secure that much money would be more than the vague, generic responses to this public announcement. 

Still Anthony Conte is confident with some sort of plan in place to bring Lazarus Arena to the forefront of Buffalo theater, but echoes the gamble of such a venture, "We still will be taking a certain amount of risk." 

No doubt. 

A 2.1 million dollar risk in which the rewards are uncertain? Anyone for a trip to the Seneca waterfront casino. 
C'mon Lazarus, roll a lucky 7. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spending Resources & Building Audiences

This past September when the Artistic Director for The Carolina Actors Studio Theater, Michael Simmons came to Buffalo to take in a production of ART's Floyd Collins, he told me something insightful about the way he runs his theater's marketing and promotions. 

"I get $500 per month to spend on marketing," Simmons said while being interviewed for the Voices of WNY Artists Internet Broadcast. "I chose to return that money back to the theatre." 

Amounting to $6,000 per year, I promptly questioned why he would chose to return this opportunity to promote his productions.

Simmons pointed out the number one source of advertisement that gets folks into the door is simply word-of-mouth. 

In addition to this approach, a local well-known restauranteur once told me that when starting up a food-business that you should invest $1,000 in initial promotions to get the folks into your place and let word-of-mouth take care of your advertisement from on out.

So, its not the shiny package; its what is inside. 

Fast-forward to February 2012 and while driving on the 33, I spotted a billboard for a local theater's special event/fundraiser  First thought that popped into my mind was "that's expensive" and then a trickle-down thought was "where did they get the money for that considering everyone is bitching about how strapped they are in the wake of Erie County budget cuts and a weakened economy." 

Was this a line-item in the budget approved at the beginning of the fiscal year, or was it a sudden windfall of cash that enabled the theater to take out a high-profile billboard on a highly trafficked road.

If its the latter, I understand sometimes a show brings in a couple of extra dollars and a quick decision is made to promote a future show or event with this surplus money. Of course, the shrill hoot of Michael Simmons is being heard in North Carolina, but, each company has its own way of spending resources and building audiences. 

Spending resources and building audiences.

Realistically, and contradictory to Simmons, an Arts organization has to divert a portion of its revenue into some form of marketing or publicity. This investment can come in the form of postcard and posters while other expensive advertising outlets include the dead-tree media, radio and/or online sources. 

WNY cultural organizations cannot rely on the local media sources to consistently give previews of works and productions, so inline with what the restauranteur said, there has to be an initial push to get folks interested in the work and through the doors. After the show, providing its good, these folks will go out and tell their friends to catch the production. 

In 2009-10, the American Repertory Theater of WNY spent about $482 in snail-mail postcards, posters, brochures and other marketing items. Budget constraints or windfalls did not allow ART to do any additional beyond-budget promotions or marketing for the remainder of the season. 

Comparatively, more established theater companies invested a higher amount of resources into marketing, publicity and advertisement. The amounts gathered through 990 statements on Guidestar indicate these companies, despite being in the middle of a "budget crisis" show a considerable amount of money given towards advertisement. 

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the less-established Road Less Travelled spent $17,366 in 2010 on marketing, publicity and advertisement. Conversely, two heavier hitters in the WNY theater community, Musicalfare and Irish Classical Theatre Company spent, $66,495 (Musicalfare) and $67,766 (Irish Classical) on these budget items. 

Against those numbers, smaller companies and independent artists cannot compete for the public's attention. Leaving them to rely on less-reaching social networking, email blasts (most likely blocked as spam), posters (with a two-day shelve life) and other highly resourceful yet inexpensive means of promoting productions. 

What can be done?

Cultural organizations have popped up in Buffalo claiming to be an advocate for the Arts in WNY. These groups could create a "bulletin board" ad for local media sources. 

For example, the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo (TAB) requires members to place a comprehensive group schedule in their programs so patrons see what other companies are doing. Its effective because it draws attention to other productions and may send these patrons to see the work. The downside is that one has to be a member of TAB to reap this benefit, but the template could be used for other organizations. 

Unfortunately, as of 2012, none of the cultural agencies have taken the initiative to create a promotions program for smaller companies and independent artists.

Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance boasts on the website "proud to represent the community of WNY" but does not offer any means for small companies or artists to promote upcoming works. It does list the steering committees members with web-links, but no other sources of promotion are sighted. 

The newly formed Arts Initiative Services of WNY has a Facebook page that folks can post information they've already pasted on their pages, but haven't seen any opportunity offerings for companies or artists for dead-tree, online or radio media.  

The playing field remains uneven.

Ultimately, a theater company or arts organization has every right to reap the benefits from a successful season, a well-planned fundraiser or community donations based on reputation, and spend this money in whatever way it sees fit. 

The question of fairness comes into play only when funding comes from public or independent fundraising groups relying on donations given in a random manner. 

In a balance process, public money or donations from independent organizations, for example, Give for Greatness, should result in an equal share of this distribution. Each company receives "X" amount (nothing more or less), and they can spend the gift in whatever manner best serves the company. 

Another process needs to be implemented is lesser-than companies and independent artists receive a bigger portion of funds to, at the very least, be on advertisement par with their contemporaries. 

By getting funds reflective of their established peers, to be strictly spent on marketing, advertisement and promoting, these companies will have a greater opportunity to become more visible and increase ticket revenues. 

This would be the first step in leveling the playing field and add more diversity to WNY's cultural scene. As for the bigger economic picture, the broadened range of entertainment could act as an economic catalyst, in terms of generating cultural-tourist dollars, and stimulate growth for both private and public sectors. 

Not sure if this could become a reality. 

Foundations look to reputation and familiarity, Public money follows the same route and independent fundraisers will implement some formula that benefits those with bigger budgets. 

Who truly suffers in this disparity are the actors and designers who put in hard-work and effort to present top-notch theater only to find small houses as a reward.  There are great productions are being overlooked because the of the lack of funds to market the work in a broader means. 

Indeed, Michael Simmons has a point in saying word-of-mouth is a powerful tool in promotion. Simply allowing smaller companies the same promotional opportunities to bring in more "mouths" isn't some difficult paradigm shift. 

It just takes the vision to see that this region benefits when the "Haves" include the "Have Nots". 

Friday, February 10, 2012

A World of Twit

How can we describe the first decade of the 21st century? 

One could always "tag" a photo of it and put the picture on Facebook, but FB is becoming complicated, lame, obsolete and seems to be following the same irrelevant path as it's sleeping drunk-uncle-on-the-couch predecessor, My Space

The antiquated email is completely out of the question because who has the time to answer all those bulky paragraphs of words organized into complete sentences

No, the first decade of the 21st Century can be summarized in a mere 140 words or less entry, and the best means for a rapid spitting out of 140 words or less is the choice of Hipsters, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and all Americans alike.


This fast-food version of social networking has become the most dominant force in communicating abbreviated opinions and loose-change ideologies complete with a new language comprised of non-vowels and substitute spelling. 

A simple "U gt 2 C ths Vd on Utb", is the new Shakespearian language soaring across countless Twitter accounts as one tries to get the message out of some stupid video of a kitten trick uploaded on You Tube

Indeed, this is the new American language. 

To get an understanding of how dominant Twitter has become consider the recent Super Bowl XLVI record for most tweeted sports program ever. The matchup between The New England Tom Brady's and the New York Giants recorded over 12,223 tweets throughout the game. An astonishing 10,000 tweets per second (tps) were made in the final three minute. 

Madonna's lip syncing mid-game showcase recorded 10,245 tps making that fiasco the first Super Bowl halftime performance to set this mark. 

Putting how staggering these numbers are into perspective, one has to look at other events that have (or have not) shaped the world we live in and the amount of tps they received. 

Beyonce stuns all at the VMA 2011 awards and  Twitter records 8,868 tps in reaction.

Tim Tebow's electrifying Jesus enhanced 2012 playoff OT victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers managed even more tps at 9,420. 

Notable events but less tps numbers include the death of Steve Jobs at 6,049, the 2011 earthquake on the US East Coast at 5,550 tps and the devastating apocalyptic Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear meltdown trio that hit Japan rated 5,530 tps. 

But to truly understand where America's mindset is, one of the most important news stories of the 21st Century only could only manage 5,008 tps. That was on the day that the world found out US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. 

That's 3,860 tps less than Beyounce's revealing maternity secret and 5,237 tps less than Madonna's ridiculous attempt at showing the world she's still relevant. 

Some could argue that less folks were using Twitter in May 9th, 2011 than a week ago and therefore less people were scurrying to their Smartphones to tweet this awesome news. 

Okay, sure. 

I am going to go out on a solid oak limb and say that this discrepancy is all a matter of priorities.  

Folks want to tweet their 140 bag-o-scrabble word opinion on whether Madonna was truly lip-syncing or MIA really flip-off the camera instead of expressing a political view or opinion on the "disposing" of one of America's greatest 21st century enemies. 

Unfortunately, this is the American society we live in, and regardless if one chooses to ignore Twitter or not, this form of internet social networking is here to stay. 

What is increasingly evident is that this form of socialization is becoming the communication norm. Those who find themselves without Twitter accounts will soon become part of online nomadic tribes in search of the "Land of Milk and Conversation".  

Apart from the marketing and publicity end of twitting, can the Arts survive in a world of Twit? 

If language is truly being broken down and American society (if not globally) is becoming a world of 140 or less words, will the idea of Art and creativity hold up to this social networking ADD? 

According to an online article by Ruth Jaminson of The Guardian, the possibility that Twitter breaks down an elitist idea that the process of creating art should be confined to studios; furthermore, the finished product can only be seen by those who can only afford to see (or purchase) the work. 

Ms Jaminson asks, that by "following an artist (on Twitter) as they create a new work can democratize art or simply demystify the creative process behind it--or both?" 


Art in whatever form, music to dramatic, needs to be structurally organic in order to draw upon that one quintessential element that connect artist and viewer. 


Tweeting about the creative process or sharing the finished work does not replace that simple connection felt when an individual can see, hear, touch or listen to an artist's work. 

This interaction is what bonds us as humans.

We have to accept Twitter as being part of our lives but it cannot replace the humanity behind creativity. 

Our ability to communicate has been one of the greatest tools we, as humans, have created. This tool has been instrumental in building some of the greatest pieces of literature, artwork, music and film. 

We cannot allow this ability to be reduced to 140 words or less. 

Otherwise we will be in a world of Twit. 

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director of The American Rep Theater of WNY. He does not have a Twitter account but ART does. To follow ART just hit the @artofwny and your Twitter world is complete. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Success Story of Sorts

As 2011 drew to a close and the New Year was ushered in with dropping balls and cheap champagne toasts, I contemplated the first Director's Notes blog of 2012 to kick off this new set of 365 days. 

What big sizzler could I start the New Year with?

A blog about how the Buffalo News Arts reviewer Colin Dabkowski's non-sensical, written near-deadline columns that do absolutely nothing for the WNY Arts Community as a whole? 

Nah, that can go without saying.

The over-saturation of yuppie magazines like The Block Club that are comprised of 85% advertisement with the the rest of the glossy garbage filled with cute, psuedo-urban/intellectual articles about the same city faces and the same city places?

Boring, like those magazines. 

How some cultural groups, who receive Erie County public, Fund for the Arts and/or Give for Greatness money, can take out full-page ads or purchase time on billboards dotted along the 33 despite the Cultural Groups facing tough economic times? 

Intriguing, but that seems to be status quo. 

So there I was, staring out the window at a green January when the phone rang. 

On the other line was an American Repertory Theater of WNY alumni, and a friend of mine. We started the conversation off in a pleasant exchange but their voice began to waver and eventually crack after this person told me about some impending medical news that could have dire consequences. 

In the Arts World, we are constantly reminded of the human condition. Once in a while, we come across a work of art or a particular theatrical piece that moves and brings us to closer to humanity without the realism behind it, a la "Art Imitates Life". 

Then there is the real "life".

When one hears about another's fear of the unknown, in whatever circumstance, this expressed realism truly connects us as human beings. We don't hear the words or see the actions synthesized by an actor, a painter or musician. That emotion is coming from a real place and not some pretended creative action. 

There I was chatting with this individual about the possibility of their leaving Buffalo to be with family depending on what the medical report determines. In this conversation there was tears and sadness, but not because of the uncertainty or the potential inevitable outcome. It was because this individual was  emotionally burdened by the thought of having to move to join their family and would have to leave  friends and this "wonderful" theater community behind. 

Real life.

This individual may be faced with mortality and yet it was more emotionally devastating to contemplate leaving this area and all the good things this person has been part of. 

What makes this even more compelling is that this individual did not grow up in this region and attend the same high schools or colleges like all Buffalonians. When this person moved to Buffalo, there was nobody they knew and, yet, was able to carve out a great acting career and build a good circle of friends. 

These are the types of human condition stories that fly under the radar yet contain so much richness and speaks volumes about this community.

As we finished our conversation, this personal revelation effected me far more than a play with fake British Isle accents. The obvious effect being eventual mortality and a perspective of one's life while underneath, upon further rumination, the context of this person's story in the region we live. 

Despite all the external (and internal) distractions, the Western New York Arts scene is a strong community. Indeed it has as many problems as a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic uncle during the Holidays, but there are some good folks trying to make the best out of this community without having to be seen as the spokesperson for every Arts advocacy group. 

And the first thing they do is make the conscious choice to remain in this area. 

I have faith that my friend will beat this medical setback and return to ART's stage, am proud that this person has included me in their circle of friends, and, regardless of the perceived sadness, find this individual's story somewhat of a success for us who remain in Western New York and continue to be part of the Arts community.  

Onto 2012.