The Future of the Performing Arts in the United States of America

I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway and the question is — how will we all go on with the show? The pandemic has laid bare our balance sheets, cash flow and income statements and exposed and exacerbated the issues that have been facing the American performing arts for decades.

What isn’t clicking? And, moreover, why should leaders of performing arts institutions even think to compete with the onslaught of top-tier virtually rendered content on Netflix and Hulu? Is it even worth evolving given the insane costs of creating quality content on our stages? Hamilton seems to be working just fine on Disney+…and boy is it a whole let less expensive for the consumer!

These questions were asked even before the pandemic hit. And now a need for a response has become more urgent than ever with the unprecedented blows that the industry has taken from Covid-19 — to the tune of a 12.5 billion dollar financial setback to the United States’ 120,000+ nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Per Americans for the Arts, 63% of these organizations believe that Covid will have a severe or extremely severe financial impact on their organizations, seventy thousand people have been laid off and over 10% of these organizations do not believe that they will survive the times.

So how should artistic directors, managing directors and boards of these organizations evolve them from models conceived for the industrial era, to those that are optimized to deliver in the knowledge / experience era, post-Covid? How can we shift arts institutions to generate better experiences for our audiences? And — most critically — how do we do that without clarity or precedent to draw from and amid so much complexity and uncertainty? And in a way that makes sense to non-believers?

First — we need to understand the evolution taking place. Next, we must define “experience” in the context of the American performing arts. Lastly, we must develop a way forward and — in doing so — clearly articulate a mission to achieve nationally and as individual organizations…and one that makes sense to folks that hold the money.

The (R)evolution Taking Place

The knowledge era is upon us (not to mention the Covid-19 era) and this has significant bearing on all industries, including the performing arts. The craft era was driven by scarcity. The goal on the part of consumers was merely to acquire things, given general obstacles to access (i.e. no roads!). Purveyors of performing arts product aimed to provide high touch service as a means of improving the rare arts adventure to those that were able to gain access. The art that was produced at the time was similarly “high touch” — such that there was little room for expression, subjectivity or speculation as the mission was to create high quality realistic portrayals of people and their lives. This was called “realism.”

The industrial era was all about scale. Multiple layers of management, divisions of labor, expanding and pushing and the louder and larger you are, the more likely you are to win. Which means that realism becomes too costly and a suboptimal, scalable solution…because how, with realism and all of its nuance and intricacy, can the performing arts attract and deliver for large swaths of individuals?

The response is threefold — organizationally, the proliferation of not-for-profit, regionally oriented theater companies with vague missions that work to appeal to everyone on a community-by-community basis across the states. The explosion of Broadway as a hub for “commercial” theater for the masses. Artistically — the introduction of expressionism by folks like Eugene O’Neill, Martha Graham, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Rogers and Hammerstein, Pina Bausch. How do you facilitate scale? Make work that can be interpreted subjectively!

And now we are in the midst of the transformation from the industrial era to the knowledge era, which is no longer about scale, but rather about choice, networks and connection. Why? Because of the proliferation of data through technology. And because that data can then be transformed into information or knowledge. And that knowledge drives better, more specific experiences for anyone with access to that knowledge. And, because of technology, access and connection are universal truths.

This transformation into a world of digital media recalls Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects which asks four critical questions:

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Marshall McLuhan

What does the medium enhance? In the case of the knowledge era performing arts organization — digital media creates immense opportunities to create and disseminate content beyond the proscenium stage and the four walls of a theater.

What does the medium make obsolete? The viability of large scale, one-size-fits-all theatrical solution for a communities’ needs. And the capacity for artists to hide bad, clumsy work behind expressionist tactics. They’re competing with Netflix and Hulu after all! And EVERYONE nowadays is a creator through social media…which means that clickbait and bad content is EVERYWHERE.

What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? I think that need for customer-centricity and specificity in developing content that was core to the craft era.

Lastly, what does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes? I believe that, amid Covid, the constant barrage of digital media makes us, perhaps, lust for totally analog experience. That, perhaps, the best experiences are not those that are most accessible, efficient or addressably personalized after all. How else can you explain folks suddenly willing to shell out $150++ to watch a concert through their windshield at a local mall or racetrack?

Interesting, then, that the knowledge era is sometimes thought to be the experience era. Because all of this information and connection should help to optimize experiences. Right?

The Definition of Experience

I’ve had countless, endless, exhausting arguments with folks around the nature and definition of “experience.” Is experience an event? Is it measured in memory? Is it a set of beliefs?

Kim Erwin, in her book “Communicating the New” goes so far as to offer a whole typology of experiences — that they can be exploratory, applications-based, extensions or immersive…without explaining what an “experience” is beyond a catch-all repository term for what somebody she quotes early in the book calls “doing things.” Ironically, Erwin suggests that “experiences must break with corporate convention and borrow from the best precedents in theater” and then conflates “theater” with “shtick,” “dry ice” and “dancing showgirls.” As arts people know, these tactics are not what lie at the conceptual center of the performing arts. Something else must be at play.

(Also — for what it’s worth — experiences typology aside, Erwin’s book is fabulous and I highly recommend reading it. Indeed, many of the ideas within the book inspired this article.)

Interestingly enough, my research into perceived degrees of experientiality indicates that the average experiential score for physical, analog concepts was nearly double that of correlative digital concepts (74% vs. 43%). Live music (89%) and live theater (86%) were far and away seen as the most experiential concepts and online shopping (37%) was seen as the least experiential concept. Best experiences were also seen as multi-sensory and interactive. All of which is to say that the live performing arts has a leg up in driving optimal experiences for audiences in the experience and knowledge era given the inherent associated high degrees of experientiality. But without a definition of experience and a baseline understanding for what it is, how will we be able to optimize them?

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Fishamble’s Logo

I’ve landed on a concept that was actually introduced to me by Gavin Kostick, who’s the literary manager at Fishamble: The New Play Company — a theatre company for new plays in Dublin, Ireland.

Experience is AGON — the wrestling match between two forces that are dependent on one another in order to grow and progress towards a core truth or revelation.

Gavin posits that agon, not conflict, is the root and driving force of all good drama. This is because conflict denotes discord and incompatibility, whereas agon signifies competition…which can be most engaging when two competing forces grapple in harmony.

In fact, Gavin argues that the best stories involve two opposing sides that are evenly matched, hurling one another towards a climax and some sort resolution or revelation. A young lover cannot achieve his/her one true love unless that love makes them work to win it. A young quarterback cannot triumph unless he can overcome his opponent (the rival team? the demons in his head?). The pupil cannot ascend to mastery unless she can prove herself to the demanding tutor. Hell — even Sisyphus cannot make it up the mountain for all eternity without that damned boulder to push! None of these examples is necessarily rooted in conflict and yet all are storylines that have yielded some of the most compelling dramatic experiences in the canon.

So…now let’s talk about experiences created by performing arts organizations and how agon functions in that specific context.

Arts leaders must look to drive the agon between their organization’s brand and its audience members.

In the knowledge era, this has been made incredibly complicated as the paradigm has shifted such that audience members generally have the upper hand in the wrestling match and not brands because they have SO MUCH CHOICE. Arts brands don’t win by screaming louder, pushing coupons, getting great reviews or driving a one-size-fits-all programming agenda for their community anymore. They win by tangoing with a specific set of audience members and demonstrating that they are the right choice for them in a sea of choices — through their programming, engagement initiatives, services, merchandise, facilities and beyond…in service of a mission.

Does this sound like a direct replication, then, of what occurred in the craft era? Do performing arts organizations need to invest in customer service in order to drive a way forward? Put another way: what is the difference between driving optimal experience and optimal services in the context of a performing arts organization?

I’ll answer this by demonstrating how context is hugely important in determining experience and how agon metamorphizes in context.

For example, let’s think of how actors, directors, and set designers function in the CONTEXT of an arts’ organization’s agon. In that context, they are the service providers working on behalf of the brand to intermediate between brand and audience member in service of the mission that the brand is looking to progress towards through its programming and other tactics. The service providers report to the leaders that are innovating on the brand accordingly — more often than not, in our arts organizations, the artistic director or managing director of the company. If the artistic director’s vision is wobbly, then (like if they choose to produce a Neil Simon chestnut — sidebar: I love Neil Simon, no harm no foul — and a new play by their best friend for no particular reason), and if the mission is diffuse, even the best service provider can only do so much.

This is different than how directors, set designers, actors function in the CONTEXT of a production. For when a theatrical experience / agon is reframed in the context of a production, the play itself becomes the principle (like Peter Drucker’s orchestral score becomes the principle in his famous “The Coming of the New Organization”), the director becomes the vision (in Drucker — the conductor), and the specialists — the designers and performers (and in Drucker — the musicians) — become the practice. Similarly, in this circumstance, if the principle (the play) is wobbly, then how can the vision from director and the practice from the actors and designers progress with one another towards achieving much of anything? No matter the quality of the director, actors or designers and their output…the play will still stink.

Finally, in the conception of a play itself — outside of a production or arts organization — directors, set designers and actors are all ancillary to the agon. The vision emanates from the playwright — the tacit knowledge around what it is that they want to create. The practice is the written word. And the mission is to make the tacit explicit for production by an arts organization.

The Future

What is the future of the performing arts, then, given that experience is agon? The ultimate goal in the wrestling match is for the two competing forces to get so wrapped up in it, for the battle to be so exhilarating, that they, together, conceive their own reality. Another way to put it — they co-create such meaningful value that they see one another as mutually aligned in achieving a principle, a mission, a core truth.

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Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Which brings us to how an arts organization’s leaders can drive superior experience within their organizations: by creating viable new offerings that help them to evolve their brand to achieve an upper hand in the agon with audience members — the wrestling match — in co-creating meaningful value, progressing towards the principle: the mission. An arts organization’s brand is the vision. Audience members are its practice. And practitioners and interpreters — from performers, to designers, to a space’s architects, to ushers, to bartenders to salespeople — are empowered to mediate across the two competing forces in service of the truth.

It is, then, critical to find the spoke around which the sides are competing in order to innovate to drive the next generation of performing arts organizations in this country. For, as evidenced by what’s playing out in the midst of Covid, those brands that do not innovate to compete with customers in moving towards a clearly articulated mission — which is not just industrial scale and profit — will die.

This is why the America’s industrial performing arts industry is destined to fail without wholesale change. Leaders are conflating the art form with liveness and using this as an excuse not to pivot in the midst of national decimation of the industry. We, collectively, lack a clear principle, a mission, towards which the performing arts world — its brands and audience members — can progress. Even visionary leaders are wandering around aimlessly without clarity of a mission at hand, throwing money at tactics and short-term solutions to avoid dealing with the underlying issue at play.

This also explains the constantly diminishing pool of cash left available to fund the performing arts, even though it is one of the most robust drivers of the American economy. $763.6 billion injected into the US economy per the National Endowment for the Arts — 4X more than agriculture and nearly double that of transportation or warehousing! The arts account for 4.2 percent of gross domestic product, and yet no leader seems to be able to clearly articulate a coherent principle that exists at its conceptual center that doesn’t sound something like “it makes us feel” or “we create the bold and expressive.”

What is Broadway’s mission beyond functioning as a promoter and disseminator of content? There isn’t one. Broadway is temporary real estate leased to individuals that create disparate agons of their own — some good, some wobbly, many not agons at all — to put them on stages at a premium cost.

What is the mission of most performing arts organizations across the country? “To produce bold, new American art for audiences that live in xy region.” Their leaders then go about producing the same exact work that was promoted on Broadway and off-Broadway the year previous…which often lacked agon of its own to begin with. They service a community by sourcing content that was developed separate and beyond that community and pushing it for consumption at a necessary but inordinately high price point amid billions of alternative options for entertainment, education, otherwise available at the click of a button. This is the ultimate industrial construct…and it simply no longer works today.

Now…denigrating the mission of arts organizations nationally doesn’t create much by way of a solution. What is the core truth towards which we should compete nationally in the knowledge / experience era? And how is it distinguishable from that of content creators or purveyors?

The answer is surprisingly simple, for now. There is not one viable mission around which everyone can compete — yet — because there is not a brand out there to set a vision to tango with the practice. Does the NEA set the vision? Broadway? Concord Theatricals? Agents? Live Nation? Yale University? Unions? (God forfend) Trump?

The collective mission is not yet defined. We don’t know what we are working towards. The work is indistinguishable from other content creators. Retailers are creators now! Phone manufacturers are creators! Have you been on Instagram or TikTok lately? Our kids are creators. Any national, industry-specific mission that tries to cater to hundreds of millions of stakeholders — without having done the national RESEARCH to inform the creation of a brand with vision enough to compete in service of it — would be so vague and tenuous such that it would be a waste of words and space. It would be the equivalent of the repository one-size-fits-all model that no longer works.

So what is the answer, then, for the future of YOUR performing arts organization? It’s twofold:

1. That there needs to be an organizing body, a brand established that can wrestle with our arts organizations in service of a mission — to optimize the performing arts in the United States of America. That brand is not yet established. It must be established.

2. Each and every arts institution across the country and around the world needs to pick the singular mission to which they are looking to progress with their audience members, and build out their brands to serve that wrestling match. That way, when we one day assemble to establish the larger overseeing brand, the research and experimentation will be done to inform what the American public is looking to wrestle against in the performing arts, what types of organizations should thrive and die in this industry in this new era, and then and only then, once we’ve validated our research, will we be able to feel like we are progressing, collectively, in service of the art form.

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Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash

The Organization

What does this experimentation look like in the context of your institution? The arts organization that you lead? Reframed — how do you find the conceptual center of your work? How do you find your mission, given the vast number of stakeholders to whom you report? The answer is the exact process that we will pursue once the experimentation is underway:

1. Go deep and narrow in your research. Ask questions of the audience members that you might be looking to serve. Establish insights that might, in turn, help to establish a core, singular mission to which audience members might want to progress. Understand what they want from your performing arts organization. Then go far and wide, and survey your potential audience. How you can innovate to develop a series of viable solutions to serve their needs?

2. Next, find the conceptual center of this research. What patterns have you detected? Is the mission of many to give voice to young Asian choreographers? To unleash the funniest new playwrights? Is it to transform great American literary classics into drama? Is it to inspire children to play the Blues? Is it to be happy? To feel moved? To escape? To belong? What keeps popping up? What is the problem to be solved. Synthesize this information and find a center of gravity. You’ve made a mess…and now it’s time to organize.

3. Next — frame the work by conceiving a mission…and a vision that can help audience members engage and compete in service of it. What does this solution look like, feel like? How is it activated through my programming, my services, my facilities and how does it serve the experience, the agon, the wrestling match in which I am competing with my audience members?

4. Build the solutions, target your constituents. Push tactical content alternatives through channels that engage your audience around those insights…that is co-created in service of that truth….and, through insights gleaned from the response, build out and introduce new thinking in response to evolve and grow the conversation, to continue to engage your audience in service of your mission.

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Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

There will be pushback. Board members who’ve donated thousands of dollars over the years that call this hooey. You yourself may be thinking that all of this sounds like poetry and that there is not a functional way forward despite or in spite of this pandemic. I do not know you and so it is difficult for me to craft my message so that it is resonant on an addressable level. That said, and if we were to engage in dialogue around these ideas after your having read my article…the onus would be on me to evolve and transform my communication so that it most makes sense for you. Not the other way around.

Which is to write that the best way to defang orthodoxies and to shift thinking as part of this development process — the conception or reconceptualization of your performing arts organization in the context of the post Covid-19 knowledge era — is to bring those most critical of your game plan into the development process. Think of them as a separate competing force in an agon of your own. How best to engage them? By finding a common mission and calibrating your vision to wrestle with them in pursuit of that shared mission. Ask: “How can I make them hear this in a way that makes sense to them?” Directly engage them. Provide structure. Build your agon.

In conclusion — the world is changing in drastic ways. We are operating in a new era — the knowledge era — amid a global pandemic, in which experience remains queen. What is experience? It is agon — the wrestling match between two forces in service of a core truth, principle, mission. Performing arts leaders need to innovate on the agon that they are looking to drive between their organization’s brand and their audience members in service of a singular mission. Nationally, arts leaders must experiment to find the most resonant and meaningful missions and visions with which to rebuild the industry. These experiments and the composition of a overarching governing body will help to inform an industry-wide agon of our own that will help us wrestle in service of progression towards a mission that will make the American performing arts world thrive in the world to come.

Alex Gruhin is a cross-functional intrapreneur, customer experience innovator and arts guru. ExperientialStrategy.com

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