Criticism and Metrics of Success

For my most recent Managing Expectations article for American Theatre Magazine, I was asked to share some thoughts on the current landscape of theater criticism in the United States. The article entitled “Tastemaking in a Post Newspaper World” can be found here. Since writing the column, I’ve continued to ruminate on criticism, particularly in light of the metrics that we use to define success in the American theatre.

While acknowledging the important role that critics serve and their significant impact on my career and the development of new plays that I’ve produced, I’m perplexed why any individual critic has so much power to determine success and quality in our field. A critic is one person. A human being who, like all of us, brings preferences, biases and worldviews with them to the theater. A large regional theater can serve more than a quarter of a million patrons annually, have 20k+ subscribers and potentially 5k+ donors, so why do we accept the pronouncement of quality or success from any one person?

Historically, we’ve looked to singular authority figures for the diffusion of knowledge and information. Naturally, a critic’s power grew because of their reach – the larger their readership, the more influence they have and often historically, the critic from a community’s largest media outlet was the only source that could reach millions of people at once. But with rapidly declining circulations of many newpapers and technological innovations that can harness the voices of the collective, the communications power structure has flattened and hierarchy is diminishing.

Like with many things related to technological innovation, as a field, we are behind. Almost every other field has adapted to this new reality. In film, it has gone from Siskel and Ebert to Rotten Tomatoes. In education, students select professors based on RateMyProfessors.com. Travel has TripAdvisor. Health has WebMd and Healthgrades. And then of course there is Yelp, Google and Facebook reviews for all else. Personally, Rotten Tomatoes is my favorite as it aggregates both professional and lay person reviews, so the reader can consider both given that professional and user generator criticism play separate, but equally important roles.

While crowd-sourced reviews certainly have their limitations, they have not yet risen to the level of influence within the American theater as they have in other industries. As such, the traditional model remains predominant, along with its inherent challenges…

Lack of Diversity. Critics around the country have called for a better representation of women and people of color in theater leadership and plays selected for production. This is absolutely a fair criticism given recent research and the lack of progress over decades. However, as we look at the various systems of power and privilege in the American theatre, we rarely discuss the lack of diversity amongst critics in the country. Critic Lyn Gardiner, in her excellent article “Criticism needs to Change,” highlights the various issues lack of diversity causes and in an excellent series on theater criticism in American Theatre Magazine, Maya Phillips in her article “Black Bodies, White Writers” shares her observations as well. In looking at the top 10 newspapers by circulation, consider that 80% of the chief theater critics are white men.

Personal Bias. We all have preferences and we bring our whole selves to work, preferences and all. For some of us, we can tailor our preferences to fit our jobs. For example, I prefer live performance, the ability to produce a variety of work, and love developing new plays. I have my perfect fit where I work and probably wouldn’t be as happy working at a theater festival that focuses exclusively on the classics. Therefore, I’ve always wondered if a critic with a strong preference for a particular genre can ever equally appreciate the breadth of work found in our field or if they dislike the body of work of a specific artist, can they give a production that features that artist a fair shake? Particularly assuming that most journalists, including critics, are assigned what they cover by editors, and therefore must review in many cases outside their personal preferences.

Credibility. As revenues fall for print publications, publishers are looking for expense cuts. Newsrooms are being decimated and fulltime journalists are being replaced by freelancers, some of whom are highly qualified, and others are clearly not. If readers are going to seek professional criticism from a singular expert, don’t media outlets have the ethical responsibility to make sure the writer is competent in the field assigned? I’ll never forget years ago when I greeted a new reviewer who had been assigned to his first review, which happened to be a high-profile world premiere. I didn’t know him, so I personally welcomed him and gave him a tour of the theater. In the first couple of minutes, he said they had just downsized their newsroom and he was now reviewing theater even though he was the food critic, because his editor thought that food and theater would “pair well together.” I remember thinking…I like to eat. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But I’m fairly certain I’m not qualified to write a professional food review.

Beyond Criticism. In the course of a review, I’ve seen instances of critics venturing well beyond the professional realm of artistic critique. Over the years, communities have protested perceived instances of body shaming, racial insensitivity and social commentary on tangentially related topics. Probably the most visible in recent times was the bruhaha in Chicago over a review of Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced critics stepping away from criticism to offer up a wide body of other advice from plays they want the theater to produce to which authors they like and what should be the theater’s strategic priorities. Are these meant to be helpful suggestions or instances where a critic is trying to influence artistic direction? Can theaters politely ignore the suggestions if we disagree, or even worse if it is well beyond their missions, or will the critic take offense?

In our field, even with the above, we continue to use professional reviews as nearly the only currency when measuring artistic worth. When applying for grants, funders ask theaters to submit reviews. When looking to program our seasons, we read reviews particularly for newer work. When marketing our shows, we plaster review quotes all over our ads and websites. I don’t mean to suggest that professional reviews don’t have a considerable place in evaluating work, only that they shouldn’t be the only metric considered.

We have to start looking at other objective and wholistic measures of success. Here are some suggestions (and don’t suggest awards…there’s a separate article coming on that)…

  • Audience Surveys and Market Research. In making any business decision, would you ever rely on a focus group of one person? Why not solicit feedback from audience surveys or conduct focus groups? I’ve used Shugoll Research on multiple occasions to better understand what our audiences think of our programming, pricing, service and a multitude of other factors.
  • User Generated Reviews. Why not ask audiences to post their reviews on user generated review sites and then promote their candid assessments? A collective of voices will represent a greater diversity of people and statistically offset personal bias with a large enough sample size.
  • Assessment Tools. How does your theater assess mission achievement? Have you designed sophisticated assessment practices to determine progress toward strategic goals? Are you measuring to gauge the impact of artistic, engagement and educational programming?
  • Attendance, Loyalty and Demographics. Are your audiences increasing or decreasing? Do you have high subscription renewal rates and are you able to convert first time attendees to multi-buyers? Are you widening the demographics of patrons served?
  • Peer Review. Does your theater invite experts from the field to observe and evaluate your programs, productions and business practices? Do you have a body of external experts that advise, counsel and coach?

 

Before you ask for a donation, earn it (and donors beware).

As we head into October, like clockwork it is that time of the year again – the fall annual appeal. This time every year, non-profits send out millions of solicitation letters nationwide hoping that generous donors will once again answer their calls for support. For performing arts organizations, contributed revenue can be upwards of 80% of an organization’s budget, and for most, the majority of gifts from individuals come in the last quarter of the year. As December rolls around, we hope that the pocketbooks of our donors will open more freely than Mr. Scrooge’s did.

But, it is also a moment for reflection and a moment to ask – did we earn the gift that we are requesting? Sometimes it is hard for non-profits to admit that we are not entitled to receive any philanthropic support particularly when trend studies show that in many communities competition for support is increasing. Take Milwaukee for example. In 2014, the Public Policy Form authored a report entitled “Give and You Shall Receive” on the state of the non-profit sector including revenue streams and philanthropic support. One finding caught my eye – since 1989, the arts experienced the most severe decline of any philanthropic category dropping nearly 50%, while at the same time the Greater Milwaukee metropolitan area experienced a 147% increase in the number of arts non-profits. Giving to the arts as a percentage of charitable giving tightened while the choices available to donors exploded begging the question — why should a donor give to your organization?

Below are the questions that donors should consider when contemplating a gift…

  • Is the organization fulfilling its mission and does the mission align with your giving priorities? Non-profits have a single purpose – to fulfill their mission – and presumably, a donor gives to a non-profit that can best fulfill a mission that aligns with their priorities. When considering a gift, donors should research an organization’s programs and inquire about how much of an organization’s revenue goes to programs. This is not to say that a portion of gifts should not go to overhead, only that a reasonable amount be appropriated reserving the majority for programmatic advancement.
  • Can an organization demonstrate a return on your investment?
    As a Managing Director of a theater company, my job is to work closely with donors to ensure a maximum return on their investment. And let’s not shy away from it – a donation is an investment and donors should expect a return, not for financial gain, but gain for the community the non-profit serves. Sometimes arts organizations are not as good as we should be on determining impact in part because it can be difficult to measure the intrinsic impacts of the arts, but in other cases it is because we don’t utilize rigorous assessment tools to a large degree. I believe that if it is important and can be measured, arts organizations must measure and track, otherwise we cannot demonstrate progress toward mission fulfillment, impact on our targeted populations, and importantly a return on a donor’s investment.
  • Is the organization financially stable and managed well?
    The leading charity evaluator in the world, Charity Navigator, states on its website that “financially healthy organizations – those that are both financial efficient and sustainable – have greater flexibility and freedom to pursue their charitable mission.” Put another way, as a donor, you should know where your money is going. If an organization is financially healthy and well managed, gifts can be put to immediate use to fund programs rather than to pay down debt or eliminate structural deficits. If an organization is constantly in crisis, there is probably good reason and is that where you’d like to invest? In the arts world, a classic case study can be found with the Washington National Opera in Washington, DC. After years of financial instability, even its rock-star leader Placido Domingo, arguably the most notable opera singer in the world, couldn’t convince donors to continue to invest in a company that was constantly in crisis as donors came to realize their gifts weren’t going to good use. Major donors made the decision that instead of throwing good money after bad, they were going to allow the only opera company in the nation’s capital to go bankrupt. Luckily, the Kennedy Center came to the rescue.
  • Do you trust the leadership of the organization?
    Once you give a gift, you are trusting that the leaders of the organization will use it well. So donors should ask themselves, particularly when making a major gift, a few questions:

    • How well do I know the leadership of the organization and are they worthy of my trust?
    • Do the leaders of the organization conduct themselves in an ethical manner?
    • If you have confidence in the leadership team, will they be around long enough to steward your gift?
    • Does the organization have a strong board, as ultimately the direction of any non-profit organization rests with the board of trustees?
  • Has the organization stewarded you well?
    As a donor, how has the organization recognized your contribution? Do you receive a hand-signed gift acknowledgement letter thanking you for your generosity within a couple weeks of your gift? Do you have a personal relationship with the staff and/or leadership? Perhaps it is because I grew up in the Midwest, but I put a premium on personal touches. I take the time to get to know each of the donors in my portfolio. We send flowers for life’s big moments, like the arrival of a new baby. I start my morning writing thank you notes. And we find meaningful engagement opportunities. If an organization demonstrates care in stewarding its donors, usually they demonstrate a commensurate level of care putting donations to good use.

Bottom Line: Donors shouldn’t give to a non-profit because they need it. All non-profits need philanthropic support. Donors should be selective in their approach and make strategic investments in non-profits that have earned their support through exceptional programs, demonstrated impact, managerial excellence, ethical leadership and meaningful stewardship.

Launch of “Managing Expectations” – American Theatre Magazine

A couple of months ago, American Theatre Magazine editor-in-chief Rob Weinert-Kendt asked me if I would be interested in contributing to the magazine as a writer focusing on issues of leadership, producing and management. I’ve been a fan of Rob’s ever since my days in Los Angeles when he was the editor of Back Stage West. So I leapt at the opportunity, while freely admitting that I’m not a professional journalist – merely a practitioner, and by nature, I’d have to write from a practitioner’s point of view.  The result is a new monthly column called “Managing Expectations.”

My first article – “Safe Programming is a Big Risk” – published this week. As many theaters head into season planning and budgeting, I share some thoughts on the management and perception of risk and the role of Executive Directors/Managing Directors in advocating for mission.

Please check it out: http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/09/26/safe-programming-is-a-big-risk/

Towards a Mission of Service

A year after I joined Milwaukee Rep, we had put out a few fires and were ready to take on strategic planning. Little did we know that the process would take a year and lead us to redefine our mission. We had just celebrated six decades of proudly serving our community including groundbreaking cultural exchanges with Japan and Russia, the conversion of an abandoned power plant into a state of the art three-theater complex, and collaborations with legendary artists such as Tadashi Suzuki’s first American residency. Milwaukee’s track record of innovation and service prepared us well both artistically and financially to discern how best to continue its legacy.

From our planning work, the theater embraced a vision that Artistic Director Mark Clements had embarked on three years prior when joining the company, but had yet to formally adopt as its mission. Once complete, the new mission realigned the theater toward maximizing its resources for the betterment of our community. In many ways, this steered the ship into uncharted territory, and for me has been some of most fulfilling work in my career and a wonderful opportunity for learning.

Soon after planning, we launched Mpact, an initiative that coordinated efforts between our education, community engagement and marketing departments toward using the creative assets of the theater to create a better tomorrow for Southeastern Wisconsin. Mpact exponentially increased programming aimed at strengthening and celebrating Milwaukee, nurturing diversity and inclusion, and building social-emotional learning and literacy. As we look back on the first two years, there is much to be thankful for and a fair share of lessons learned. Below are the standouts:

Sometimes you can’t wait for an invitation, but we must listen first. In the wake of the devastation in Houston, one of the most unusual stories to emerge was the delay of Joel Osteen’s mega-church in sheltering displaced residents. In part, Mr. Osteen explained that he was waiting on an invitation from the city to create a shelter, unlike several others who saw what needed to be done and did it. For those that have a mission of service, when need is apparent, we can’t wait for an invitation to do the right thing. But, we must actively listen to ascertain how best to help. Sometimes arts organizations can make inaccurate and costly assumptions, leading to unnecessary programs that do not effectively address need. Driven by funders, artists and educators with sometimes the best of intentions, to those on the receiving end, these programs can become prescriptive and woefully inadequate. Listen. Learn. Program. Evaluate. Improve. Our most successful programs at Milwaukee Rep began with a spirit of inquiry and a simple question – how can the assets of our theater be leveraged in service of others, as they are told to us, not as we perceive they are.

Reorient your idea of success. We often ask what does success look like? Non-profit arts organizations should have a single primary metric of success – are we achieving our mission? To answer that question, leaders must recognize that if something is important, it should be measured to the best of our abilities. In the arts, all too often we look to external reinforcements as primary indicators of success. While positive press and awards may be nice, orienting an organization’s perception of success around them can be self-serving rather than mission-serving leading to an abundance of flash and a dearth of substance. Or conversely, it can cause an exceptional organization to question itself purely on the basis of an awards committee. Really? We must develop assessment tools to measure mission achievement and impact, and use those as our true north.

Towards abundance and away from scarcity.
Managing non-profit arts organizations isn’t for the weak of heart. Many have not rebounded since the great recession, several have little to no working capital, and funding for the arts in many localities as a percent of overall philanthropy has been declining for decades. This can lead non-profit managers to develop a scarcity mentality and a desire to protect their turf. Scarcity thinking stifles collaboration, impedes creativity and leads to redundancy. We must embrace that systemic change cannot be achieved through our actions alone. To be the change we wish to see, we must help strengthen others as a primary means of creating a better tomorrow. Imagine the powerful partnerships that can develop if first we seek to be helpful to others? Managers that view funding as a zero-sum game, in which to win others must lose, don’t fully appreciate that funders don’t exist to keep us in business, but rather to advance strategic goals. In my experience, the overall funding pie often increases when non-profits work together to realize greater achievements that could not have otherwise occurred individually.

Sprinkles on the cupcake. When we changed our mission, we clearly defined its new pillars. While we were predominantly known for high-quality productions, on their own, they would no longer be enough to declare success. Our work now must: 1) create positive change, 2) provoke, inspire and entertain, and 3) serve an audience reflective of Milwaukee’s rich diversity. While all programs begin with the art we create, education and engagement are as central to our mission. I once heard a manager refer to his theater’s engagement programs as “sprinkles on the cupcake.” To him, they were ancillary and secondary to the plays in their season. Personally, I believe this may be why in part some theaters have lost touch with their communities. While we can’t sacrifice production quality, we must understand that a great cupcake has more ingredients than just good productions.

Now is our moment. By their nature, 501(c)3 organizations are limited in terms of political advocacy. We can’t attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of our activities and we can’t participate in political campaign activity. That said, many of our organizations were founded as tax-exempt entities based on educational purposes. In a divisive political climate, particularly for those of us operating in purple states, we must clearly define our educational mission and live by it. To me, the power of the theater isn’t in a didactic approach, rather in our ability to bring disparate groups together for shared live experiences that examine varying worldviews. We have the power to create spaces that are welcoming and inspirational to all. Where dissent and respectful dialogue are not only allowed, but encouraged. Today, many of our patrons curate news, friends and content to exclusively match their worldview while “unfriending” those that don’t leading to a worrisome trend where our ability to civilly engage with each other is atrophying. Perhaps now more than ever before in recent times, we can demonstrate the intrinsic value of the arts. Sitting on the sidelines at this moment might be viewed as playing it safe, but those that do, communicate volumes in their inaction. Our artists should lead at a moment when they are so needed.

New vs. Existing: A Time for Every Patron

As a chief marketing officer, consultant and now managing director, I’ve participated in my fair share of marketing committee meetings. One of the most hotly debated topics is whether to focus resources on developing new audiences or on increasing loyalty to bolster return on investment and per capita revenue. Two camps usually square off – the artistic team and trustees vs. the professional marketing staff.

Can you guess which sides of the argument they typically represent?

Nothing is sexier to most artistic directors and trustees than developing new audiences. On the other hand, marketing directors with limited resources are constantly trying to find ways to do more with less, which means developing ways to increase returns, and naturally, some shy away from audience development because it requires significant upfront capital, both monetary and personnel, with limited short-term gains.

Here are three things I’ve learned over the years…

1) If your company is in financial trouble, a heavy focus on new audiences might be the nail on the coffin. The first order of business is to understand why you’re in trouble to begin with. I once had a client that was posting million dollar plus deficits year after year, and they couldn’t understand what was going wrong, as the number of new households that were purchasing was up 24% in two years. But, for every new person that was walking in the front door, twice as many were running out the back. There was an abrupt and substantial change in programming which accomplished what they intended – large numbers of new audiences were coming, however it also had the unintended consequence of driving an established core audience away. Subscriptions were in a free fall, but a new under-30 membership program was skyrocketing. The financials were problematic. It cost $0.13 on the dollar to renew current subscribers and $0.62 on the dollar to acquire new under-30 members, while at the same time, the per capita revenue from the under-30s was 42% less. If the company was capitalized well, over time the gamble might have paid off. But they completely underestimated the costs of a heavy acquisition campaign over multiple years, and found themselves in the position of taking loans from their endowment to cover payroll.

2) If your company is financially stable, not investing in new audiences will slowly kill you. When I was the director of marketing and membership at the Smithsonian Associates, my immediate predecessor was somewhat legendary, known for being a great analytical strategist. I joined just as the world economy was starting to rebound from the global economic crisis, and to help shepherd the organization through rough waters, every department at the Smithsonian was asked to find ways to do more with less. On the surface, the data and financials in my department looked pretty healthy – we were spending less and revenues were steady, which was about all you could expect at that time. But under the surface was something troubling. To reduce cost of sale and increase ROI, a decision was made to cut expenses earmarked to acquire new visitors and patrons, and developmental money was jettisoned for new programs and experiences. For the time being, on paper, things were great. But in looking ahead, we didn’t have a pool of cultivated prospects to convert into members; even with a great membership renewal rate of above 85%, without new prospects and patrons, we were in trouble. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest cultural organization, and perhaps the most financially stable. It was clear that a sizable investment to develop new visitors and patrons would not risk the overall health of the organization, but without an investment, memberships would steadily decline thereby jeopardizing key programs in the coming years.

3) Product is the most important of the marketing P’s in developing new audiences. When I was in my 20s, I was often hired as a technology and marketing consultant who was tasked with helping mature organizations reach Millennials. However, most organizations viewed audience development as a marketing activity, and few paid enough attention to product development. Facebook + Twitter + Snapchat does not = younger audiences. Those tasked with developing new audiences should work closely with their artistic colleagues to create experiences that are attractive to their targeted demographics. Without the right product, other strategies will fall on deaf ears.

In coming to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2013, I was fortunate to join a company that was on the rise. They had a talented staff, a relatively new Artistic Director that had excited audiences, and the stability of being a large LORT theater with a 60-year history. However, over more than a decade, the company had amassed an accumulated operating deficit of nearly $1 million and was coming off an unexpectedly rough year with some unusual circumstances leading to a near $375,000 operating deficit, although the company had increased in size by almost 20% in the prior three years. Along with members of the senior leadership team, TRG Arts and Management Consultants for the Arts, we conducted an exhaustive situational analysis of all of our business lines. One finding I did not expect – we were heavily underinvested in marketing, which for a company that has a 65/35 split between earned and contributed revenue, probably wasn’t good. Some wanted to increase marketing expenditures substantially and immediately to acquire new audiences, but the data showed that doing so would have exacerbated our underlying structural deficit. So, we decided to temporarily reduce our operating budget by nearly 5%, maintain our marketing expenditures, focus on building loyalty, and launch an aggressive fundraising campaign to widen our evergreen base of annual fund donors.

In that first year, we ended with a 5% operating surplus, and two years later, have not only restored all cuts, but have significantly expanded. Also, our accumulated operating deficit stemming back to 2004 was completely eliminated, and we’ve been able to use operating surpluses to build cash reserves so that when the next recession hits (and it will), we’ll be prepared. Our operating budget is now the largest it has ever been supported by a business model that has proven to operate in the black consistently for three years. Circumstances have now changed. If we don’t invest in cultivating new audiences now, we will be in as much trouble in a few years as if we would have invested in new audiences just a few years ago. Data drives strategy. Don’t go on a hunch. And realize that sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong approach, merely the right time to pursue each.