When sitting with a group of New York friends, while they pine over the amount of stuff going on, one of them looks up and blurts out, "You don't have that problem in Houston, do you Nancy?"
Just look at this weekend; It's enough to send my arts-infested brain into a tizzy. According to the results of the most recent Americans for the Arts' Arts & Economic Prosperity study on The Greater Houston Area, we are an arts mecca, to the tune of $977.7 million of economic activity. Robert L. Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, gave a witty keynote at the Greater Houston Partnership luncheon in partnership with Houston Arts Alliance, delivering the good news, which he described as our "secret weapon."
You should see my calendar. Things crossed out, moved, arrows pointing to other days, question marks, attempts at being a two places at once. You would guess that its owner is decision-challenged, and you would be right.
But it all got me wondering, how do you all decide?
Meet the audience
The late and very loved in Houston Spalding Gray used to do a piece called Interviewing the Audience, which he performed in Houston during his many years visiting through Society for the Performing Arts. He would select one audience member and just talk with them on stage.
I'd like to interview the entire audience. Alright, maybe just rows D-F.
We talk about audiences a lot in the arts biz. There's audience engagement, development, outreach, building, the list goes on. We worry they are too old, too busy texting, that they would rather be at a bar with their friends. There are endless studies, reports and theories on the mysterious mob known as the audience. Without you folks, it's just the people on stage.
"But really, who is the audience?" I asked Lynch in a short visit after his talk. "The ticket buyers are the largest support of the arts in the country," he told me.
According to the Houston Arts Survey, conducted by Stephen L. Klineberg of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, 42 percent of all survey participants attended a live performance during the past 12 months.
Who wouldn't want to meet these people? So, unable to interview the entire or even part of the audience, I set off on the next best thing, to ask the person sitting next to me "What brought you to this show?"
Meet my row mates
The young smiling woman at Frame Dance Productions' The Black Space came because she knew artistic director Lydia Hance, and had even performed in her work. She's a devoted fan. I figured as much from her level of engagement. So what does that mean? Do we need more friends and to put more people in our work? Not exactly, but just like a business that starts out with friends and family as first investors, so it goes in the arts. Just don't let it end there. Tell your friends to bring a friend.
Curiosity got the fellow next to me off the couch for NobleMotion Dance's Spitting Ether. He had read about Jeremy Choate's tragic death, which led him to read more about his collaborations with NobleMotion. He had to see what it was all about. Judging from his eagerness to tell me his story, I'd say NobleMotion has a new fan. But let's examine this situation more closely. The man was intrigued by the story. Perhaps the narrative behind a show has more draw than we know.
A young woman at Red Handed Productions' puppet show at Deborah Colton Gallery came because she just moved back into town and wanted to get back into the arts. She thought that being an audience member was the best place to start. Now there's an idea!
The gentleman next to me at Houston Chamber Choir's opening show has a degree in vocal performance, has sung all his life and runs his church choir. Although he works in technology today, he has maintained a life-long investment in choral music. His story goes back to the idea of attachment to a discipline that runs deep. Will all the millions of students in high school choirs remain interested in choral music? Judging from the size of the crowd that night, I'm hopeful.
At Houston Ballet's Women@Art, I met the audience member we dream of, the holy "subscriber." If only there were more of you. We love people who make a commitment and stick to it, because you made a choice before you knew if something better might pop up. We had a long talk. Ballet audiences are a chatty bunch, with confidence in their opinions. She has lived in several cities with ballet companies, and always subscribes to the local ballet company. My kind of dance lover.
A curious thing happened to me at Houston Friends of Chamber Music during the Tokyo String Quartet's final appearance in Houston. I was about to ask "the question" when the person next to me asked, "What brings you here?" "Hey, that's my line," I thought to myself. Turns out, I'm not the only one who wants to interview the audience.
Her question made me consider the deeper the nature of an audience, which is essentially a group of strangers who all decide to spend a few hours in the dark together. It's a community, formed for one night, to share some art. Thinking about it that way made me want to tell my row mates, "Hey, let's do this again."
I didn't have to ask my row mates at Beauty & The Beast at the Gexa Energy Broadway at The Hobby Center. As soon as I sat down, I found out they were the family of Hassan Nazari-Robati, whose performance as Lumiere just about stole the show. Oh, about all that hootin' and hollarin' during the curtain call-row M.
Big thanks to all those who unknowingly sat next to me. A round of applause for "the audience."