Hits, Runs and Errors

April 25th, 2011 § 0 comments

I am not a fan of professional sports. I have nothing against them (for that, you have to get me started on college sports and the ethical and educational issues involved), I just don’t connect with them the way so many do. For the record, I enjoy the occasional baseball or hockey game or tennis match (live and in-person, of course), but I don’t live and die by the fortunes of any team. And yet I feel that the arts could learn a lot from sports.

Sports certainly command much greater attention overall than the arts. Even the smallest newspaper, in these embattled times for the print media, have a daily sports section; not so for the arts. Local TV stations all have their nightly sports report, while arts related stories (outside of accidents or scandals) are lucky to occasionally turn up as the “kicker” just before the segue to national news, Leno or Letterman. Countless colleges (and here’s where I get riled again) offer various sports scholarships to lure top athletes, while I’m unfamiliar with performance scholarships outside of schools with major performing arts courses of study, and even those are relatively scarce. Broadcasts of sporting events blanket the airwaves week in and week out, while the arts are relegated to PBS, Ovation and twice annually (The Tonys and The Kennedy Center Honors) to CBS.

So what can we learn?

Surely frequency is not the issue, since there are countless “major league” arts performances around the country every night. The audience for live arts performances is (at least according to figures I heard once upon a time) comparable to the live audience for sporting events (and let’s not forget that the trend in stadium building is to go smaller, not bigger). While arts fundraising is at a particularly challenging juncture, sports fans don’t buy tickets and make contributions to support their teams, and in fact plenty make no financial commitment beyond a TV set and cable or satellite service.

It is not too outlandish to think that perhaps sports and the arts have comparable audiences (when you factor in school performances, amateur productions and the like). So perhaps the issue is one of perception and not necessarily participation. Herewith, a few thoughts on the matter.

1. We are not well organized. Despite the best efforts of national organizations like (using theatre examples) TCG and local organizations ranging from ART/NY to Theatre Bay Area, the arts remain a patchwork quilt of activity at the professional level. While artists would surely resist the oversight of anything akin to the sports leagues, the marketing and promotional benefits of such associations provide a highly professional means of advertising each sporting discipline. And while we now have the NFL as a Broadway producer, with the NBA not far behind, you won’t see the League of American Orchestras sponsoring a team at NASCAR.

2. We don’t offer enough variety. Sit down, sit down, listen before you shout. While there is in fact a vast array of arts on offer, each show, each exhibition is, ideally, a fixed event (or that’s our goal, consistency). Whether a production has four performances or forty, the event itself is relatively unchanging from night to night, while every sporting event promises a different outcome. Consequently, a play, a concert, a dance piece, once reported upon, doesn’t necessarily warrant (in the eyes of the media) a second or third write up. Opera seems to have an advantage here, since the major companies rotate casts in the same productions regularly, and as a result, where there is comprehensive arts coverage, a single production can be reviewed many times. Can we do more to change things up, such as Ayckbourn’s infinitely tricky Intimate Exchanges, eight plays with 16 endings, or the various courses one can follow through Sleep No More?

3. We employ a veil of secrecy. Many years ago, I read a provocative essay (which I deeply regret not being able to credit properly or provide a link to), in which the author suggested that sports get more attention that the arts because they invite the press in at every step in the process. There are reporters at spring training, at pre-season games, conducting interviews in locker rooms before and after games. In contrast, the arts tightly control access to artists and perhaps even more so, to process. Can we be more open at every step of creation?

4. Parental guidance is delegated. Far be it from me to denigrate arts education programs, but there’s something a bit curious about them, in that they essentially allow others to take the primary responsibility for educating our children about the arts. While I realize that many parents may not have knowledge of or inclination towards the arts, isn’t it peculiar that I learned the rules of sports from my dad (who is no buff either) from a very young age, while my arts education was all by people to whom I had no particular emotional connection, namely my teachers. Especially at a time when arts education is threatened, doesn’t it make sense to advocate and support efforts in which the arts are a family activity, rather than a school-based one?

To paraphrase a line from playwright Bill Cain, I don’t have all the answers, I just want to ask better questions. And so I am fascinated by fan engagement with sports and I constantly ponder it, examine it for solutions which might afford the same level of attention and enthusiasm for the arts. I don’t mean to minimize the extraordinary efforts made by so many – umbrella organizations, dedicated arts educators, passionate and evangelical fans – but I keep hoping that we can do better, especially when I am deluged by conversations about basketball brackets, world championships (that are, egocentrically, only U.S. championships), and spectacular television ratings. After all, we’re well behaved, why can’t we have nice things?

And maybe that’s it – we’re too well-behaved. The arts have to not merely break out of the box (and indeed, we perform our work in boxes for the most part) but smash the box altogether. If we can be truly unpredictable, infinite in our variety, assiduous in our lobbying for attention and creating our own avenues for that attention, then maybe we’ll get more than we get today, in eyeballs, in funding and in understanding.

A final word, about the title of this piece. One of my former bosses, who shall go nameless, often troops out a timeworn metaphor when talking to Rotary Clubs or government officials about the work of theatre, comparing it to baseball while also acknowledging that everything we do will not succeed. He has honed this particular elevator speech and employed it so often that any staff member can “sing along” with him every time he lapses into it (much to his consternation). But after many years of teasing him about this odd, all-occasion St. Crispin’s Day speech for the theatre, I have come to realize that while it may need some refreshing, there is something very smart at its core: not unlike a politician, he has adopted the language of the competition in order give others some insight into our world, since that language is the lingua francaof the American public, while ours is esoteric and mysterious. Perhaps trying to level the playing field (a phrase surely derived from some sporting event) isn’t the worst idea in the world.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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