Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good news from ArtsEmerson - and is Harvard's "populist" really all that popular?

The news is good from ArtsEmerson, even if the Globe doesn't want you to think so.

The Boston Globe includes an interesting statistic today - you have to look for it, though; it's buried in a hatchet job on ArtsEmerson by Laura Collins-Hughes. The article is clearly a response to the meme I first posited last fall - that ArtsEmerson's director, Robert Orchard, had pulled the intellectual rug right out from under the now-"populist" ART (his former employer).  By now I'd say that's the conventional wisdom - if you want to go to a baseball game, a strip club, or a Journey concert, you go to Harvard.  But if you want challenging theatre - that is, if you like Shakespeare with the words - you go to Emerson, which in one incredible year presented the dazzling millennial circus Psy, the hilarious Fräulein Maria, the stunning Aftermath, a brilliant social documentary by The Civilians, and a superb production of The Cripple of Inishmaan by the Druid Theatre. For a time, in fact, it seemed that everything Emerson touched was turning to gold - but of course, a few bombs eventually fell (like the Abbey Theatre's ridiculous Terminus), and the "big name" events, such as the visit by Peter Brook's troupe, or the tour of F. Murray Abraham's Merchant of Venice, turned out to be worthy, but slightly mixed, bags.

But you can't have everything, and even with those disappointments I still stand by my prediction of a few months back: the ArtsEmerson inaugural season did indeed prove to be the greatest theatrical season this town has seen in thirty years.

But anyway, back to why I'm jumping up and down this morning.  The Globe clearly has it in mind to question the staying power of ArtsEmerson - word on the street has it that several of their projects lost money, and judging from the announcement of their next season, they've slightly trimmed their sails.  Under pointed questioning, Orchard dodges the specifics of the program's finances, although he admits he'll be concentrating this year on fund-raising.  Still, he hasn't trimmed his seasonal sails by much, and even though ArtsEmerson is clearly relying on big-name draws from the BAM circuit (like John Malkovich) to boost their profile, they're also bringing back Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechs and the great Civilians.  They're also betting on the super-sexy Circa from Australia, who blur the line between circus and dance (and whom I caught in Edinburgh a year or two ago; don't miss them) - and are finally bringing in (they promise) current Met bad-boy Robert Lepage.  And there is sure to be at least one more great surprise lurking among the acts I don't know.

But how popular will such a line-up be?  In other words, can Boston really support this much theatre for smart people?  Or do we need a little dumbed-down Harvard sugar - or scotch - to swallow what's good for us?

Well, as it turns out - the numbers are kind of encouraging.  We're not as dumb as Harvard and the Globe wants us to believe we are.  ArtsEmerson sold around 50,000 tickets last year, it turns out - trailing, it's true, the Huntington (at 106,000) and the ART (at 82,000).  And part of ArtsEmerson's box office was no doubt due to the drawing power of F. Murray Abraham (whose performance as Shylock was actually disappointing, but if he pays the bills, invite him back!).  Still, 50,000 tickets actually strikes me as a respectable number for a maiden season largely populated with unknowns.  And the news gets better when you look at the "membership" numbers - in one year ArtsEmerson has signed up 4,000 people.

Now an ArtsEmerson "membership" isn't nearly as large a financial commitment as a subscription would be.  Still - having 4,000 people sign up for anything cultural is a very good sign in this town.  (Compare to Celebrity Series's 2700 subscribers.)  Plus, ArtsEmerson members in many cases look like new converts to the arts - two-thirds of them don't overlap with any other arts series.  (Yes, you read that right, startling as that number is.) And the news gets better - the ART can boast far less sustained interest from its patrons: it only has 2600 subscribers for those 82,000 tickets sold.  Indeed, the real news in the article is the following statistic - the Huntington has nearly four times as many subscribers as the ART does (a whopping 10,000 subscribers!).

When I read that, I suddenly felt another rug being pulled right out from under Diane Paulus & Co.  I suppose the evil Paulus is up where she needs to be in terms of single ticket sales - but let's be honest, take out the horny kids who hit The Donkey Show over and over, as well as all of Amanda Palmer's Facebook friends, and I'd bet you good money the ART isn't selling many more tickets than ArtsEmerson did in its inaugural year (and maybe only two thirds of the Huntington's haul).  And that's even with the advantages of Harvard's incredible brand and social reach, along with really constant promotion in the press, and open threats to local critics who don't toe the line (as well as a slew of awards from frightened scribes who know better than to cross the ART's dragon lady!).

And yet with all that, it's clear Paulus isn't really getting any kind of traction; she's not building anything.  The young audiences the aging diva so covets aren't really committing to her vision.  I mean, I knew the Huntington was more popular than the ART - although you never read that in the paper - but still, Peter DuBois has gotten four times the commitment from the community that Paulus has?  That's kind of incredible; I've been raving about them recently, but even I'm kind of surprised.  I'd say that's Boston theatre's best-kept secret.

The excuse for Diane Paulus's meagre artistic achievement, of course, has always been that she's a "populist," that, as Paulus apologist Christopher Wallenberg put it in a recent article, her "whole mission" is to follow the audience.  (That's right: avant-garde theatre that follows the audience.  Can you spell o-x-y-m-o-r-o-n, Chris?)

But what do you have when your "populism" isn't really all that popular - when you're a series of flashes in the pan, when people check you out because they've heard you're dirty and loud, but then don't come back?  Well, I know what people like Christopher Wallenberg and Ed Siegel will prescribe - Harvard needs more Red Sox, more tits and ass!  Because after all, the millennials just don't commit, do they; they're so cheap they won't even pay for their favorite albums; so how could you expect more than an anemic subscription base for an organization targeting them?  You have to string the kids along from thrill to thrill, the way a video game or a porn site does.

There's some truth to this - but it's not the kind of truth that really helps Diane Paulus.  Because in the end memberships and subscriptions do point to the long-term health of an organization.  And somehow it seems the Huntington and ArtsEmerson, which are facing the same environment as the ART, are doing better at getting folks to commit; indeed, ArtsEmerson seems to be much better at pulling new converts into the high-culture fold - supposedly Paulus's specialty - and with real, not fake, art!  Which maps to a disconnect I've already perceived between what I hear informed Bostonians say and what I read in the print press; I never run into anyone, frankly - outside the Harvard/media echo chamber, that is - who takes Diane Paulus or the ART seriously.  When people say they like a Paulus show, it's always prefaced with an embarrassed little laugh that tells you "I know it was kind of stupid, but I'd drunk a little too much, okay?  So I kind of liked it." I'm beginning to realize that somewhere deep inside, believe it or not, people still know that Amanda Palmer can't sing, and that Aeschylus didn't write a rock opera, and that The Donkey Show isn't Shakespeare. And I believe Paulus's numbers reflect that.  And so I think - or at least for the first time I hope - that in those numbers I can finally see the light at the end of a long tunnel at the ART.

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