Those of you who have read my On Our Minds posts over the years will know that I have a passion for circus arts (although I keep my own feet firmly planted on the ground). Awareness of circus arts has blossomed in recent years, in part due to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil and more recently (and sadly), the demise of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. There has also been an explosion of circus training programs across the country, providing people of all ages and capacities the opportunity to enjoy the challenges and rewards of circus training at the amateur level. Further, innovative new permutations of the art form such as social circus, a social intervention approach based on the circus arts, have received increasing recognition.

Dozens of circus organizations were featured this summer in Washington, DC at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In conjunction with the Festival, the NEA welcomed nearly 200 circus arts professionals to their offices to engage in a conversation about the state of the field, marking another step along the path to broader recognition of circus as an art form. Many in the circus world were happy to see a subsequent article on the NEA website by Michael Orlove, Director of Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works, in which he stated: “It is our job, collectively, to see that this unique art form receives the requisite attention and unconditional support it so deserves.” While there is still a long way to go before this translates into a formal recognition by funders and actual grant dollars, it marks a significant shift from earlier dismissive attitudes about the world of circus. It will be interesting to see where this leads!

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I’m pleased to announce that arts research, planning, and strategy consultant Victoria Plettner-Saunders has joined WolfBrown. Before joining WolfBrown, Victoria managed her own private consulting practice, v.p.s. cartographie, for 12 years providing “navigational” assistance for arts and culture organizations, philanthropic foundations, government arts agencies, and individuals. She continues this work as a Principal with WolfBrown, bringing her expertise in planning for communities, arts agencies, and cultural institutions as well as providing research and analysis on topics such as the creative workforce, arts education, community arts, arts leadership, creative career development, and the cultural workplace.

Victoria has figured prominently in local arts agency planning and community cultural planning projects that have led to measurable impacts on communities such as Nashville, San José, Santa Ana, and Laguna Beach. She has assisted a wide range of organizations and initiatives including the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex (Pomona, CA); Lux Art Institute (Encinitas, CA); Dance Place at Liberty Station (San Diego, CA), San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Cooperative Charter Schools, and the Port of San Diego’s Office of Arts and Culture. She is a recognized arts education advocate, writer, planner and researcher on the role of arts education in community settings, and was Chair of Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council from 2010 to 2013.

For 2017, Victoria is teaming with urban planner and public art consultant Todd W. Bressi and public art consultant Meridith McKinley of Via Partnership to create the first Arts Master Plan for the San Diego International Airport, which aspires to engage airport visitors in new and unexpected ways.

Over the years, Victoria has developed an abiding interest in the creative workforce, which infuses all of her work. Her publications on this topic include articles for the University of Oregon’s CultureWork including most recently, Coming of Age: A Decade of Change in the American Arts Workforce. In 2004, she started San Diego’s first leadership program for emerging arts professionals and later conducted statewide research for the James Irvine Foundation on next generation leadership in the arts, which led to initiatives that currently support a network for California emerging arts leaders. She is the Creative Director of, a job search website that connects qualified, passionate arts job seekers with employers.

Prior to her consulting career, she was Managing Director for Malashock Dance; Business and Marketing Director for the Playwrights Project; Executive Director of San Diego Dance Institute, and held various staff positions at the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. Victoria holds an MA in Arts Education/Community Cultural Services from the University of Oregon.

Based in San Diego, Victoria enjoys collaborating with a wide range of consultants including her husband, David Plettner-Saunders, Managing Partner with the Cultural Planning Group.

Contact Information for Victoria Plettner-Saunders:
Telephone:  (619) 540-2925

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Although Ira Gershwin said, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” that is not the case for most non-profit arts and culture groups, including those which operate on an academic calendar or June 30 fiscal year. The quest to generate more resources to reach more people is a 365 day a year, 24/7 endeavor, which is why no one in the arts holds a “mission accomplished” celebration.

While passion for an organization’s public service mission is laudable and perseverance essential to success, there is a risk of failure when a non-profit does not manage its administrative resources as carefully as those for its programs. This requires resisting pressure to reduce staff below minimum levels without reducing program scope, as well as not giving into the corollary temptation to increase programs without insuring they are adequately staffed.

This is not to suggest that non-profit leaders should be profligate; conserving organizational resources must always be a priority. In this quest, however, leaders should avoid the resource drain of “perfectionism” that can result from an inexorable, unrealistic pursuit of excellence. Every client I work with has “excellence” or “quality” as a core value, as it should be. Yet any strength can become a weakness, if it is not regulated properly. As non-profit social media expert and author Beth Kanter points out in a recent blog post about non-profit workplace stress, “Perfectionism is an internal mindset where we tell ourselves that bad things in the world will happen if our campaign, program or whatever is not perfect from the beginning, delivered with 500% [effort] and on a self-determined, but unrealistic deadline. Perfectionism is the enemy of learning and ultimately of getting improved impact. It also makes work life really stressful.”

Kanter also provides a link to a article called Satisficing, which she says is “the act of stepping back and stopping that perfectionism behavior — and feeling that good enough is okay.  Many people who work in the nonprofit sector are driven by passion for their work because we are doing good and many of us share being over achievers. So, it is hard for us not to give our complete energy, even at the expense of our well-being and stressing ourselves out.”

So, as summer starts, perhaps it is time for those of us who have committed our professional lives to the non-profit sector to respond to an unreasonable request for perfection by telling the person asking to “go jump in a lake.” If that is not possible, at the very least I encourage you all to take a literal swim in a lake, before getting back to work.

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Perched on the banks of a quiet lake beyond which the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland rise into the sky, the South German city of Konstanz (population 80,000) is a relaxing getaway for weekend tourists and tranquil home to many retirees. Both culturally and geographically, it’s hard to imagine a place in Germany further from the bustle of Berlin.

And yet the local symphony orchestra, the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie (SWP), was recently recognized by the German federal government for its outstanding accomplishments. When we met earlier this spring, the unassuming director Beat Fehlmann claimed not to be sure why his orchestra received this honor, but surmised that it may have had to do with the orchestra’s commitment to public accountability, which has recently been making waves in the German orchestra field.

Mr. Fehlmann is in the enviable position of leading an organization that receives over 80% of its budget from state and local subsidies, with few, if any, questions asked. While utterly unheard of in the US or UK, this situation is quite typical of cultural institutions in Germany. However, given what is happening to cultural budgets in other countries and realizing that politicians everywhere are increasingly under pressure to explain and justify public spending (particularly spending that might be seen as primarily serving the well-to-do elite), Mr. Fehlmann sees the writing on the wall. It seems clear that state and municipally funded cultural institutions in Germany will increasingly need to show how they are using taxpayer euros and explain the value they are bringing to society in return.

For the past three years, the SWP has therefore published an annual report detailing everything from the number of subscriptions sold, to the number of special events that were presented, and the number of sick days taken by the musicians. Not satisfied with managerial accounting, the SWP has identified and is in the process of refining five Impact Goals, to which it wants to hold itself accountable. They include celebrating the breadth of the musical cannon, presenting innovative programs, and fulfilling an educational mission. The annual report presents specific measures associated with each.

In adopting this practice, Mr. Fehlmann has positioned his organization ahead of the curve. Unlike colleagues in the UK who are being required to report standardized audience survey scores, the SWP is in the enviable position of defining the metrics to which it wants to be held accountable. If these measures prove effective, the organization may well avert other external impositions.

As someone who spent more than a little time contemplating the purpose and effects of cultural subsidies in Germany in an earlier life (resulting in a 500-page doctoral thesis on the topic), I have been fascinated to learn about the SWP’s work in the area of accountability. I left our weekend of meetings in Konstanz inspired by Mr. Fehlmann and his enterprising team, and both curious about and full of hope for the orchestra’s future.

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In this special issue of On Our Minds:


Series Editor: Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown

The Impact of Raising the Stakes
Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater

The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown

Curating Impact, Not Shows
Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown

And so…
Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown




One of the “specialties of the house” at WolfBrown is thinking with clients about innovative ways to measure the impact of their work. In Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art (featuring the report Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre), Alan Brown pioneered work on capturing the intrinsic impact of performing arts experiences on audiences. Dennie Wolf and Steven Holochwost have pursued new ways to look at intersectional impact, identifying aspects of human behavior that are particularly sensitive to what the arts and culture have to offer, such as socio-emotional development and risk mitigation in vulnerable populations. In this series of blog entries, all of us, together with colleagues at The New Victory Theater, discuss the organizational impact of innovation, a way of taking stock of the consequences of undertaking innovative practices or new programs. Our basic premise: genuinely new ways of working are hard, labor-intensive, and expensive; but they should reverberate throughout an organization.


While this issue of On Our Minds addresses the consequences of SPARK for New Victory’s work, we believe the framework for thinking about the organizational impact of innovation speaks clearly to the work of many cultural organizations seeking to cut new paths.



The innovation: SPARK


Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

SPARK, or “Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids,” is a robust, five-year theatre arts program, funded by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, specifically designed for elementary and middle schools with no history of arts programming. With this funding, the New Victory challenged staff and teaching artists to learn to work intensively in schools where teachers and students didn’t know what to expect in an arts partnership. Every year, in each SPARK school, students engage in 15 performing arts workshops with highly trained teaching artists who develop and increase student’s creative skills in circus, puppetry, theater, and dance. Young people also attend three varied live performances by international arts companies where they see the skills they’ve been acquiring live on stage. Throughout, teaching artists, working side-by-side with classroom teachers, model the ensemble skills of discussion, collaboration, and rehearsal that are an integral part of theater practice.



The Impact of Raising the Stakes
By Courtney J. Boddie, The New Victory Theater


You might say that the New Victory has a ”thing” for raising the stakes. Who else puts wild urban circuses on the beautifully restored stage of a turn-of-the-century theater? Who else would perform X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation – a courtroom drama focused on the assassination of Malcolm X — for young audiences? The New Vic’s SPARK program is no different – it raised the stakes by entering into intensive and sustained relationships with a set of New York schools that serve some of the city’s poorest children. The intensity of the partnership brought the entire organization face-to-face with the consequences of trauma — young people, teachers, and schools all of whom live daily with the inequalities that are New York. The work has taught us not just to believe in the power of the arts, but also to live out that commitment in ways that have re-defined our comfort zone. Three examples make this clear:

  • Agency: Many of the schools that have no arts serve students with high needs, spending their discretionary dollars on tutoring and other support services, pushing to meet standards. In SPARK, we wanted to turn this around by calling on principals’ and teachers’ agency. Instead of selecting sites, we asked interested schools to apply as the first step in identifying schools who wanted to partner in building an arts program. From the start, we wanted their ownership and vision as full partners.
  • Acknowledgement: SPARK schools operate under constant stress: in addition to being classrooms, they operate as clinics, safe zones, and community centers. Teachers triple as mediators, social workers, and diagnosticians. They can appear angry or disinterested. But rather than grumble, we had to act collectively. We would never be able to enliven curriculum or change school climate without teachers’ buy-in. We realized quickly that we had to redesign our professional development sessions to acknowledge what teachers were carrying. Every session called out the (sometimes hidden) performer in each teacher, offering humor, relaxation and collaboration. In addition, teaching artists doubled down on showing how theater skills could build literacy and numeracy. Finally, we re-directed one of each school’s teaching artist advisors to focus wholly on working with individual teachers to think through how theatre could make a difference in focus, behavior, and peer interactions.
  • And not least, theater as love: Many SPARK students live with personal traumas: homelessness, domestic violence, or forced migration. Especially in middle school this often translated into withdrawal and apathy or eruptive bullying and fighting. To respond to the students fully — with love rather than with disappointment or frustration – teaching artists needed a whole new set of skills. We invited behavioral counselors to observe and critique how teaching artists addressed conflict, and we worked with experts like Shawn Ginwright to explore concrete strategies for working respectfully with youth with trauma. We realized that teaching artists have to build, not assume, safe spaces for creative learning. (For instance, we learned that a low-stakes final rehearsal might be a much better culminating event than a full-blown show. The final rehearsal can be about growth and persistence, rather than perfect performances where “messing up” can ignite anger or sadness.

In our fourth year, the successes outweigh the challenges but only because we have spent three years mapping out the consequences of raising the stakes on how we work.



The Impact of Investing in Human Capital
By Jamie Roach, Teaching Artist, The New Victory Theater


Two years ago, New Victory asked its teaching artists about joining the research team. The offer was a little mysterious — some of my colleagues joked about putting on “white coats over their plaid pants” — but the chance to stay engaged and gain new skills was intriguing. For many teaching artists, the only chance you get to “grow” is to add more gigs or become an administrator. But this unconventional investment in human capital has turned out to be beneficial to the research and to my own professional development.

What I realized is that, as a theatre teaching artist, I have many of the traits that make for an effective researcher. Specialized expertise in the field — check. Keen observation skills — check. The ability to make sense of complex human interactions unfolding — check. The habit of showing up on time, with props, ready to dive in — check. For example, one of my jobs as a researcher was to ask students to improvise the end to a short story they had seen on video. Right away, my theater instincts told me that students were overwhelmed by the task and not able to engage fully. Drawing on my teaching artistry, I knew that if I gave them clear one-step directions on becoming the character (e.g., “Okay, get in his last position, start moving like he did…) students would be able to take off. I kept it neutral (after all, I was the researcher not a fellow actor), but I found a way to launch their performances — possibly in a way that few PhDs would have hit upon.

And the consequences flowed the other way as well: being a researcher informed my teaching artistry. As a researcher, I had the luxury to witness all the nuances and micro-narratives unfolding in a classroom. I can see a lesson starting to implode: a broken pencil, a boy with no way to sharpen it, frustrated, who then distracts another student, who then throws the unsharpened pencil at a third student, and ka-boom, the theater lesson is over. I feel like I’ve developed a sixth sense for that first moment and ways to dive in and turn it around — for myself and for my colleagues. One day a fellow teaching artist opened up about feeling disheartened: “I don’t know what happened today — one of the most focused students was totally checked out!” As the observer, I saw tiny behaviors he missed among the 35 children. That student had been following closely the whole while, whispering responses to the friend with his head down on the table recovering from an earlier incident.

This chance to become a researcher has also changed my understanding of how impact actually happens. Getting the chance to witness a particular student over the course of a year illuminated the way that progress occurs: two steps forward, one step back, and less linear than it is layered. I now think and respond with that developmental map in mind.

With the SPARK project, the New Vic invested in developing a new kind of human capital: teaching-artist-researchers. We got the rare chance to dig deep. The theater got a trove of insights. We are both like miners who get to keep all the gold we’ve discovered.



The Impact of Re-thinking Research and Practice
By Steven Holochwost, WolfBrown


Increasingly, arts and cultural organizations are asked whether they contribute to the greater good. Answering that question is rarely simple, particularly at a time when public and private funders alike press organizations to prove that something they did (e.g., changing concert format, working with seniors, or running programs in juvenile detention centers) actually caused the change that they would like to claim (a more diverse audience, fewer doctor visits, or lowered rates of recidivism).

In the case of the SPARK program, we were looking to make the case that young people who participated became different from their peers: that time spent in the world of theater could cause stronger inter- and intra-personal skills. Like many evaluators, we turned to the existing research literature to find out how others have measured the growth in these hard-to-capture domains. This method of working from past research to inform new studies has many advantages: measures taken from the research literature often reflect years of conceptualization, testing, and refinement. So, drawing on past research, we decided to use a measure called Reading the Mind in the Eyes which assesses children’s knowledge of other people’s emotions by asking them to look at photos of the upper portion of faces and naming the emotion they detect there. Since becoming available twenty years ago, this measure has been used in over 500 published studies, including those examining the effects of theater education.

But the measure behaved in unexpected ways. We found that children participating in New Victory’s programming — over 90% of whom were young people of color — struggled to identify the emotions in the photos – the great majority of which portrayed adult Caucasian faces. Moreover, when young people selected an incorrect option, it often reflected a hostile emotion (e.g., anger). This was a moment when the tables turned: it was time for practice to inform research. The more diverse youth in SPARK classrooms had a message for research: to assess children’s ability to read emotion expressions validly, our photos had to represent the people whom SPARK students “read” and react to every day. By putting out a call to its diverse population of theater artists, New Victory staff helped to develop a revised measure that included people from a wide array of ages, cultures, and backgrounds.

We have just begun to collect data with this new tool. We may have still more to learn on our way to valid measures. But the experience opened all of our eyes — researchers, staff, and teaching artists — to the ways in which research tools reflect our assumptions, including whose faces are “universal”.  It was investing in sustained work in new neighborhoods, with young people of color who have not been the usual subjects of arts education research, that made this clear.



Curating Impact, Not Shows
By Alan Brown and Sean Fenton, WolfBrown


In the SPARK project we ventured into new territory: we asked students as young as 8 to respond to in-seat surveys about the impact of a performance they had just seen. We wanted to know if young people could help us to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of live theater experiences.

Photo: Alexis Buatti-Ramos, courtesy of The New Victory Theater

Our survey instrument includes quantitative measures of emotional response, anticipation, and impact, as well as open-ended questions pertaining to students’ curiosity and feelings about the performances. To make this work, house staff distribute the printed surveys and special pencils during the Q&A session following each performance. Then staff collect the student responses, and everyone heads out to their school buses waiting on 42nd Street within 10 minutes. As of the end of the 2017 school year, we will have collected approximately 2,000 surveys for nine shows. As completed surveys come in, we clean, code, and upload the data to an interactive dashboard through which New Vic staff can query the results.

So far, the results paint a picture of distinct “impact footprints”:

  • Shows featuring acrobatics, circus acts, and other spectacles tend to spark interest in the artists themselves and their training;
  • Story-based productions tend to elicit more questions about characters’ emotions and production design choices;
  • Shows with more complex narratives and character arcs evoke a greater mix of positive and negative emotions in students, which may be evidence of empathy development;
  • Both spectacle-based and story-based productions can produce powerful social bridging (i.e., learning about other people and cultures) and aesthetic growth outcomes (i.e., exposure to new art forms).

These results suggest that an artistic director is curating impact, as much as specific works. A season is a tour through a varied emotional landscape – an opportunity to explore a magnificent range of human emotions, ideas, and histories. Our work with New Vic has underscored the idea that “challenging” artistic work — work that draws on a wide emotional range, including feelings of sadness or disappointment — has an integral place in a well-curated season, alongside works that elicit feelings of joy and wonder.

The results from this study open a new chapter in our journey to understand the immediate effects or intrinsic impacts of arts programs on both children and adults. But this work is just beginning. Further analysis will investigate how students at different grade levels respond to the same work, whether students with more experience in the SPARK program respond differently, and how multiple points of intervention/exposure may stack to create greater impact.



And so…

Yes, these entries all focus on SPARK. Yes, we have identified only four of what might be multiple reverberations of undertaking new work. But inside that specificity are a set of fundamental questions that any cultural organization — zoo, museum, film center, or theater — ought to pose when investing in new practices and programs. How can your organization design (and also discover along the way) so that you reap:

  • Impact on the Raising the Stakes: When your organization works in new settings (or with new materials or issues) how high are you willing to set the stakes? Are you tinkering or changing the way you work? When a new program completes, or the funding goes away, has the organization stretched in lasting ways or does it snap back to doing business as usual?
  • Impact on Human Capital: If you undertake this work, who in your organization will have new opportunities to grow? How can those opportunities include employees who work “on the ground”?
  • Impact on Research: When you go to evaluate your work, do you (and your evaluation partners) look carefully at the assumptions that underlie your approaches and tools? Are you learning from what doesn’t work? Are you curious about why? Does your approach evolve?
  • Impact on Programming: Are you curating for impact? Do you adequately consider the array of emotional, social, and learning impacts that are likely to come from different works or experiences?

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During a recent trip abroad, I attended a New Year’s Eve concert at London’s historic Wigmore Hall. I was especially looking forward to it since it was the location of London debuts of several of my relatives who had always raved about the acoustics and ambiance of this beautiful 550-seat venue. During intermission, I took out my phone and started to snap a few photos of the hall to remind myself of some of its features and to share with family, only to be told, rather emphatically, that photographing was not allowed. I said I understood that taking photos was off limits during a performance, but this was intermission. When I was told that it was still not allowed, I asked why and was told, simply, that that was the rule. I pressed the point, saying I had taken photos of halls throughout the world and this was this first time I had encountered such policy. At this point, the attendant, clearly angered, asked to see my ticket and by this time, my evening spoiled, I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing the point any further. But as I looked around the hall on what was supposed to be a celebratory New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t surprised that there were no more than ten people in the audience under the age of forty. This was clearly not an audience-friendly venue hospitable to a younger generation that has grown up with cell phones. And then, imagine my amusement when a colleague who heard about my experience sent me this link. I learned I was not the only person who had gotten his hand slapped at Wigmore Hall!

Thinking about all of this later, I was reminded of a concert I attended a few years before at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas when the immensely popular Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared with the magnificent Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The audience was filled with ebullient Russians who, when the popular Hvorostovsky came on stage, whistled and cheered, and shouted bravo and took out their phones to snap photos. Ushers ran from person to person admonishing them to stop, but they refused to be denied. It was a happy crowd and the feeling was infectious. By the end of the concert, the audience was singing along when the baritone offered a popular Russian folk song that served as one of his many encores. I left the hall feeling completely upbeat.

Where does one draw the line about cell phone use in the concert hall, especially for a classical music concert? Though I know how I felt after the two evenings, I am still not at all sure there is a simple answer to the question. Cell phones can be a terrible distraction when the music is playing. But does that preclude their use at other times? Should we, as one of my colleagues once remarked, think of every photo taken and shared as a free form of marketing that classical music so desperately needs and that we should celebrate?

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Our long journey of investigation into how audiences are affected by arts programs crossed another milestone recently with the release of a two-year study of audiences at choral music concerts, commissioned by Chorus America. While we’ve previously delved deeply into the impact of theatrical performances and other types of arts programs, the choral study was notable for its scale and focus. A total of 23 choruses across North America participated in the two-year study, including youth choruses, volunteer and professional choruses, and LGBTQ choruses. Over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, 14,326 audience members at 136 difference concerts completed surveys about their experience. In many cases we have samples of audiences attending the same artistic program (e.g., Carmina Burana) in different cities.

A lengthy article by Kelsey Menehan on Chorus America’s website, “Understanding Audiences: Takeaways from the Intrinsic Impact Audience Project“, summarizes the findings and how they influenced the thinking of the participating choruses. As a choral singer myself, the study carried a deep personal significance. Earlier in life, I sang many of the great choral works that were the object of audience members’ feedback.

It was a thrill to stand in front of the assembled membership of Chorus America to present these results. Different kinds of artistic programs generate remarkably different kinds of impacts, underscoring the strategic importance of program selection to mission fulfillment. Audience participation affects impact, as do audience members’ personal relationships with one or more of the performers. Strong “social bridging” and “social bonding” impacts were associated with specific kinds of programs (e.g., MLK tribute concerts), especially when the audiences for these programs were racially diverse. And both professional and non-professional choruses deliver high-impact programs.

It is gratifying to see the line of inquiry about the impact of arts experiences continue. Audience members are more than capable of reporting how they are affected by arts experiences. Unlike our colleagues in the UK, however, we do not believe that audiences should be asked to adjudicate the artistic quality of performances. More on that front soon.

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Last month, my father and I had the privilege of seeing a performance of Cornerstone Theater Company‘s latest production in their multi-year “Hunger Cycle” of plays: fellowship, a play for volunteers. In one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve ever attended, we were exposed to five unique perspectives and life stories, each with a different relationship to food and hunger. That same weekend, this time accompanied by my brother, I was lucky enough to catch a delightful performance of Pamela Sterling’s adaption of The Secret Garden, presented by MainStreet Theatre Company, a professional Equity theatre for young audiences in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

At first glance, the two shows I saw that weekend had very little in common. One was an intimate and interactive theatrical piece addressing modern-day issues; the other, a more traditional theatre experience rooted in classic English literature. But a look at the shows’ audience survey data revealed how these productions were remarkably similar: both fellowship and The Secret Garden were highly effective in bridging audience members to life experiences different from their own.

These findings were consistent with my personal experiences with the plays. My time at fellowship made me confront my own relationship to food and how other people, including my parents and friends, might have profoundly different relationships to scarcity and plenty. The Secret Garden transported me to early 20th century Yorkshire, England, and encouraged me to ponder questions about class differences, privilege, and self-determination. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I realized how full my heart and mind were after these performances. The experiences impacted my father and brother as well, inspiring them to find new and creative ways to instill empathy and compassion in my nephews.

Art has the marvelous capacity to connect us to others. And in a time when much is being written on how to break out of our political bubbles and ultra-personalized newsfeeds, it is clear that the need for substantive social bridging is more crucial than ever. What might this look like for theatres and other arts organizations aiming to serve as these bridges? What would it take for the most progressive theatregoer to not only entertain conservative viewpoints, but to deeply understand them, and vice-versa? I would think there is a limit to which this is possible; for example, I personally can’t imagine ever appreciating a white supremacist point of view. Yet past experience tells me to never underestimate the power of art. Perhaps developing a keener understanding for how people come to develop certain worldviews might be a beginning.

Some arts organizations may be better situated than others to be our bridges to experiences and viewpoints that differ from our own. And some art-makers, like Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Yerbua Buena Center for the Arts, may see themselves in an entirely different but equally important role — not as a bridge to others with differing views, but as “a socket” or “battery” for creativity, freedom, and social justice. (I would love to explore this concept much more thoroughly in a future entry.) And still others may be somewhere else along this “bridge-battery” spectrum, or on a different axis entirely. In a time when we are simultaneously more connected and more divided than ever before, I think there is room and need for it all.

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Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! For this special holiday issue of On Our Minds, we asked the WolfBrown team to think about their most memorable arts experiences of the year. From opera to pop music to theatre for young audiences, these are just some of our highlights from 2016. 

We hope you enjoy these reflections, and we invite you to share your own with us by commenting here. Happy holidays, and best wishes for a wonderful 2017!


Joe Kluger

New Freedom Theatre’s Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play

I attended many great performances this past year, including Cold Mountain with Opera Philadelphia, Friday Night Jazz at the Woodmere Art Museum, Mahler 6 with Sir Simon Rattle conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra, Bruckner 6 with Christoph Eschenbach conducting Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra, and BalletX’s Sunset, o639 Hours.

In choosing the most memorable event, I found myself drawn to Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play, a re-imagined production of the Langston Hughes classic, written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Maharaj is the new Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theatre, one of the few remaining professional African-American theaters, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. I was blown away by the high quality of the acting, singing, and dancing, and emotionally drained by the Story of the Nativity, set in war-ravaged Darfur. It was really moving to hear the juxtaposition of a cappella renditions of traditional Christmas Carols and gospel anthems, hauntingly accompanied by a single African drum. This performance reminded me that my most memorable artistic experiences are those which raise our consciousness, challenge our assumptions, and remind us how fortunate we are.


Steven Holochwost

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

Over the course of 2016, I spent a lot of time observing arts education programs in public schools, and it was while observing one of these programs that I had my most memorable arts experience. The Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture program, which is designed to teach students about Arab culture, includes a drumming ensemble, and it was while watching this ensemble that I very nearly began to cry.

I try to avoid crying in public, and I particularly try to avoid crying in front of middle-school students because they will laugh at you. But there I was, watching a group of students from very different backgrounds playing together in perfect unison, and I teared up. I don’t know if it happened because the students were so clearly enjoying themselves, or because I was keenly aware of the fact that without considerable philanthropic support these students would never have had this opportunity, or some mixture of the two. But I have thought about that day many times since — particularly during the Presidential campaign and election — and how opportunities to participate in the arts can make us our best selves.


Jason Tran

Sia’s Nostalgic for the Present Tour

My ears rang with joy as the Australian songstress’s piercing voice cut through the gentle hum of audience members singing along with her. Known for her songwriting chops and chart-topping collaborations, Sia has certainly made a name for herself in the music industry. Yet this concert, in so many ways, felt more like a performance art piece than your typical pop show. Hidden underneath her iconic, black-and-white wig and whimsically large bow, the Australian songstress belted out her popular hits almost entirely from a far corner of the stage. Defying conventions of most pop concerts, Sia let her dancers take center stage song after song, gracing the stage in perfect synchronicity with the pre-recorded videos projected above them. What could have been a typical pop concert experience was instead a captivating series of performance art pieces, packed with exquisite displays of contemporary dance and electrifying moments of sound and silence. By the end of the night, we had been transported to the far reaches of our minds, where we could convince ourselves that we too were pop stars and dancers just like the ones before our eyes — even if it was just for the night.


Tom Wolf

Remembering Joey

When Joseph Silverstein died on November 22nd of last year, it came as a complete shock. It is not as if this great violinist hadn’t lived a full life (he was 83 years old when he died). It was simply that Joey — as everyone called him — was ageless, and he was incredibly active until the moment he died. Indeed, he had played a concert only a couple of weeks earlier and was practicing just a few hours before he was stricken. Like so many musicians, my life was touched in many ways by Joey. He played often with my late brother (including Andy’s final concert), I got to perform with him on occasion, I presented him in concerts annually for years, I attended his masterclasses, and for decades I studied his incredible leadership as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and later in his role as a conductor. One would think that someone who was so well known by so many famous people would be too busy to be a friend to those less established. But Joey seemed to be everyone’s best friend. He was incredibly approachable whether talking about an arcane bowing with a bunch of students or telling his latest joke for which he was also famous.

And perhaps that is why the memorial concert given at Tanglewood on July 24th of this year was so remarkable. It captured all of these aspects of Joey. It had a star-studded cast of performers as one would expect, but it was also an evening brimming with love and affection. There were brief comments interspersed throughout the concert, but mainly it was about the music and about Joey himself. How wonderful to hear him playing in an audio clip which was accompanied by a video of still photos from Joey’s life and as the grand finale, a video of Joey soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The definition of a memorable arts experience in my mind is one that moves you at the time AND one that you remember long after. This concert offered the extra gift of giving me a perfect way to remember Joey as well.


Alan Brown

Online Time Capsule: Live from Lincoln Center

I love asking people, “Of all the arts experiences you’ve ever had, which one do you remember most vividly?” My own answer to that question invariably takes me back to January 22, 1979, when, as a young singer, I sat in a dorm room watching Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing a joint recital, Live from Lincoln Center, simulcast on PBS and FM radio. Some 37 years later — late one night this past summer in a hotel room somewhere — I discovered a bootleg video of the entire broadcast on YouTube. There, an audience of one, I was ripped back to a time and place long abandoned. In the blink of an eye, the operatic icons were once again in peak form. It was so unexpected, which I suppose had much to do with the extent to which I was immobilized and utterly transfixed. The world stopped for two hours. It didn’t matter that the quality of the video was terrible; the audio was just good enough to trigger the musical memory of a defining moment in my teen-aged world. The thrill of hearing their shimmering voices had not diminished, but multiplied. In a world that offers such guilty pleasures so freely, I dare not listen again.


Sean Fenton

Crowded Fire Theater’s I Call My Brothers

When I think back on the performances I saw this past year, the ones that stand out to me the most are the ones that were unapologetically challenging and painfully relevant. These performances left me feeling confronted, engaged, and motivated to take action or make a change. I recall most vividly Crowded Fire Theater‘s production of I Call My Brothers this past April and how I left that experience feeling truly stunned and shaken, deeply impacted in a way I never expected going in. I gained a new level of understanding of the mechanisms of Islamophobia and what it looks and feels like from both inside and out. I gained a glimpse into the fear and paranoia that can be evoked by the persecuting gaze of others, whether real or imagined. And perhaps most provocatively, I got a deeper look into my own subconscious and my own assumptions in the wake of recent events. The performance left a lasting impression on me. And, more broadly, I was reminded of the power theatre has to promote understanding and belonging, build empathy, and connect us to one another. I hope to see many more examples of this kind of work as 2017 unfolds.


Dennie Palmer Wolf

The New Victory Theater: Chotto Desh

It was a school performance of Chotto Desh (at the New Victory Theater, New York), Akram Kahn’s solo piece about coming of age as a Bangladeshi-American boy caught between his hard-working family’s push for responsibility, duty, and working in the family restaurant and his own emerging desire to become a dancer. I was seated in the back row of the orchestra along with other visitors and administrators, a sea of middle schoolers spilling out in front of us. To my left, people chatted as long-term NYC schools colleagues. So I turned to a woman beside me on the aisle and asked what school she came with. “None…I saw the performance last week and it was so spectacular I had to come again before it closed. I talked my way in, I don’t think they let the public into these school performances.”

She rushed to explain, “I taught for 30 years in the schools so many immigrant students who were making their way between their families’ way of life at home and the new selves they were becoming. I watched them balancing, always balancing. The show was ‘that’ danced out — two languages, two ways of being, two lives, one known and one coming. I laughed, I wept the other night when I saw it for the first time. I promised I would get back here. I have to say, in the wake of the election, I wanted it broadcast on the night sky where every single would-be deporter would see it on their walk home from work.” Just then the house went dark, to the yelps and cheers of a young audience.

Yes, the performance was remarkable — the physical boy-dancer climbing and running through the projected scrims of his grandmother’s folk tales, the tumult of traffic recalled from trips back to his father’s urban Bangladesh, and the shadows of the giant chair on which he struggled to “be still”, even as he wanted to dance.

But, in truth, my sense of amazement was spiked the instant the teacher beside me confessed to talking her way in. It amped up with each groan from the audience, as they heard off-stage parental voices calling out, “Sit still, be respectful, we work hard for you, pay attention, help out…” It climbed as the audience cheered for the hero who shadowboxed like a demon behind his bedroom door even as he pretended to answer “dutifully” to his downstairs parents. And I loved the gasp when, in the talkback, the athletes in the audience learned that two dancers had to share a week of performances, so arduous was the role of the dancer-soloist. Pitcher, point guard, quarterback: take note. This was theater in public. There was company both on and off the stage.

Climbing out of the subway later that evening I wanted to tune in that night sky broadcast and watch another performance that would catch off guard all who would seek to deport others, and leave them humbled, amazed, and generous by the time they reached their own doorstep.


Jane Culbert

Machine de Cirque

My daughter is a professional circus artist, and I have seen many circuses. And yet, my most memorable arts experience this year was by a circus company, Machine de Cirque. What moved me about this company was the connection the five performers made with the audience and with each other. They spoke to us; they came off the stage to interact. They clearly had fun with what they did on the stage, and we laughed with them. They worked as a team, caring for and supporting each other. And (surprisingly, last to come to mind) the quality and technicality of performance was breathtaking.


John Carnwath

Street Performers of San Francisco

I stumbled upon one of my most memorable recent arts experiences quite by accident on my way to work. A street musician was playing trumpet on Market Street in San Francisco — I didn’t recognize the piece, something classical — and nearby a homeless man was dancing with remarkable commitment and grace. Being late for work, I couldn’t stop and watch for long, though in retrospect I wish I had. In that moment it struck me that regardless of how much funding is cut and which organizations come and go, we really don’t have to worry that the arts are going to go away. It is in fact remarkably difficult to prevent someone from dancing or singing, and the desire to create, experience, and share through art is seated deep within us. I find both beauty and hope in that thought, and I’m thankful to those street performers for that moment.


Rebecca Ratzkin

MAKE: A Labor of Love and Spirit

It’s a random weekday evening in downtown San Francisco, and I’m standing in a concrete stairwell that smells of greasy fast food, waiting for the doors to open and the show to begin. Although I don’t know anyone, it is easy to strike up conversation by simply saying, “Hello, my name is…” — perhaps because we all aren’t sure exactly what we’re going to see, and yet are in high spirits about it nonetheless. The line starts to move, and we make it upstairs into the re-purposed gallery turned black box performance space. After paying a small donation, I wander in and take a seat in the round.

The room is small and close; the heat from all of us rushing in fills the room immediately. The performance has already started, and the room is quiet except for four performers, each attending to a discrete task: one is singing — a big booming voice that is part prayer, part call-to-action — while carrying around a 20-pound bag of flour; another is hurrying back and forth with a Dixie cup to fill the big plastic tub in the middle of the room with water; a third is bent down in one corner absorbed in crushing sugar cubes one by one; and the fourth is working with oil in the opposite corner.

More audience members filter in as these activities continue, and we all fall into a trance, tracking the rhythms of each performer in their obsessive task. At some point, the song and action change, and the other performers join in the singing. One performer sprinkles yeast into the water, and others adjust their tasks to focus on the tub. The sugar is brought over and added to the tub. After a few moments, the oil is also offered up to the tub. Then the flour bag is opened, and handfuls are thrown into the mix. Flour dust flies everywhere, creating momentary clouds that dissipate into the front rows. The smells permeate the room. The performers gather around the tub, all eventually lending their hands in the effort to mix the concoction within. The singing ebbs and flows as voices join and retreat. Each performer remains independent, concentrating on her or his task, even as they work together towards a common goal — mixing the dough.

After a while, the dough is ready for kneading, and each performer approaches this new task from a different perspective. One takes a big piece and carries it around the space, holding and shifting it as if it were a fidgety child. Another takes pieces of dough and starts to cover herself in it; first one arm, then another, and then up her arms to her neck and face. She is fascinated by the process but also a little scared, and seemingly powerless to stop it. She eventually manages to extricate herself from her doughy confines to join the rest of the group.

At some point, each performer takes smaller pieces of dough, kneading and shaping them into little rounds. They place the individual pieces on sheets of wax paper laid out in front of each seat in the front rows, until all sheets are full. One performer then looks up and counts the number of people in the room, places more pieces of wax paper down on the floor, and they go back to shaping and distributing. Sooner after, that same performer looks up and says, “Take this; this is for you.” And we do. It ends when every last person is holding a piece of wax paper with a raw piece of dough created by song and movement, shaped out of prayer, love, pain, fear, hope, and grace.

I walk the empty streets of San Francisco, holding my wax paper-wrapped dough, heading home to rise.


These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2017!

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Reflecting on the recent election results brings me back to one of the more befuddling observations about trends in arts participation that I’ve been holding in my head since the late-1990s… the blurring line between fantasy and reality. The flourishing of fictitious online personas, resulting in millions of people growing comfortable holding multiple identities, both real and imagined; the rise of gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality; the false intimacy offered by social media and, especially, dating apps; the valuing of celebrities for no reason apart from their celebrity; the lost line between entertainment and journalism; record sales of lottery tickets; growing dependence on substances that induce altered states; Las Vegas; sustained public interest in ‘reality’ television, which increasingly resembles fiction; and the substitution in political discourse of ‘truthiness’ for truth.

The signs of our society’s departure from reality have all but disappeared for their ubiquity. Some have framed this as a spiritual crisis, a displacement of belief systems from sacred to profane.

Of course we are all guilty of constructing altered versions of reality for ourselves. A million seemingly harmless deceits of truth bring us comfort, simplicity, and validation in a world mired in existential threats. It is hardly surprising, then, that Americans believe whatever politicians tell them, and I don’t mean that in a partisan way. We’ve been building an appetite for unreality for a long time, with a lot of help from commercial entertainment and the media. As Neal Gabler wrote in his searing essay of November 10, “I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.”

We, in the arts, are hardly innocent of exploiting fiction to lead audiences into our version of “the truth.” In our field, fiction has always been the battleground of truth, and theatres the venue in a lopsided war of ideas, pitting artists against audiences — when, in reality, they are not opponents but allies. Like Don Quixote, we’ve been nobly fighting an imaginary foe, blind to the fact that the proverbial “public” we seek to engage in art inhabits a world entirely different than ours. In a way, politicians have become more like artists — spinning tales threaded together with half-truths and imagined facts.

As a researcher, I struggle mightily with the elusive notion of truth. Another time I will write about the demise of public confidence in quantitative research — and the extraordinary challenges this poses to those of us who purport to be researchers and those who aspire to be savvy consumers of research.

Until we are completely transmogrified into digital avatars of ourselves, fantasy will reliably crash into reality when we cash our paychecks and visit the doctor. However facile we are in toggling between fact and fiction in the blink of an eye, our ability to discern one from the other is what keeps us alive. Unlike much of the media, art invites us to suspend our disbelief for a fleeting moment to consider an idea that offends our sense of order. In that moment of resistance, we are human.

This is a great time of reckoning for our sector. Despite the messages I’ve received from national service organizations over the past weeks assuring me that everything is going to be OK, it’s abundantly clear to me that everything has not been OK for quite some time. Cultural policy has failed us. Patterns of investment in cultural infrastructure too often reinforce class divides instead of tearing them down. Disinvestment in rural arts and declining support for touring programs has taken a toll. More nonprofits and funders should have moved into the realms of gaming and experience design a long time ago. Who dropped that ball?

It is precisely because art offers a different means of understanding the world that it is more central to public discourse than ever before. As traffickers in beauty and confrontation, artists and those who support them have the power to change the world. We speak the language of make believe. We can draw people into parallel universes where they can ask questions they’d never pose in the real world. Unlike politicians, art can teach us to think for ourselves, and that truth often lies at the nexus of opposing ideas.

Spinning tall tales, however, comes with a sobering responsibility. Do we use fiction to entertain, or hold up a mirror to ourselves in search of a deeper truth? Or, do we employ fantasy to seduce those most vulnerable to seduction? What marks the line between play and betrayal? Now more than ever I wonder what role the arts can play in building our capacity as a society to care about the difference.

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