Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Day 05 (Round III) "In the trenches" (spaghetti-against-the-wall edition)

Hard long week already, and it's only Tuesday morning.

A typical week's schedule all up in this joint is pretty damned full. There are windows built in (topic of a future post) so that as I finish each given duty--especially classes--I can process the aftermath and action items of that duty immediately, moving them off my desk ASAP so I can get on to the next hour's duties or considerations. So there's some alternation of contact- versus no-contact-hours.

But the instant that one of those hours is unexpectedly sucked-up--by computer problems, a student crisis, any at all kind of outside issue--the whole string of dominoes starts to topple and, to mix the metaphor, I have to paddle like hell to catch up.

That's day-time, Mon-Tue-Wed-Thu-Fri. Saturdays carry a community-teaching obligation, and are typically otherwise reserved for my own research work, when I can get to it. Sundays brings a radio production and, in the evening, an Ensemble rehearsal.

That leaves the weeknights. Mon & Tues evening are typically relatively open--which really just means sit at home, practice or write in front of the Idiot Box. Wed brings another ensemble rehearsal, Thurs a coffeehouse gig, Fri a pub session, Sat either a one-off gig or (maybe) a Night Out with the Wife. And then it all starts over again.

So I tend to be really protective of those Mon & Tues evenings, because they tend to be the only home-time/down-time evenings I get. Which means that when, on the once-a-month versus once-a-week rotation, I have to give up a Monday evening for another community-service performance event, it is usually the last fucking thing I feel like doing. Dharmonia can confirm that, typically, this means I'll cuss and bellyache a bunch about how much I don't want to do it, while simultaneously and perversely refusing to consider canceling or otherwise bailing.

It's because I see both sides of the debate as equivalently essential: on a given Monday, I really really want the night off, but I am also really really convinced that one of the most crucial success factors in building community arts infrastructure is consistency in the calendar: the ability for potential audience members (and stakeholders) to feel that they can confidently count on the event occurring not just that particular time but on every subsequent date in its rotation. The reason for this, of course, is that it helps promotions begin to move to a positive critical mass: get enough people out there in the community who "know" (without being reminded via mailings or other promotions) that "Thursday night is coffeehouse night," or "Friday is pub session night," or "Saturday is teaching session day," and they bring themselves back--and usually bring friends. Otherwise--if every audience member/participant requires the same amount of promotional effort as last week, last month, or last year--you are just running in the hamster wheel; you're not gaining.

If, in contrast, you build that regular calendar ("Thursday", "Friday", "Saturday") on a weekly basis, and on a monthly basis ("First Monday is always Dance night", etc), and on a yearly basis ("second weekend in December is always Celtic Christmas"), then you become, as the great Tony Barrand put it in his Morris magnum opus Six Fools and A Dancer, "part of the community's seasonal memory." That's the place we want to get to.

Upshot is that, on a given Monday when due to unexpected interruptions the hourly dominoes have already begun to tumble, and I'm paddling like hell to catch up on only Day 04 of the semester, the last fucking thing I want to do is go out and spend 2 1/2 hours playing music for and assisting in the monthly " Dance." But then you start thinking, "well, shit, what does that do for the continuity? How many people won't show up next time because they found an empty room this time?" And, "well, shit, what are you gonna do instead? Sit home in front of the Tube and tap-tap on the computer?" So you drag-ass down the street to the neighborhood coffeehouse, and post the "Back Room Reserved" signs, and move the tables, and sweep the floor, and sit there warming up and hoping it's not a total bust for turnout.

My rule-of-thumb for assessing the watershed moment when an arts initiative (coffeehouse, ensemble, annual event, etc) can survive on its own is "can all the original founders depart, and have the entity continue? In terms of growing a community, the metaphor we used to use was "well, throw the spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks", from an old cooks' myth suggesting that, if the strand of spaghetti sticks, it's done; in terms of community arts, it's "put enough out there--throw a big enough pot against the wall--and maybe a critical mass will stick." Last night, it wasn't looking like there'd be much done-spaghetti, especially in the wake of a cock-up whereby one of the promotions tools crapped out. Or even a collection of 7 dancers so that, with the dance teacher, we could have the requisite eight-somes for the Irish ceili dances.

And there are few things more disappointing, or forlorn, than an arts event with too few attendees to make a critical mass. Over the years, playing the musics I do, I've had more than a few of those, and I've even learned all the strategies for mitigating the forlorn-ness: dim the lights so the room feels smaller and more intimate, speak directly to the audience as if it's a private house, have them all come down close to the stage (or invite them on to the stage), shut down the PA and play acoustically, and on and on and on. I wasn't really relishing the prospect of having to do that (much more difficult with dance than with a sit-down concert) on a Monday night when I was telling myself I'd "rather" be home.

But, in the event, it was great: probably 22 people in room, good mixture of newbies and returning fans (how they heard about the damned thing in the wake of the crapped-out promotions I don't know), good solid and focused attention and clear instruction, lots of happy folks, and even enough money in the "Donations" jar that I could throw around 50 bucks at the coffeeshop counter-staff--which means they're always glad to see us return, and in turn makes management think we're worth the donation of the space.

And I could have bellyached my way into staying home. Last night was a signal lesson in why that's not, typically, the right choice.

Below the jump: Mister Man on a sunny day.

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