You Can’t Win Them All

Last weekend, when the League of Chicago Theatres played host to 50 members of APASO, the national organization of performing arts service groups, Deborah Obalil was on the program with an act she’s been doing for a while now. Obalil, director of the marketing center for the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, presented study results suggesting theaters should write off a major portion of the population in their audience-building efforts. Forget about “no users” and “light users,” she told the group during a session at the spiffy new Chicago Center for the Performing Arts; the chances of turning them into frequent audience members are smaller than the cast for a one-man show. The guy who says “If I wanted a passive experience I’d stay home and watch TV” is not going to pony up for a ticket at Chicago Shakespeare.

Obalil’s act followed a fantasy that blew in from the west coast. Theatre Bay Area has undertaken a “Social Marketing Research Initiative” intended to convince San Francisco residents that the performing arts are as vital as fire stations. “People always say if their house is burning, they’d rather see a fireman than an actor,” said TBA’s Belinda Taylor, but never mind. “A goal for this program is to get it to the point where policy makers would be as likely to cut a math class as a theater class.” This is not a product-pushing “Got Milk” campaign, Taylor explained, but a wear-your-seat-belt, don’t-smoke kind of effort aimed at “changing the face of audiences in the greater Bay Area.” A hand went up. “Weren’t those other campaigns about life-and-death issues?”

According to the Chicago research, light users (they average five arts activities a year) don’t do more theater because of what Obalil calls the “big goddamn deal effect.” If you believe this characterization, the light user thinks going to the theater means you gotta buy the new dress, rent the limo, plan far in advance, eat a fancy dinner, and pay a scalper’s price for tickets to a blockbuster event. When they do go (only for special occasions or because it’s good for the kids), they feel like outsiders. (Not surprising, says Obalil, “they’re the best-dressed people in the place.”) Besides, light users just wanna have fun: nothing challenging, thank you. Some will age into medium users (13 or more events a year), Obalil says, and that’s the time to woo them. The barriers for medium users are easier to leap: all they need is more information about the event and good directions.

A few months ago, the League of Chicago Theatres commissioned some new research: a preliminary look at a “frequent buyer” rewards program that might, for example, give a patron a $25 Marshall Field’s gift certificate for every ten theater tickets purchased. This sounds about as motivating as a free bowl of soup for every dozen chocolate cakes, but researcher Patricia Martin reported that businesses are willing to work with the league–well, with the “top five houses” anyway. (When it came to storefront theaters, potential partners “began to waffle.”) This kind of program would require “a three-way sell,” Martin said, “to businesses, consumers, and the arts organizations themselves. That’s expensive, and so are the management and infrastructure costs.”

Public Displays of Erudition

Lisa Lee was a graduate student at Duke University when she started brooding about the isolation of intellectuals in American society. It seemed unfortunate that the thinkers were squirreled away in their ivory towers while the world went about its business without their help, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one could do much about. “Then,” says Lee, “my husband’s software company went public and all of a sudden I was in a situation where I could do something.”

The husband would be Marc Ewing, founder of Red Hat Inc., which had a red-hot IPO in August ’99, just four months before Lee finished her PhD. Funds from the ensuing bonanza (Red Hat stock rose to over $200 a share, before splitting and dropping to its current price of under $6) bought Lee and Ewing the former Pabst brewing mansion (at a bargain $6.9 million) in Glencoe. Red Hat money is also floating the Center for Public Intellectuals, a nonprofit they established last September. Operating out of an office in Evanston, it has two full-time staff members–acting executive director Cary Nathenson and Anita Lee (Lisa’s sister)–and one part-timer, Katrin Voelkner, Nathenson’s wife. Voelkner and Lisa Lee were fellow students in the Duke German studies department. Nathenson is also a German studies scholar, on leave from the faculty of the University of Houston.

The German studies connection is relevant. Lee says her dissertation on the Frankfurt School, social research innovators who came together in the 1920s and ’30s, made her aware that with any social problem you need a core of theorists. At the same time, in her other area of interest, women’s studies, she saw “a lot of feminist critical theorists trying to reach out to activists in the community. But it didn’t seem like there was an easy way of doing this. It became obvious that the gulf between theorists and activists out there trying to change policy was growing wider and wider.” The Center for Public Intellectuals was founded to bridge that gap.

The center is exploring affiliation with UIC, where it will sponsor a new course, “The University and the Public Sphere,” next spring. Its initial public program is under way this month–a four-lecture series, “ExtraOrdinary Aspects of the Ordinary.” In the first lecture, earlier this week, NPR’s Ira Glass talked with the New Yorker’s Lawrence Weschler. Up next: Harvard professor Marjorie Garber, author of Sex and Real Estate, speaking at the Chicago Architecture Foundation April 12. After that, Duke professor Henry Petroski, author of The Book on the Bookshelf and The Pencil (April 17, Museum of Science and Industry), and chef Charlie Trotter on “The Small Price to Pay for Excellence” (April 25, Field Museum). Thank goodness someone is giving these folks a podium.

Reversal of Fortune

The Auditorium Theatre Council and Roosevelt University have been wrangling in court since the university tried to help itself to $1.5 million of the theater’s money six years ago. For a while it looked like the university had won, but last week the Illinois appellate court threw out a 1998 lower court decision that would have turned the theater and its assets over to the school. If that had happened, says the council’s attorney, William Quinlan, funds that had been raised to restore the landmark auditorium could have been diverted to other uses. Quinlan said the lower court judge erred in part by excluding evidence that the theater was meant to be a separate entity from the school. Roosevelt’s board was scheduled to meet this week to discuss its options.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.