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Producing Connections at ArtsEmerson and Emerson College

Zelda Fichandler once said that the institution was, for her, a context for her questions, a container for her inquiry—that she woke up every morning with things she wanted to learn and went in to work to pursue the answers. This week we kick off a series that shares the essence of the inquiries underway in different institutional contexts around the field. We start with “An Inside Look at ArtsEmerson,” our sister organization co-located at Emerson College, as a way of putting ourselves squarely in the mix. Because this is not without risk. I once wrote a post about my questions around the role of the producer in the new play process and heard from many different leaders that it was dangerous to reveal doubts. I heard from many more people that reading about my questions helped anchor them in some of their own. So, we're going to err on the side of sharing on behalf of the people who also awake in inquiry. You'll be hearing from different people inside ArtsEmerson about the questions in front of them and the ways they are approaching them, and where it is leading them.—David Dower

A few weeks ago, we held a Watch Party at Emerson College for Suzan-Lori Parks’ Watch Me Work. We knew there was interest: when she was in residence at Emerson last year, she had hosted a spectacularly well-attended event, with every available square inch of space in the Randall Lobby of the Paramount Center packed with students and staff, working quietly alongside Ms. Parks. And so, a year later, when we were looking for a way to highlight the accessibility of HowlRound and the Office of the Arts to the student body, we decided to capitalize on that interest to reach out to the students.

We partnered with the Performing Arts department and started spreading the word. We made a Facebook event. We tweeted. We ordered catering. That afternoon, we checked our RSVPs (twenty-six!), set up the space, gathered with our computers, and settled in to enjoy a successful event.

After about twenty minutes, it became a little awkward. No one was coming. Students would wander through and grab a cookie from our catering tray, but no one stopped. Finally one lone student came in with his laptop and sat down. Somehow that made it even worse. Just one student.

As events go, it was a failure. As failures go, however, it was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the ways that Emerson students are interested in engaging with artists both locally and globally. I’ve made strides over the past two years at finding unique opportunities to connect Emerson students with artists who are performing at ArtsEmerson—this was the first attempt I had made at linking the students to artists in a more remote way. And, this first pass at it tells me that I haven’t yet found the offer that students will take me up on. As a mentor of mine says, it wasn’t a “no”—it just wasn’t “yes” yet.

ArtsEmerson is a little bit of a strange animal. We both present work from around the world and collaborate with artists to produce their own work. We rent our spaces out to local, national, and international companies. We support developmental work, providing space and time for companies and ensembles to explore new ideas or further flesh out existing work. Some of these developmental projects find their way onto our stages. And we do all this within Emerson College, a school of about 3,500 undergraduate and 800 graduate students.

I’m trying to save the students from the palm-to-forehead moment that they’ll have in five years when they realize just how many amazing artists shared a building with them.

heading for a newsletter
The heading for the  ArtsEmerson Student Engangement newsletter, which
serves to connect the very busy Emerson student community to the abundence of 
opprotunites within ArtsEmerson.
Photo by Madddy Modderhack. 

This relationship to the college is central to my work. As the student engagement coordinator, I am constantly trying to find authentic ways to connect our students with our visiting artists. Or to put it another way, I’m trying to save the students from the palm-to-forehead moment that they’ll have in five years when they realize just how many amazing artists shared a building with them.

One of the biggest challenges of connecting students with artists, or finding ways to incorporate the arts into learning, is simply cutting through the noise to communicate the opportunities. College is busy: students are taking courses, working on their own projects and productions, holding down part-time jobs and, as Dorothy said, “People come and go so quickly around here”—many of our artists are in town for only one weekend of performances, which can mean that they are deep in tech for the first part of the week leaving only three or four days to find engagement opportunities. With only small windows of time to create connections around students’ schedules that are already bursting at the seams, finding meaningful ways to connect is an intricate puzzle. Additionally, faculty at Emerson plan their curricula months in advance and so finding ways to align their time frame with that of a producing organization that announces with a mere four-month lead time is challenging. By the time we are able to announce our season, frequently professors are in the final stages of planning their semesters.

This year, we’ve started a new initiative based on the learning from the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. We’ve created a new Curricular Connection Guide. The guide includes much of the arts programming at Emerson College—the professional productions at ArtsEmerson and also the student productions of Emerson Stage, screenings in the Bright Family Screening Room, exhibits at the Huret & Spector Gallery, and talks by visiting authors and writers. It also details specific connections between classes offered at the College and that programming.

The goal of the guide is to stimulate thinking about how such programming might intersect with the pedagogical life of the campus across departments, as well as other centers and programs not necessarily linked to the curriculum. It serves as a central repository for information about opportunities that were already in place but have been a consistent challenge to communicate. For example, any professor who assigns their class to see a production at ArtsEmerson as part of their curriculum receives discounted tickets for their students, a free ticket for the professor, and the opportunity to invite artists into their classroom for direct conversation with the students.

This is not to say that the goal of the guide (and on a larger scale, of all my work here) is simply to increase the student attendance at our productions. The very special opportunity afforded by being embedded in a college, (if we can capture it), is to provide deeper means of connection to the artists and the work beyond seeing the performance.

In an effort to create the opportunities, over the past season, we’ve developed a series of standing engagement opportunities that are available for nearly every show. These can vary slightly from production to production, but the basic template of events is:

  • Open rehearsals/observerships
  • Student/Artist forums
  • Brown bag lunches
  • Master Class/Workshops

Open Rehearsals/Observerships
For every production we present or development residency we host, we have a few windows of time in which rehearsal is open for observation. The artists can set limitations on these windows of time—when they take place, limits to the number of students permitted in the room at a time, where those students can be located in the theatre. The students who participate in the rehearsal observations run the gamut from performing arts students who know exactly what they are watching to journalism students who have never witnessed a technical process before. The hope for all students is that they gain a much deeper understanding of the various kinds of work that go into crafting a fully realized production.

As often as possible, a staff member from ArtsEmerson is available to the observers either during the hour of observation or immediately after to field any questions that students may have about the work that they have seen. When we produced Gare St Lazare’s Waiting for Godot earlier this fall, I had a class of twenty journalism students watch for ninety minutes in fascination, and then pour out into the lobby full of questions about what they had witnessed. When they wrote their reviews of the final production, the work was heavily influenced by having been a part of the technical process.

As often as schedules permit, I try to create a structured conversation between the artists and the students. It has been most successful to partner with the faculty at the college on these conversations by rooting a forum in a particular class and then opening it up to the Emerson community as a whole. In the past year we have been able to create forums that are based in classes in the Journalism, Performing Arts, Literature, and Interdisciplinary departments. Moderated by a member of the faculty, these conversations usually take the form of a guided Q&A session. As we move forward, the aim is to live-tweet these conversations to increase their reach.

Brown Bag Lunches
The Brown Bag Lunch series was born to fill a very specific need. During our September production of Baritones UnBound, we were trying desperately to find a class in which to root a conversation between the students studying musical theatre and the three powerhouse actor/performers who were in residence on campus for the two weeks of the production and the week and a half leading up to it. Perhaps due in part to the timing of the production (a mere three weeks after the start of the semester) and despite a great deal of interest from the students, we were unable to find a professor who was interested in hosting a conversation in their class. Rather than miss the opportunity altogether however, we decided to create our own place for conversation—and the Brown Bag Lunch was born. About thirty students showed up for hour-long conversations with baritones Ben Davis, Marc Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey, and musical director Timothy Splain, talking about everything from the production itself and its development path to how to create a life in the arts, to a lively conversation/debate about the greatest musicals of the last twenty-five years.

Following the success of that particular lunch, we have moved to create a series of Brown Bag Lunches. Every show this spring will feature an informal Friday gathering where students can interact with the artists.

Master Class/Workshop Opportunities
Months before any production arrives at ArtsEmerson, we set up a Page One conversation with the lead artists involved. This conversation, which is recorded and shared internally for all of our staff to reference, covers the history and development of the piece, the goals the artists have for their Boston run, and other more specific questions that members of the ArtsEmerson team may have to best serve the production in the lead-up to their arrival. I always ask artists if they are willing to lead a workshop for a small group of students in whatever it is about their work that makes them unique. This has led to intensive workshops in subjects such as Step, Viewpoints, and Devising Theatre that are offered free of charge to the student body. Most recently I have been trying to save a few slots in these workshops to offer to community members so that students can have the experience of working with both the visiting artists and also with other artists who are working in Boston.

These four types of engagement don’t cover all the ways that we work at opening up the productions to the college and the college to the artists, but they are the most consistent models we’ve found. Occasionally a faculty member will approach me directly with ideas on how to connect to a specific production, and in those cases we create a true collaboration between the theatre and the college as we build the event from scratch. Engagement opportunities are included in a weekly e-newsletter that goes out to a mailing list of students and staff at the college who have opted in. Recently, I’ve been encouraging faculty at other local colleges and universities to sign up for the list in case there are opportunities they want to share with their own students.

Creative Producer Program
The final component of our engagement plan is the Creative Producer program. Now in its second year, this program is our attempt to model a new way of learning about and training for our field, with an emphasis on both the nuts and bolts of producing, as well as the philosophy behind the work. Open only to seniors, this is a year-long program that blends education with hands-on experience in producing. Students can apply to be a part of the program, and once accepted, they are hired on as part of our staff and assigned to support specific ArtsEmerson productions within the season. While all productions differ in their exact support needs, during the course of their year with us, students work directly with members of the ArtsEmerson staff in production, external affairs, programming, and business, as well as guided work with HowlRound.

Additionally, participants are required to attend a weekly ninety-minute meeting that provides an opportunity to discuss one another’s experiences, as well as the staff’s, ask questions about specific areas of producing, and get an in-depth look at the various facets of creative producing.

The challenge over these first two years of the program has been to find the balance between providing the students with the overarching philosophy behind the work, from programming the season to greeting the artists at the airport while also teaching and exploring the specific jobs that carry the production forward.

I imagine we all do this to a certain extent—we look at a field full of our successful plantings and see only the small area of blight where an idea failed to take root and flourish.

With our Creative Producers, we talk a lot about what success looks like. We talk about whether having aspirational goals are more useful than having practical goals. We hash out the challenges of producing at such a high level on such a tight schedule. But even as I work with our students to make sure that they are celebrating their successes as producers and learning from their failures, I see in myself the same impulse that they have to focus on the missed opportunities or to see the gap between what I hoped for an event to be and what it arrived at.

I imagine we all do this to a certain extent—we look at a field full of our successful plantings and see only the small area of blight where an idea failed to take root and flourish. Analysis is useful, learning is useful, but in my role I am trying to do what I encourage our students to do—fail forward—to look at the forum that wasn’t well-attended, or the open rehearsal that no one observed, the Watch Party that no one watched, and let my learning lead not to more analysis but to action—the next event, the next opportunity.


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Thoughts from the curator

A series of articles on the history, ethos, and goals of ArtsEmerson.



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I have not had the time to comment in some months, This however, seems to be a grand idea whose time has come. It may be difficult to manage on several fronts. In a small liberal arts college, the available time commitments to having such an integral part of the programming be connected to classes has limitations. The various departments on a campus usually have their own agendas and it becomes harder to break through their perceptions of the Fine Arts - until and unless we change the conversation. Please help us with hints from outside HOW to frame our positions and bring these opportunities into reality. thank you for sharing this article and information.

Hi Harry - and thanks for responding. The challenge of integrating Fine Arts into classrooms is a big one - especially given the specific challenge you reference here of faculty needing to keep control of their own curricula. I’ve found that the first step in breaking through that barrier has been to engage directly in conversation with the faculty about how we can collaborate and support each other.

When I first started this job, I looked over the records we kept of which faculty had been engaging with us and our productions - it turned out that we had a small corps of dedicated faculty who were highly engaged with our work, but the majority of the faculty had not found ways to use our programming as a resource for their classes. So last summer, I reached out to every faculty member who had either never collaborated with us or collaborated with us only
rarely. In an introductory email, I mentioned the work I was doing (including referencing engagement activities that were already in existence), but then asked if they would be willing to meet with me to talk about how they could envision the work on our stages supplementing and complementing their work in the classrooms.

The result of this outreach was a series of nearly 60 meetings with Emerson faculty where I had a chance to learn from them what would make collaboration possible. Time consuming? Yes. But for the first time we were engaging classes across a variety of departments – not just the students in Performing Arts. We had seminars and visits in Journalism, Music, Interdisciplinary, and Ethics classes.

It is a slow process – I mean, 60 meetings, right? It took much of my summer to meet with the faculty and process the learning from those meetings. But what I walked away with was an understanding of how the invitations we had been extending to the faculty weren’t offers they could use. Instead, they were able to share with me details about their curricula and brainstorm with me about how they could engage with the programming on our stages. Going into next season, I can continue to engage with this new team of allies and hopefully continue to grow our engagement.

The trick, I think, is to, as you say, change the conversation. Telling faculty why the Arts are important isn't a conversation that can go anywhere. Instead, I've found it useful to learn about what these professors are passionate about, and what they focus on in their courses - from there, I can serve a guide to highlight connections that can be made to our work in the theatre.

First let me say that as an Emerson alum, Theater major-class of '98, I am completely jealous of the tools, facilities and experiences that the school now offers it's students.

Thanks very much for this post, it reflects one of the main responsibilities that I am trying to conquer on a daily basis - as I hope are many other Arts Managers throughout academia-and your suggestions are good ones. I look forward to reading the rest of the series of articles.