When I posted my August preview the other day I mentioned that whoever scheduled the Merola production of Barber of Seville was, to quote myself, "simply not dealing in reality." (My original post, and my explanation for saying that, can be found here.) A friend of mine e-mailed me an objection to what I said and how I said it. With his permission I’m posting what he wrote, followed by my response. His text is in blue. I've omitted some stuff that doesn't directly pertain to his argument.
I was going to leave this in the comments on the fun stuff post then thought better of it because of how it may sound. As you know, I am not retired, unemployed, self-employed, nor am I a student – but I'll be there both nights because I can walk home afterwards – and stop home and have a bite to eat beforehand. I'm not gloating about this, it's just a fact. I don't think the start times are the real issue here as much as the location of your home in relation to the event. Most people don't view that three hour gap as "wasting time" but as an opportunity to have dinner with someone, go home and change, whatever. I find it more difficult and annoying to have to be at something that starts at 7 or 7:30 than at 8:00 and as I've said to you before, I wish this stuff didn't start til 8:30 or 9:00 – which would be more convenient for me but would cause you to go apoplectic – or at least give up on performances altogether. I don't do a lot in Berkeley for the same reason, but that doesn't make them wrong when it obviously works for so many people.
I don't know – I say this to you as a friend and someone I admire and respect, but to say "these people are simply not dealing in reality" sounds pretty harsh to me and I don't think we bloggers are at the top of the list when considerations are made on scheduling the starting times of events – but I do think they are interested in making it convenient for all those folks who want to eat at Absinthe or the Hayes Valley Grill (or at the Grove or Arlequin for that matter) and that's the majority. And for those that abhor late nights, that's what weekend matinees are for, but why would they want to willingly give away comp tickets to performances that won't get them coverage until after it's all over (and to performances that will probably sell better than the evening shows)?
Just wanted to share these thoughts with you.
[from a second e-mail, after I thanked him for responding and told him he should post his remarks or let me post them]:
I just don't want to come across like I'm criticizing you because that's not my intent. I remember when you wrote to me about "War Music" that just because I didn't like how they did it didn't make them wrong for doing it that way, and that's really the spirit of what I'm saying here.
It's up to you whether or not you want to post it and respond [. . . ] and be "nice" in your response, please.
Are you at least going to the Friday performance?
My response now follows. I will point out here that what I said in my original post and what I'm saying here about start times applies generally to performing arts groups in the Bay Area, not just to the Merola Program or the San Francisco Opera.
I was going to leave this in the comments on the fun stuff post then thought better of it because of how it may sound.
It sounds fine. Tone is conveyed not only by what people say but in how the reader reads it. I’m reading it in a positive way. I’m not big on personal abuse but I’m always open to differing viewpoints. I assume people realize that but maybe I shouldn't make that assumption.
As I’ve said all along (for instance, in this post about the Royal Danish Ballet fiasco at Cal), I’m perfectly willing to stick the subject of start times in the FML file if anyone can give me solid reasons why every performance in the Bay Area has to start at 8:00. Please note that in that entry I define what a “solid reason” is.
As you know, I am not retired, unemployed, self-employed, nor am I a student- but I'll be there both nights
I’m sure there were other regularly employed people there; I’m speaking broadly about the attendees. The point I was making is that most people who attend midweek 8:00 performances, aside from the occasional live-performance addict like you and me, are clearly retired people or students, something that is easily verifiable at any performance. I notice that in your write-up (which I will be happy to link to if you wish to identify yourself) you mention how little sleep you got. You have to be very dedicated to the Barber of Seville to make that sacrifice. Most working people aren’t going to make it.
because I can walk home afterwards- and stop home and have a bite to eat beforehand. I'm not gloating about this, it's just a fact.
Yes, that is very handy (I was in a similar situation when I lived in Boston) but you don’t seriously think that most theater-goers live that close to Civic Center, do you? (And if so, what do they do if they want to see something across the bay or downtown?) Also, I know quite a few people (men as well as women) who would not be willing to walk through the neighborhood you walk through late at night. You’re talking about a very small group here – people who, in the first place, are interested in live theater and can afford it, and who live close enough to the theater (or at least a theater) to walk to it, and who are OK with walking alone at night. That's a pretty small subset of potential ticket-buyers. I think the majority of theater-goers are people who work downtown but live farther out.
Let’s also remember that a sizable percentage of them take public transportation, which, in the Bay Area, tends to shut down shortly after midnight. We've all been at opera performances where a lot of the audience is silently screaming "just die already!" because they're afraid of missing the last train. Anything that discourages the use of public transportation is bad. It is way past time when we need to adopt policies that discourage our non-sustainable reliance on cars. (I’m not even going to get into the trouble and expense of parking in San Francisco.)
I don't think the start times are the real issue here as much as the location of your home in relation to the event.
Nope. I don’t think it’s a violation of my personal privacy guidelines to say I live in San Leandro, right next to Oakland, where instead of living in a cramped, overpriced, and relentlessly noisy apartment (as I did in Boston) I can own a pretty nice house with a yard. But it’s not as if I’m out in the boonies, either – the local BART station is a quick walk away, and from there I can catch a direct train that will get me to either downtown San Francisco or Oakland/Berkeley in about 25 minutes.
I get the “one hour” figure I always use by adding in travel to and from the stations and waiting for the train, which can be up to 20 minutes late at night. So the whole trip after commute hours almost always takes an hour. That’s still a shorter trip from Civic Center than to almost anyplace within San Francisco – I’ve occasionally, while staying in the city, spent 30 minutes just waiting for a bus to show up. I could, if I were so minded, come home after work, spend about an hour here, and still get to the theater in time, which I think strengthens my point that there is an absurd amount of time to fill before an 8:00 performance.
If theaters can’t accommodate people who live where I live then they’re in trouble – I would guess most of the local ticket buyers live a similar distance away, even if they're San Francisco residents, and quite a few live even further out, in the Walnut Creek area. It's really great to live as close as you do, but most of the potential audience is just not in that situation.
Most people don't view that three hour gap as "wasting time" but as an opportunity to have dinner with someone, go home and change, whatever.
Well, last time I flew back from New York we sat on the runway for almost three hours, and though I got a lot of reading done (from one of my favorite authors, too – I had Volume 2 of the LOA edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s complete stories), I pretty much considered that Jet Blue was wasting my time. I’m very skeptical of institutions that tell me their bizarre delays are really for my benefit.
I’m also wondering how you know this – most people I know definitely regard it as lost time, which is why many of them have dropped live performance in favor of more accommodating forms of culture and entertainment.
Incidentally I have had a couple of friends offer to kill time with me beforehand, which seems like an imposition but they made the offer. But it’s a lot to assume that they’re going to be available when I need them to be, and will be willing to wander off when I need to get to the theater. There are always time pressures when you’re going to a performance, which is why so many restaurants offer special menus for those who have to make a curtain time. I go out to dinner with friends fairly often, but that’s about spending time with them, not using them as filler because theaters, for reasons still unclear to me, insist on starting everything at 8:00.
As I have said before, most working people I know, unless they are hardcore live-performance aficionados, are not even going to consider going to something that won't even start until 8:00 on a worknight. I’ve had retired people say to me that they don’t know how someone who is still working can manage to go to the theater and I’ve had temporarily-fully-employed freelancers tell me they do not know how I can do it. I've had people tell me that when they worked in SF they remember how dull it was waiting for performances to start. The only person I've ever met who doesn't consider the time a waste is you, which of course is a perfectly legitimate position, but as far as I can tell, and in my almost invariable experience, you're in the minority on this.
This does get into the social aspect of theater-going. I realized long ago that no one I knew was interested in going to the theater as often as I was, so I developed the habit of going by myself. I know there are lots of people who view theater as an adjunct to their social life rather than as a thing in itself.
I think of this by and large as the “gracious living” school of theater-going, by which I mean people who see going to the theater as an aspect of their self-image as well-off, cultured people. (To some extent we all do that, no doubt.) I am going to state clearly and emphatically that I am not issuing judgments about whether a more social motivation for theater-going is worse, more trivial, or so forth, than going for the sake of the performance itself. I am stating this clearly and emphatically because though I really do feel people can go to the theater for whatever reason makes them happy, I also have an instinctive stomach-clenching revulsion when people say things like “it’s so civilized!” or “enjoy a leisurely supper beforehand” and suchlike. There is a comic aspect to seeing an aesthete such as myself as an angry proletariat, but there it is. I also reject completely the common stereotype that the "real" lovers of music and theater are of course the poor people up in the cheap seats and never the rich people in the expensive ones, so there that is.
I understand the appeal of a nice night out. But most of the people who feel that way (yes, there are many exceptions, you among them, but I think I’m describing the majority of the group accurately) are, at a deep level, more about self-image than about whatever is actually being performed. These people are no doubt the majority, which explains why we have so much safe theater that pretends it’s edgy.
“Safe” theater is different from bad theater: I’m talking basically about people who want well-known established brand-name performers and works. Nothing wrong with that – there’s usually a good reason why certain works and performers are classics, and we all like to ride our favorite warhorses – but I do think theaters that embrace a role as just another luxury good are making themselves ultimately irrelevant.
All live performance, and this isn’t an Internet thing but rather dates back to the advent of cinema/radio/TV, is – I won’t say “elitist,” because that’s such a loaded term, but “of interest to a minority.” What is new with the Internet is the dumbfounding range of great works that are easily and flexibly accessible. Live performance isn’t the only cultural game in town anymore. Yes, there is something irreplaceable about the experience of live performance (though you could make a valid argument that what you lose in immediacy you gain in breadth of repertory – if the local theaters are doing Barbiere over and over, you can turn to DVD for Moses und Aron).
But it also has many drawbacks: it’s expensive, you are crammed in with a lot of (often irritating) people, and you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. That’s very different from the way that “culture” is, increasingly, consumed. I think theaters would do well to emphasize the specialness of the experience itself, and not sell themselves as just part of a lifestyle, one which only emphasizes the stereotype that live theater is a toy for the contented.
OK, I’m getting a little far afield here, so I’ll go back to your points.
I find it more difficult and annoying to have to be at something that starts at 7 or 7:30 than at 8:00
OK, you're certainly entitled to annoyance, but you don't say why you find it difficult. I have gone to things at Berkeley that started at 7:00, and I have time to take public transportation from work in San Francisco, eat a decent dinner slowly, and still arrive in the theater lobby right after the ushers. And the theater is full when the show starts at 7:00, so plenty of other people are managing to make it there in time. I'm not saying that everyone has to do things the way I do, but I am saying that it is possible to work a regular day and arrive in a different city for a 7:00 performance without an annoying rush. Do you really know a lot of people (who work, and whose jobs have regular hours) who say, “I would love to go to the theater more, but I just can’t get there by 8:00?” (Yes, as I have repeatedly stated, I do know a lot of people who tell me they won’t go to anything that starts at 8:00.)
and as I've said to you before, I wish this stuff didn't start til 8:30 or 9:00 – which would be more convenient for me but would cause you to go apoplectic – or at least give up on performances altogether.
Actually I wouldn’t go apoplectic, I would just do other things with my time. As would anyone who takes public transportation, needs a certain amount of sleep, hates wasting half an evening waiting for an 8:00 curtain, etc. The thing is, theaters are interested in selling as many tickets as possible, aren’t they? Should they really be writing off large segments of potential ticket-buyers?
This may be a problem without a solution; somewhere in the three volumes of Shaw's music criticism, he mentions that audiences tend to be young or old; the middle group is busy with work and family. But I don't think live performance is in such a vibrant state that it can afford to ignore such a large pool of potential ticket-buyers.
I think theaters are already aware that 8:00 start times are a problem, as witness the slowly increasing experimentation with earlier start times – even when they’re misconceived, like the Symphony’s 6:30 Fridays, there is an awareness that 8:00 is a problem for many potential ticket-buyers. (Incidentally I don't see much experimentation with later start times.) We’re all certainly entitled to our personal preferences, but I really think the majority of potential ticket-buyers in this area are not longing for later start times.
I don't do a lot in Berkeley for the same reason, but that doesn't make them wrong when it obviously works for so many people.
Well, exactly: there’s lots of great stuff in Berkeley, not only from Cal Performances but from Berkeley Rep and the Aurora Theater, but if it’s too much of a burden you’re not going to go. Wasting three hours between work and the start of a performance is a burden, and you have not persuaded me that most people don’t see the waiting time as wasted. To some extent, yes, it works for many people in the sense that current audiences are OK with the 8:00 start time, but as I've pointed out, those audiences tend to be made up of retired people, students, and others with flexible schedules. Most working people just don't bother to go.
I don't know – I say this to you as a friend and someone I admire and respect, but to say "these people are simply not dealing in reality" sounds pretty harsh to me
I don’t mean it to be harsh (as it would be if I said something like, “these people are crazy”). I’m not trying to be harsh, or snarky, or “controversial”: I’m trying to be accurate. I think they are not dealing in reality, and I think this is the easily verifiable local reality:
1) Most people in this area have jobs that start at 8:00 in the morning or earlier. I don’t know for sure (it probably has something to do with the financial markets in New York and the three-hour time difference) why my jobs back east were 9:00 to 5:00 and out here they’re 8:00 to 5:00, but such is the case. I frequently get to work between 7:30 and 8:00 and the office is already mostly full and that is not considered unusual. Walk through the Financial District at that hour and the streets are packed. Unless you’re someone who likes to think of himself or herself as the sort of person who stays out late, you’re not going to go to many things that end late, because it makes the next day too difficult.
2) Most Americans do not get enough time off and even those who do often end up not using their allotment because of workplace pressures. Time off is precious. Hours spent waiting for a performance to begin start adding up as wasted hours. Go to the theater enough and you’re going to start adding up the hours spent waiting and you will start thinking this is maybe not the most productive use of your time. It gets back to a conversation I had with you several months ago that really resonated with me: I mentioned that you seemed to have cut back on theater and one of the reasons you gave was to avoid “entertaining yourself to death” at the expense of other things you could be doing with your life. Exactly.
3) Live performance is competing against plenty of cultural choices that are cheaper and more easily accessible. Theaters need as many paying customers as possible, and it is foolish to make it so inconvenient for working people.
Given the fungible nature of reality, people are of course free to dispute the points above, but it needs to be about accuracy, not personal preference. I really don't think that what I'm saying here is the equivalent of "well, I'm here, so they can start now." I think my experience is shared by many.
and I don't think we bloggers are at the top of the list when considerations are made on scheduling the starting times of events –
I’m making this point not as a blogger, but as a frequent theater-goer (who buys expensive tickets and often donates to theaters, by the way – they’re losing more than a $10 ticket when they lose me) who also works a regular 8:00 to 5:00 job. Blogging is essentially irrelevant to what I'm saying here.
but I do think they are interested in making it convenient for all those folks who want to eat at Absinthe or the Hayes Valley Grill (or at the Grove or Arlequin for that matter) and that's the majority.
I’m curious where you’re getting that information. That group couldn’t possibly be the majority because I doubt that all those restaurants combined (and throw in Jardiniere as well) have enough seating to accommodate the audience in Herbst, let alone Davies Hall and the Opera House, on those nights when all three venues are on.
Also: those are fairly expensive restaurants. I prefer to spend my money on tickets. You’re taking an expensive evening and making it even more expensive. I thought theaters were trying to fight the image that they were only for the rich, or for people who didn’t need to work? Look, if theaters want to cater to that crowd (yeah, instinctive revulsion is going on), that’s (quite literally) their business, but, as noted earlier: looming irrelevance. Because even if the fine-diners are the majority (which I doubt), going after that group instead of those interested in theater itself is, as I have pointed out above, the way to cultural irrelevance.
And for those that abhor late nights,
This isn’t about “abhorring”; it’s about a realistic assessment of the hours most working people in this area have to keep. There’s no attempt at curfew here; anyone who likes late nights is free to go to a bar or restaurant after the show. I do realize there aren’t many open then, because there aren’t enough customers for it to be economically feasible. There aren't enough customers because most people have to work early the next day.
that's what weekend matinees are for,
Sure, but weekends get filled up, and so do weekend matinees. Theaters realize this, which is why so many of them charge more for weekend tickets. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to increase the potential number of ticket-buyers, and therefore increase the theater's income, by instituting more realistic start times during the week?
but why would they want to willingly give away comp tickets to performances that won't get them coverage until after it's all over
Again: my point is not about getting comp tickets. I get them so seldom that it's not really a consideration for me. In the original entry I went back and forth on whether it should be “bloggers” or “working people” who had difficulties with 8:00 weeknight performances. I ended up going with “bloggers,” which perhaps obscured my point.
As for not getting coverage, well, even professional reviewers are not going to have a review in print until the run is pretty much over. That’s what happens when your run is over a single weekend. You have the same problem when the performance is a one-off, as are most recitals etc. I assume the benefits of getting the word out about a particular performer or theater group make it worthwhile for them to hand out comp tickets. It’s not really my problem. Though I will happily accept free tickets, I never ask for them and don’t count on them. My point here is about regular theater-goers, that is, people who pay for their tickets.
(and to performances that will probably sell better than the evening shows)?
If weekend matinees are selling better than 8:00 evening shows, theaters might want to do some serious thinking about why that is.
[from a second e-mail, after I thanked him for responding and told him he should post his remarks or let me post them]:
I just don't want to come across like I'm criticizing you because that's not my intent.
As stated earlier, I’m fine with hearing different viewpoints. I’ve usually come from the theater, not Mount Sinai, and I have no tablets of celestial law.
I remember when you wrote to me about "War Music" that just because I didn't like how they did it didn't make them wrong for doing it that way, and that's really the spirit of what I'm saying here.
Indeed. I meant that more to apply to what theaters are staging as opposed to how they’re operating, but it’s still a valid point. And I don’t say theaters are wrong for persisting in the 8:00 start time. I say they’re foolish, because as far as I can see they’re missing out on a lot of their potential audience.
If that’s what they want to do, that’s their choice, but then they really do need to drop the whole “expanding the audience” blah blah blah shtick. Being innovative in this case isn’t about setting up a Twitter feed or whatever the e-thing of the moment is; it’s about taking a hard look at the fundamentals of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and maybe doing things differently.
It's up to you whether or not you want to post it and respond [. . . ] be "nice" in your response, please.
I’m actually not sure how to take that. I think I’m always nice, sometimes too much so, though of course I realize that for various reasons people don't always see things my way. But I wasn’t kidding in my original entry when I said I was speaking with love in my heart. I never try to be snarky, I try to be accurate. I’m afraid you have not convinced me that I’m wrong in what I said, so I’ve had to express that. I’ve realized that no matter how carefully I phrase things (and people don’t always realize how carefully I’m phrasing certain things) people are sometimes going to read them in a tone that’s very different from the one I had in mind. There’s not much I can do about that, short of emoticons.
Are you at least going to the Friday performance?
No, I did not, and here’s a summary of what I did with my evening instead: a light workout, then I worked in my garden for an hour, then washed the dishes and did a load of laundry and some other housekeeping stuff, I checked e-mail, I read about the first book and a half of Sarah Ruden’s new translation of the Aeneid, I listened to my new Kurtag CD, watched an episode of South Park, and was asleep by about the time the second act of Barbiere would have been beginning, which was good because I was exhausted and would rather sleep at home than in the theater. (We've all seen people who nod off as soon as the lights go out: another hazard of late start times.)
I had a good evening: productive and filled with cultural enrichment. I hope yours was also pleasant.