When my friend Suzanne approached me about joining the board of the Schubert Club, I didn’t know much about the organization. My friends in the performing arts were quick to inform me that, though understated, the Schubert Club is a pillar of the arts which, like the Walker, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and The Museum of Russian Art, holds a position on the international map of the arts as well as an important position locally. That was enough to lead me to a meeting where Suzanne explained that the Schubert Club is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country and, to paraphrase her, “Organizations don’t last 120 years by chasing fads, but they also can’t ignore change. We know that underneath the fads of social media is an important current of huge social change. Your role would be to help us articulate an understanding of that underlying trend so that we can respond to it wisely.”
A few weeks later, Suzanne introduced me to Kathleen van Bergen who was Director of the Schubert Club at the time. Kathleen told us “I have this idea. What if we pick of group of people in their 20s and 30s, send them on a season-long tour of the top performing arts organizations in the Twin Cities, and ask them to post online about the experience.” With that, a new project was born and I joined the board. A few months later, Bethany Kois suggested the name theoroi (Greek: θεωροὶ or θεαροὶ) — who were ambassadors of festivals in ancient Greece — which is a perfect fit.
The basic idea of our theoroi project is fairly simple — invite a group of bright young people who aren’t arts insiders to experience a season of performances presented by the Twin Cities most prestigious performing arts organizations. Ask these participants, our theoroi, to post about their experiences on blogs, Facebook, twitter, or any other online platform of their choice. Let each organization put its best foot forward and see what happens.
From an organizational perspective, the motivation for this project is modest. It’s an open-ended exploration, allowing the Schubert Club to lightheartedly dip its toes into the realm of social media and see what happens when you mix together an unseasoned audience, a season of prestigious performances, and the potent cacophony of social media?
Any time you combine young audiences with established performing arts organizations, a discussion inevitably arises around the topic of relevance. Art lovers, patrons and creators perennially ask (or are forced to answer) “Is this art form (opera, ballet, symphonic music, chamber music, etc.) relevant to modern life or is it simply rote recital of outdated beauty?” The answer is inevitably an enthusiastic and often articulate expression of all the ways that the art certainly is relevant. This leads to the obvious follow-on: “What about all those people who aren’t participating? How do we show them that this art is relevant for them in their modern lives?”
Patrons of the oldest and most prestigious performing arts organizations often use grey hair as a simple metric for how well an organization is doing at answering these questions. “I see an awful lot of grey hair in the audience” is like a murmured alarm call saying that something needs to change lest another institution suffer the same fate as vaudeville.
Unlike projects of the past, theoroi makes it relatively easy to see and measure the actual response each participant has to each performance. It also forces the participants, the theoroi, to play the role of ambassadors by expressing their opinions in a public (or semi-public) venue. Far from being an oddity of the project, this is an apt reflection of today’s media where, for better or worse, everyone is a critic and absolutely everyone with an internet connection has access to a personal publishing platform. This is very useful for exploring the questions of relevance but it also goes deeper. Anyone who has watched a Disney film, read Lord of the Rings, or pondered the US Constitution knows that with power comes responsibility. In the information age we are incessantly reminded that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. We are trained to be acutely aware of the close links between power and information. In this context, it’s both exhilirating and disappointing to witness the popularization of publishing power. Why is it disappointing? Because technology changes much faster than society. In the same way that tyrants like Napoleon sweep in to take advantage of the confusion after a revolution, companies like Facebook are poised to take advantage of the populace while society recovers from having a century worth of communication infrastructure rendered obsolete in less than a decade.
It’s in this situation, where we see an entire civilization grappling with the fundamental ideas of communication, power, culture and historical context, that we begin to see clues to answering the driving question behind Theoroi — How are established modes of performing arts relevant to modern audiences? While the possible answers are myriad, it’s inevitable that they will be tied to the millenia-long artistic exploration of the relationships between power, knowledge, society and tradition.