Can we get Cliff Lee to a play?

Cliff Lee Philadelphia theater

Cliff Lee photo by Brad Maule (mauleofamerica.com)

Cliff Lee made an appearance at the Philadelphia Auto Show, and it was the top story on the evening news. (Since this is a performing arts blog, I should explain that Cliff Lee is the newly reacquired star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, which is a baseball team and baseball is played by . . . oh, never mind.) Anyway, it’s a large room packed with people with Cliff at a table saying how he came to here to win, how much he and his family like the area, and answering questions that had nothing to do with cars. What baseball players say, especially these days, is profoundly uninteresting, but I started to wonder–could we get Cliff Lee to a play?

In New York, celebrities go to plays and dance performances all the time. Only a small segment of these are publicity invites, most are just, well, that’s what stars do, they go to plays. Like we learn from US Magazinethey’re just like us! What I’d like to achieve in Philly is that our celebrities regularly attend theatre and dance performances throughout the city. Regular audiences always get excited to see a celebrity in their midsts–it’s affirmation that you make the same choices and have the same tastes as famous people do. Celebrity cultural behavior is contagious to other celebrities as well as all the people who like to follow celebrities, and performers, knowing that celebrities may be in the audience, ratchet it up a notch. Ultimately, it helps cement the perception of attending theatre and dance as just something you do.

Here’s the problem: we don’t have a lot of celebrities in Philadelphia. Our most famous sons and daughters give their shout outs to Philly from Beverly Hills. I saw David Morse at the Starbucks in Chestnut Hill last year, and I saw John Oates at the Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting shortly after it opened. I saw Sylvester Stallone on the street around the time Rocky Balboa came out, but whereas David and John live here, Sylvester does not. And notice how my star sightings were not even downtown.  Bobby McFerrin at one point lived in Mt Airy, and may still, but I’ve not seen him at the Co-op. And supposedly Terrence Howard has an apartment somewhere in town. And I don’t know what Bill Cosby’s deal is–he certainly pays his dues for the city and Temple, but I don’t think he actually lives here.

Let’s face it, as anyone who grew up here knows, Philly celebrities basically fall into two basic categories–athletes and newscasters. (From those who did not grow up here but call Philly their home, I have often heard, yeah, what is your obsession with local newscasters and who the hell was Jim O’Brien?) I suppose a third category might be car dealership owners. George Perrier would also qualify (above the car dealers).

We need to get these people to our theaters! And not in a fawning, celebrity guest kind of way, but as members of the audience. The Philly Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Ballet are able to draw some star power–that ballet guy even knocked up Natalie Portman (a great recruitment tool, by the way, to get more male ballet dancers). But we need to make sure our celebrities are attending performing arts theaters throughout the city, the small and the big.

Newscasters are the easiest target–you do see them about town, and they tend to be chatty on air about what they did over the weekend, and some are known to see shows. That guy Mike Jerrick from Fox 29 in the morning–I bet he likes culture! Despite notable exceptions like Steve Keeley and Jennaphr Frederick, most people working in television news have a high degree of intellectual and cultural curiosity. We need to make sure all newscasters are aware of what’s going on, not because we want them to cover the shows, but because we want them in the audience, because, alas, they are some of our only celebrities.

I admit getting professional athletes to the performing arts is a tall order. Most of them are going to strip clubs and most of them have the personalities of walnuts. But I bet 5-10 percent of them actually would rather do something on a Saturday night besides go to Chickie’s and Pete’s. It perhaps starts with the wives, and targeting those players who are solidly under the control of their wives (Cole Hamels, Chase Utley come to mind). Certainly children’s shows, such as the Arden’s, are an outlet for quality family time for a pro-athelte’s family (time is spent without the challenges of speech). Then it might just enter their brains, yo, this performing arts shit is cool. (Let’s not forget, pro-athletes put on strange costumes every day.) Go to any of the teams’ websites, and you can research the players’ stupid hobbies; we should identify those players most likely to attend a performance, and make sure they’re aware of our events.

The point is that there are lots of good performances and a good variety of performances going on throughout the city every week. But, for whatever reason, going to a show is still not an seen as a knee-jerk option, it’s almost like we have to be reminded that there are shows going on in the city before we go “Oh, yeah, a show.” Collectively, performing arts orgs seek out audiences more than audiences seek us out. The thought process of “What should we do tonight? Maybe we should go to a show” is just not embedded in our city’s night-on-the-town population, even though the options–i.e. the number and variety of performances–are there to be had.

Our goal should be to get to the point where audiences are seeking us out as much as we are seeking them. The reasons why we have failed to get there are really not important. What is important is that we set our sights on that goal, and that we are not afraid of trying new and creative approaches to getting there, and not be discourage when some of them fail. If our celebrities did regularly show up to our performances, as audience members (not special guests), it would be a good indication that we may be getting closer to that balance. But more importantly, of course, is that general audiences are doing the same thing.

Another way of looking at it is that we are the hunters and they are the prey. And as any good hunter knows, the art of hunting is to find the spots where the prey comes to you and to avoid fruitlessly stalking about, trailing scents of gun oil and pheromones of the kill instinct, hoping to stumble upon a juicy venison steak on four legs who will stand there long enough for you to shoot it. You may wonder why I choose such a bizarre metaphor. Well, Cliff Lee would understand. His main hobby is hunting.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.