What I learned from GQ today

For those of you familiar with my appearance, you may be surprised to learn that I have a subscription to GQ. Fear not, I do not plan to either improve my grooming or my dress anytime soon. I recently subscribed to a bunch of magazines, cashing in my airline miles so that I may stay current in all things from news to fashion. I’ve also received magazines I never signed up for, including Golf and Golf Digest, which thankfully come at the same time so they can go straight into recycling.

GQ is 4/5ths a worthless magazine (unlike Travel & Leisure, which is 5/5 worthless–and Details, which was once sent to me without asking, and ranks even below, well, anything), but about 1/5 of it, always the back 1/5, has good news articles, and there is a great article about Hollywood by Mark Harris titled “The Day The Movies Died” (Feb., 2011, pp. 87-91) in, yes, the current issue (with the lead story “The 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time”). Basically it’s about how aside from a tiny handful of interesting movies that come out in December, Hollywood has completely abandoned original moviemaking, particularly in the realm of movies meant for adults. But by original, he doesn’t mean good so much as a movie made from an original idea.

What in fuck does this have to do with Philadelphia performing arts? Well, theater in particular takes a lot of bad ideas from film (and TV) and waters them down further into worse ideas and execution, but I will write about that later. Instead, what stuck out for me and I think would resonate for anyone who has worked in an arts non-profit/company, was his discussion of branding.

Pointing out how the power in Hollywood has shifted overwhelmingly to marketers, he writes, “Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backwards.” Hmm, this could fit a lot of the new work that gets produced on stage. It also reminds me of how theaters and dance companies are currently asked to pitch their work for foundation support, because foundations are out to sell not the actual work, but the idea of their work. (It provides an arms-length distance in case the work is a fuck parade, or, and I sympathize with–though don’t support–their position here, is just unwatchable.)

But the part that really struck me was the next part. “Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they’re now trying to sell.” And later, “And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original.”

It would be hard to have worked in a non-profit within the past five years or so and not heard the word “brand” bandied about. It is what no doubt has kept strategic planning consultants from losing their jobs after their first flush of money stealing 12 years ago when nonfunctioning nonprofits just didn’t know what to do. Part of the danger in arts non-profits is that you tend to have few if any actual marketing staff, much less good marketing staff, and so words like “branding” get to be explored by staff that is imagining what marketing should look like, often in the real world, something which they alternately fear and worship, yet are ignorant of (which is funny because it means being ignorant of something that there is so little to be ignorant of).

For a performing arts organization I believe the idea of branding is the greatest red herring of all. A brand is NOT original, as the writer points out, otherwise it would not be a brand. That is why after you decide on your brand as an arts company, after much in-fighting and emotion, you may get the queasy feeling of, “So now what do we do now?” And every artistic decision is inevitably made with how it fits into your “brand.” A brand is by definition very constraining. A brand has its place in the world, I do not want my butterscotch krimpets to change. But branding should be expelled from performing arts organizations. (And I am not talking about brand meaning, “style,” as in “my brand of comedy”–that is not what your strategic thinkers are talking about either, unless they are out of ways to “further the discussion.”)

Definitions are important, this is why foundation/nonprofit speak is so misleading because of its unending misappropriation of words, destroying countless hours of staff time and morale as they argue at cross points because of cloudy semantics. Instead of branding, performing arts companies and organizations would do better to focus on, if they are feeling the need, their identities. Identity is important to an organization–it’s something that comes about from their work (not the other way around, like the poster). Identity is also something that is not stagnant, and allows for room to grow, it gives you the ability to reinvent yourself (or not) when needed, without losing what you already have. It is also something that partially relies on instinct and feeling–much like art itself, and this is why it presents an impasse to some foundation and corporate support, because it is not so easily codified, and is even beyond the artists themselves.

It is impossible to separate the work of a performing arts company/org from its parent body (the actual company/org). Part of this may be the knee jerk reaction – “We are the normal people, they (the artists, or we in the hours we are artists) do all the crazy stuff. We the organization must present ourselves as ketchup.” But a performing arts company should recognize itself as a unique organization, that cannot be easily modeled on previously existing ones.* And it should seek to benefit from its uniqueness, instead of fruitlessly searching for ways to brand itself like soft toilet paper (which should never change!). Here’s the thing, audiences don’t give a shit about your brand, they give a shit about your work.

Remember . . . audiences?

Well, those are my thoughts on the subject, thanks GQ!

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

*That does not justify creative accounting.

P.S. And by promoting the word identity in helping a company feel comfortable with itself, I am not promoting more shows that explore identity, as popular a line as that is for work seeking foundation dollars. Have kids and you will stop worrying about identity.

P.P.S. For publishing people who care about this sort of thing, GQ’s page numbering antics are annoying.

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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.