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Do Cultural Impresarios Take Requests? Please Stop Selling Audiences Short

In reflecting over Calendar’s recent coverage about where Orange County arts has been in the ‘80s and where it’s headed in the ‘90s, I’ll join my colleagues who are offering wish lists for the decade ahead (see Page 45A) and put in my fantasy request: In the final decade of the century, I would wish for a new maturity among those responsible for our arts and entertainment offerings.

The ‘80s, for so many local organizations, was the decade of birth, and with birth came the natural wonder of the new. I count myself among those who may have taken in their first top-flight ballet production--others may have witnessed their first major-orchestra concert, big-league art show, serious theater production or big-time rock ‘n’ roll show.

It was the decade we were inundated not just with so-called world-class talent, but with celebrities: Michael Jackson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Hockney, Sam Shepard, Rudolf Nureyev, Madonna, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Johnny Cash.

But along with the marveling at the unfamiliar, which in the infant’s eyes constitutes the entire world, we suffered through the awkwardnesses, the embarrassments, the temper tantrums and the pettiness that comes hand-in-hand with youth.

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Sometimes the ticket-buying public went along for the ride when artistic decisions were made solely on the basis of star appeal or, worse, on an assumption that we wouldn’t know the difference between a superstar, a has-been or a never-was.

We had seen Pavarotti on “The Tonight Show,” so we applauded rapturously through his scant 30 minutes on stage during a big-bucks fund-raiser for Opera Pacific.

We flocked by the thousands to anything and everything touched by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the cause celebre of cultural tastemakers at People magazine, yet we came only by the dozens on some nights to a production as inventive and imaginative as South Coast Repertory’s “Hard Times.”

We rushed for tickets to “Elvis: A Musical Celebration,” which shamelessly mimicked the life of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll at the 3,000-seat Performing Arts Center, but left half the chairs empty in the 400-seat Coach House for a great modern-day rocker like Joe Ely.

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Those deficiencies, however, will be rectified with a bit of time and experience. The more an audience experiences, the more discriminating it becomes.

But that equation is dependent, in large part, to the quality of that which we have the opportunity to experience.

What we don’t need in the ‘90s is operas with flashy sets designed to elicit oohs and aahs from first time opera-goers, while the stage is filled with second-rate singers who draw boos and bahs from seasoned veterans.

We don’t need tired musicals that trot out as their stars big names from theater past, or of TV sitcom fame or former game-show hosts.

We don’t need more reunions of mediocre ‘60s rock groups that bump young, vital performers out of the spotlight.

And we unequivocally don’t need breathy press releases hyping the biggest, most expensive, most elaborate, most mind-boggling production the world has ever seen. How about just giving us our money’s worth, and leave it at that?

Now that the new-car smell is fading from our cultural edifices of the ‘80s, it’s time for our cultural impresarios to take a few more giant leaps toward adulthood.

My request: Don’t sell audiences short. And don’t always sell them merely what you know they will buy. The lowest-common-denominator ethic of mainstream television should provide a sobering lesson. For years, network television shows charted millions of viewers, and bigwigs blithely ignored the cries of those who found the quality continually declining.

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But that was while the networks had the only game in town, proof, perhaps, that people will watch what is on. With the latter-day explosion of home video, networks’ combined audience share has been steadily declining. The answer is simple: choice. With a captive audience, quality is a non-essential. But when a real choice is offered (not the pseudo-choice between “Geraldo” and “Oprah”), most people will reject the inferior.

And lest anyone forget, our cultural organizations are not only competing with each other for audience share, they are also competing with television, the movies, home video, the Rams, the Angels, Disneyland and the plethora of leisure-time activities available to those of us privileged to live in the temperature-controlled Promised Land.

And just think of the grandest fringe benefit of all behind this approach: those pesky critics will be deprived of so much ammunition for their obligatory year-end cheap shots.

Happy New Decade.


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