“The most important thing is remembering the most important thing.”
— Zen Master Suzuki Roshi
As I meet with successful leaders across the cultural world, I am consistently impressed by two facts:
- They have a clear focus on “the most important thing” in their work.
- There is an endless variety of “most important things.”
Three vignettes illustrate this:
As detailed in this post, The Shedd Institute in Eugene, Oregon has focused their energy from day one on the wishes of their audiences. They have consciously chosen to put audience feedback ahead of any unifying artistic vision. You can see it in their programming, their style, and even their vernacular. In our time together, the co-founders Jim and Ginevra Ralph made it clear that they never want to be — as they put it — “announcing some grand programmatic vision from on high.”
The audience enjoys a performance at Shedd Institute of the Arts in Eugene, Oregon
Instead, Jim and Ginevra’s vision is to steward great music and theater for the city of Eugene based on direct feedback from the community. They accomplish this through relentless surveying, including a good old-fashioned postcard mailed to all attendees after every performance. The postcard includes an invitation to “tell us what else you’d like to see!” From this and many other community inputs, they develop eclectic programming to match the changing tastes of the town. They care about making their facility comfortable and welcoming; they care that they program top-caliber work; but for them the most important thing is the people.
Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern is a beloved institution in town, and clearly has a strong focus on their audience as well. However, if you ask founder and Artistic Director Jeff Watkins about the one thing at the heart of the Tavern, it is the work of Shakespeare himself. From the period-specific construction of the stage, to the minimal sets, to vigilant adherence to the original folio text, for Jeff the most important thing is recreating Shakespeare’s work as it was originally intended. I’ve attended a magical night at the Tavern, so I know firsthand how amazing it is. Convenience, understanding and entertainment value are all important considerations for a night at the Tavern, but they still come in second to Shakespeare’s work. Jeff knows his most important thing.
Here I am with colleague Laura Bowden enjoying a beer and a terrific night at the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta
City Recital Hall in Sydney, Australia is a mid-sized concert hall about a mile from the more famous Opera House. It is a beautiful hall, a simple rectangle shape with wonderful acoustics. In a recent visit with Executive Director Elaine Chia and her team, we got onto the topic of “the one thing” of City Recital Hall.
Like the Shedd Institute, City Recital Hall programs a variety of work — from classical to pop to folk and more. Elaine recalled past performances that sold lots of tickets but didn’t feel “right” to the audience; or other performances that audiences loved even when they didn’t sell as well. “So what is the one thing?” I asked.
Without hesitation, she said, “The space. Whatever we program must work in our space. That is the most important thing.” Spending a bit of time in the Recital Hall, I quickly came to understand what she meant. It is warm, live, and intimate without being small. I could see how a concert of unamplified bluegrass or solo piano would work wonderfully where a symphonic dance party of ABBA songs would not, regardless of how many tickets it might sell.
Here is Elaine with members of her team at City Recital Hall during my visit last April. From left to right: Vanessa Knox, Elaine, Caroline Davis, and Cynthia Crespo.
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For The Shedd, the space and the work are important, but the audience tops the list. For Shakespeare’s Tavern, the space is built to lift up the work of the Bard, and the audience is there to benefit from the work — but the work of Shakespeare wins out in the end. And at City Recital Hall, they have learned that the audience will be happy with the work, so long as it matches with their most important thing — the space.
What is your most important thing?
Top photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash