30 Days of Attending Performing Arts

Day 5: What to Wear?

tuxedoWhen I worked at an opera company, I was surprised that one of the most frequent questions from patrons at the box office was about what to wear. Given that I’m not particularly tuned into to clothing, I had underestimated the concern–or interest–in concert going clothing.

Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, attending formal live arts events (I’m thinking opera and ballet in specific) does not call for formal evening wear; there is nothing special to buy. Unless you are going to a gala opening night, or  invite-only event that has attire requirements listed on the ticket or invitation, you can wear what you want. That said, most people do end up wearing something along the lines of business casual (meaning a button shirt for men and slacks, if not a sport jacket or suit and something at a similar level of formality for women.)

But the range is wide…I go fairly regularly to the Boston Symphony on Friday afternoons, a concert heavy with retirees, who general just come as they are (particularly near my seat up in the second balcony). My uncle, a life long opera fanatic, has not worn a tie or sport jacket to a performing arts event in my memory, and is usually wearing casual slacks, sneakers, and a shirt I will generously describe as ‘vintage.’

From the arts administrator side of the equation, I can assure you that any arts organization I have been involved in as an employee was happy to see people in whatever clothing they wanted to wear. (Well, clean was good, but beyond that no worries.) We were glad you were there–and if you were young, hip, and in jeans, not only would we welcome you, but we’d take a picture of you for next year’s subscription brochure to show that we weren’t hopelessly old-fashioned.

By this point, you might–at least some of you might–be asking “but I want to dress up! What about me?” The good news about the democratizing of dress is it works both ways. Shows and concerts are still opportunities to put on your best ‘going out’ clothes, should you desire. A Friday night at Lincoln Center is certainly a chance to see some elegant clothes (Kennedy Center, not so much, that’s D.C. for you). I personally have taken (after many years of slobitude) to wearing a suit and tie to some performances at least. Not because I particularly love dressing up, but because when it is an event–say a special trip to a show out of town–it somehow feels like it honors the occasion and the artists. But that’s subjective.

I’ll end this somewhat meandering advice with one final note. If you are attending something with other people, it’s worth it to find out what they are wearing. If you are sitting next to strangers who are dressed up or down, it’s not a big deal, but if you are the only person in a group of four in spats or sneakers, it can feel a little weird. If somebody’s regular pleasure for the holidays is getting dressed up for an annual trip to the Nutcracker and taking you along, then don’t show up looking like you are ready for the early bird special at the Olive Garden. By the same token, if you are hanging with a bunch of hard-core new music hipsters and getting to hear the latest Saariaho  String Quartet at the Gowanus Ballroom, probably best to leave the white tie at home and pull out Fluevogs.

30 Days: Performing Arts

Day 4: The mysteries of tickets.

(Yes, I know it’s Nov. 5, I will catch up.)

So you have some sense of what’s out there, what kind of experience are you looking for, and maybe have narrowed things down to a small number of things you want to see. How do you get a ticket?

This, I’m sorry to say, may not always be as trivially easy as it should be. The simplest (and still often best) approach is to go to the venue and buy a ticket in person. This is my approach for the Kennedy Center, because, like many venues, tickets purchased in person don’t have a service charge, but tickets purchased over the phone or online do. (This is counterintuitive…you’d think the automated service might save you money, but it generally doesn’t.) Also, the ticket people at the KC (like their peers at Boston Symphony Hall and many other venues) are knowledgeable and helpful. They will  advise you on finding the right combination of date, performance and seat. Something websites try to do via automation with out much success.

But if you can’t get to the hall, then online or phone is likely your option.  Most venue websites let you pick your seat (some even have images that show you the view from your proposed seat). You should steel yourself for all the fees…as well as a pitch for a contribution. You can print the tickets, have them held at the box office, or, at some venues, get them to email you a digital ticket for your phone.

It’s important to make sure you are on the website that is authorized to sell tickets for the attraction you want to see. This is not a problem for most of what I go to (people are not thick on the ground pirating tickets online for baroque opera for example). But it is a real nuisance for big hits. (Ticket fraud for Hamilton is happening online and on the street.)

It’s also worth untangling subscription versus single ticket sales. Non-profit arts organizations’ business models (by and large) depend on subscriptions. That is what provides them enough capital to do a whole season. Personally, I think this model is getting a little wobbly of late, but for the moment it still is how things work.

As a result, subscribers get first crack at the best seats, generally getting some price break for bundling shows together. You also get other benefits such as the right to exchange tickets. There is a more intangible aspect–feeling connected to a given organization–being “a member.” It is true that certain things–last year’s Ring cycle by Washington National Opera, and Hamilton for instance, are more likely to be available to subscribers than single ticket buyers. Subscriptions also may introduce you to things you wouldn’t have seen on your own. I didn’t much care for last year’s Disgraced at Arena, but I thought Sweat was terrific and beautifully acted and directed. I wouldn’t have gone to either if we hadn’t been subscribers.

That said, subscribing isn’t for everybody. If you are new to performing arts stuff, I would “date around” with different companies before considering subscribing. You’ll get a feel for what style and tone they offer. (Edgy, like Studio Theater in DC, elegant and old school like the Boston Symphony, etc.) And also it’s worth paying attention to whether you like being there, that is in their main venue–whether it’s a place that just seems enjoyable to go to. For many years, I went to (and often reviewed) the free concerts in the Garden Court at the National Gallery of Art. It is far from being an ideal venue–echoing acoustic and poor sight lines. When there was an orchestra, it was a pick up band that wasn’t extensively rehearsed, soloists were sometimes great, other times kind of winging it. yet those concerts had an openness, and generosity that was rare. And ticket wise? You didn’t need any all. Loving the venue is part of it.

In a future post I’ll deal with handling the price (costs can be high, but relatively speaking the performing arts are a good buy, and there a lot of ways to attend on the cheap if you are willing to do some leg work.)

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30 Days of Tips for Attending the Performing Arts

Day 1: Introduction

November is national novel writing month, with people pledging to write a novel online in public (a gruesome spectacle) by completing a bit each day.

I’m not up for that, but it is a convenient excuse for doing 30 days of some kind of blogging and my coscreen-shot-2016-11-01-at-9-25-19-amntribution will be 30 thoughts on attending and appreciating live performing arts (one of the few areas were I can claim if not actual expertise, at least a lot of experience).

This is prompted by the realization that although for many attending a play, opera, symphony concert, ballet, or other performance is a pleasurable prospect, for others it can be a burden unto dread. This came out in a chat with a friend about my customary habit of checking out what the local venues have on when I travel to another city for work (more on this in a tip mid-month), and being lucky enough to catch some great things that way (one of Mattila’s final performances as Fidelio in Houston, for instance).

“But that’s such a lot of work was reply, getting the tickets, finding the place, and if it’s something hard studying up!”

Yes, there’s a little bit of prep, involved, but it doesn’t have to be onerous. To that end, here is the first tip.

 How do I find out what is going on? The answer to this is influenced by where you are  (be that home or travel destination). If you are in a big city, the daily newspaper (print and websites) and individual organization websites will have listings. There are non-profits that represent arts groups in many cities (Arts Boston) for instance, and they have calendars http://calendar.artsboston.org/.

The wealth of offerings in a big city can be daunting (I’ll get to that later in the month) so I don’t recommend being a maximizer in search of the absolute best opportunity. (But more anon on that puzzle).

In a small town or rural area, it may be harder to find out what is going on (although it frequently surprises people to learn that there are performing arts in their communities or within a reasonable drive). Most colleges and universities present both their own productions and touring shows.  Check out the calendar listings on their websites. Community centers, religious organizations, and civic groups also present concerts (and these are not necessarily related to being a member of the organization or a particular faith. In downtown D.C. Epiphany Episcopal Church presents a lunch time concert every Tuesday that is just a musical break for workers in nearby office buildings). Sixth and I Synagogue in D.C. has a lively program of music from all over the world. Museums (of many kinds) frequently have public performance programs as well. If you have a regional or local museum in your area, check out their calendar.

This advice (and most of the advice this month) is going to be heavy on classical stuff, only because it’s what I know. But there is also a whole world of pop, folk, jazz etc. with stuff happening in clubs, bookstores, cafes, and the like everywhere. Even the smallest town probably has a singer songwriter happy to have you in the audience for their bookstore debut, just keep your eyes open and see what you can find.

Tomorrow:  Presenters and producers and knowing what they do…

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