Archive for the ‘audience development’ Category

Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech


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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Just one of those moments that reminds you of what you’re doing and why.

Last week I was at Israel Loring School in Sudbury Massachusetts, in my customary position, standing in front of a microphone, underneath the backboard in the gym in front of three hundred kindergarten, first and second graders sitting on the floor.

I was telling my own twisted version of Sody Salleratus, “Big Bert”, which I have told WAAAAAY too many times, but still love to tell. As I’ve said in other posts, when you know a story really well, something else happens when you tell it.

It sure did.

I got to the point where the girl in the family is going over the bridge to the store. I use the word “sashay” to describe her movement (“She sashayed out the door. She sashayed down the road. She sashayed over the bridge.”) (I think I owe a nod here to Roadside Theater and their version – “Fat Man”.)

I stopped.

The audience looked at me, wondering what I was up to.

“Sashay,” I said. “What does that mean anyway. Anybody know?”

Usually, nobody does. So I tell them it’s a little dance step and go on with the story. Vocabulary lesson accomplished, and I’ve engaged the audience.

But that day, a kindergartener on the far end of the front row raised her hand.

I stop and look at her.

“Do you know what it means?”

She nods. She’s sure.

Well, this is just great, I think. I love this.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a ballet step,” she says.

Now I am surprised. (Would that be chasse? I didn’t know that term until I went searching today…) No ballet expert myself – I learned how to sashay in fourth grade gym class with a scratchy record, Mr. Keller the gym teacher, and Janice Kahn, who I kind of liked. It was a nice move for a fourth grade boy, because no one touched.
Now I’ve stopped telling the story. This is interesting.

“I didn’t know it was a ballet step,” I said. “Thank you.”

I take a breath to go back into the story, but the lexicographer in the kindergarten class is not done. She has her hand raised again, and she is very self-assured.

I pause, “Yes?” I ask

“I know how do it,” she says.

Well,” I say, “that’s fantastic. Would you like to show us?”

She nods and stands up. Completely fearless. She is a dancer by trade! If only her teacher were here to see!

“Go ahead!” I say.

She raises her arms to her sides, faces the audiences, side-skips from one side of the gym to the other, keeping her arms perpendicular to the ground, her feet crossing ever-so-slightly at each step, then back again across the floor, and sits down. There is a spontaneous round of applause.

It is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I am struck near speechless.

“Thank you,” I said. “Now we all know what sashay means.”

I go on telling the story, knowing the picture in three hundred heads is different than it was before.

Actually, make that three-hundred and one.

Mine, too.

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In Seattle and headed to Alaska, but a few thoughts before a more, um, considered post tomorrow or the next day.

Hyperbole Watch –
Okay I’m guilty of exaggerating in my last post – live performance isn’t dying. (Great comments from Ezra Idlett and Tim Erenata) But it’s definitely different.

I keep thinking of Dylan singing “Something’s happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

I’m Mr. Jones. You are too, and if you think you ain’t, you’re wrong. Live performance is transmuting , and it seems it will serve a different function – just as recorded music serves a different function than it did ten years ago. And if it takes place in living rooms or smaller venues, it will still go on – artists have to make art – a congenital problem that can not be corrected – and live performance is one way they do it.

Book Watch
Boy, I am Eric Booth’s book, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible (despite the very clunky title). Booth points out so many things that all artists should consider – underlying all of it is the idea that artists teaching their craft makes them better artists. One of his most compelling points for me is the notion that artists (musician are his major focus) need to give students experience in all aspects of the art – creating, performing, being an audience, and criticism. When someone has the experience of creating art, they’re going to understand an artist’s work more deeply. (And more likely to attend art events) Both performing and being an audience member are about being present in the moment and opening one’s self to life, and criticism means being able to put art in the context of other work – that deepens understanding too. Booth’s writing makes me rethink how I approach my work as a performer and teacher. More on that in another post.

Recording watch

And finally, last Saturday I had a sold out crowd in Indianapolis where I recorded my story of my love of Motown – “Build Me Up Buttercup”. I took a quick listen and I think I got it this time. Great audience singing! Pshew! Hopefully we’ll get it out this spring.


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I’m supposed to be making a set list for the show I’m doing tonight at Providence’s Bright Night (like First Night, but without the official name and licensing). Bright Night’s survival is hanging by a thread, having lost its funding from the city and some other sources, and because the weather last year killed the attendance and thereby the revenues. The local artists and the intrepid organizer, Adma Gertsacov, are plowing ahead in the belief that it’s a worthwhile venture, hoping that people will turn up.

So if you’re in the Providence area, please show up – we need you. Not to mention that it will be a good time. (http://www.brightnight.org/)

But getting ready for the show has me thinking of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with many performers – we all are experiencing the continued erosion of attendance at public arts events. For many years, and particularly over the past two or three, I’ve seen a noticeable drop-off in audience size. While some of this can be blamed on the economy and the current concerns about the flu, I think even if/when things get straightened out there, we’re seeing a significant shift in people’s behavior.

People don’t go out.

Every performer I talk to is concerned about it. Major presenters are guessing and gambling on what will draw an audience in. Local musicians find themselves being paid less at clubs than they were ten years ago (if they can find a club that has music). Artists are scrambling, juggling more and making less. And a good percentage of a younger generation thinks art should be free, anyway.

No surprise to any of us, I know. Putting the economy aside, everyone knows that digital entertainment has changed the the way we relate to art and content – the local paper, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, had a front page article about Bright Night, and right below it made suggestions for what movies to curl up with at home tonight. Inertia will win for many, and they’ll curl up and watch something at home. And tomorrow, Bright Night will be gone, but the movie suggestions won’t (if people bother to read the paper for suggestions). The digital media is relentless, and live performance is not so persistent. We don’t have the access or funding.

There are at least two things that are really troubling to me about this.

The first is pretty selfish – in spite of all the things I do (including this blog) I am at heart a live performer. It’s my bread and butter, and I need it to live. So, I need people to show up. Recognizing that things are a little bleak in the performing world, I’m making adjustments. I can survive. Like I joke with my friends – why not brain surgery? I think people still get paid for doing brain surgery.

But the other issue is deeper – What does it say that people do not spend time watching live performance in a room with other people? What’s being lost? We are, in the end, a communal animal (my friend Bob Stromberg says we want to be eagles, but we’re really geese) – not just in the sharing of minds, but in the sharing of warmth and physical presence. And the experience of sharing something communally – some artistic experience – is something we’ve done since we stood up and walked. Are we better off isolated in our houses and cubicles with headphones on, listening to our personal soundtracks?

Eric Booth, in his great book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible says the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment reaffirms what the audience believes whereas art takes the audience outside of themselves. We need both (and it could be from the same song, or play, or book, or movie, or painting), but certainly being at a live performance, in the company of other people, is one good way to take a step a little bit outside one’s self.

So come on out. Now, I have to go make that set list.

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The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise

The artiste scouting the opposition - note the crafty disguise

Several years ago, I did a show on a Sunday afternoon in late fall at some library in central New Jersey (nope, can’t remember where). There were a couple of hundred people there – a pretty good turnout for a library. The show went really well. I had a great time, and so did the audience.

Still, as I drove home in the late afternoon, headed up the New Jersey Turnpike, I lamented that there weren’t more people there. I was sure there were people in the area that would have really enjoyed it if they had bothered to come.

I thought these thoughts as I approached the Meadowlands stadium. From the highway, I could see the lights were on. The Giants or the Jets were playing. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd from several miles away. Seventy thousand people, some of them so far away from the field they would need good binoculars to have any idea of what was going on down there.

What’s that about? Stupid football, I thought.

“Surely,” I said out loud to no one, “there are five hundred people there who would have had a better time at my show. Somebody there is miserable and cold and hates football and detests the drunk person next to them. They should have come to see me. It would have meant more.”

I know it would have meant more to me than to whomever the tight end was for the New York Jets.

I’ve often thought that about the arts – why don’t we attract audiences like sporting events? How do we get people in the seats?

The issue of getting audiences into arts events is a very large question with many different aspects, but as far it relates to the question of why arts don’t get the crowds sports do, I got a little bit of an answer this week at Fenway Park.

My wife Debbie got me tickets for the Red Sox for my birthday. We go to, maybe, one game a year. It’s expensive, it’s a hassle. I can watch it on television. I’m annoyed at the hoopla and adulation and egos and expenditure of public funds. Sports fans can be real idiots, mistaking their team’s victory for some personal accomplishment, and thinking it actually has something to do with what God thinks about.


But they were great seats. The best seats I’ve ever had for a Red Sox game. (I don’t want to know how much they cost – it was my birthday). You might have even seen me on TV – I was wearing a clown wig and holding up “John 3:16”.

Just kidding.

There were, as usual at Fenway, over 37,000 people there. As there were the night before, and the night after that. Eighty two times a summer – 37,000 people.

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

Crowd at a typical Bill Harley concert, er, I mean Red Sox game

It’s just a baseball game, for Pete’s sake!


But it was a great game. The crowd was a huge living thing and I was part of it. In spite of myself. What struck me about the crowd, too, was how expressive and emotional they were. More so than at any arts event I’ve been to lately. We talked with everyone around us. We laughed. And we sat at the edge of our seats. We all rose as one when Ortiz hit a HUGE home run, and stood as one when Papelbon, after almost blowing a save, struck out the last batter. It was, while not of great importance, a cathartic experience, and we left completely satisfied.

Of course, it helped that it was close and the Sox won. Some games are realllllly borrrrrring.

But I think this is one of the reasons that many people go: We don’t know what’s going to happen.

I am struck by the notion that athletes don’t know what’s going to happen either. They are acting out a drama to which there is no known outcome. They don’t know if they’re going to get a hit, or if the catcher will throw them out when they try to steal second, or if the game will go into extra innings and they won’t finish until two in the morning. They are trying to do things that are hard to do, and they might fail. In front of 37,000 people.

And, maybe even more interestingly, they are not trying to make the audience feel anything (and the arts is about the communication of feeling and ideas). All they’re trying to do is succeed. And we watch and feel ourselves. While the game (or agon in the Classical sense – from which we get the agony of defeat!) doesn’t matter – the striving is real. We sense their tension and anticipation and despair and joy. And we feel it, too. And all those other people feeling a similar thing encourage it in us. We are, after all, a group animal. Suddenly, we care.

I’m not saying this never happens in arts – it’s what performers are always working towards – when a group of musicians reach some kind of communion that raises their performance to another level, or an acting troupe presents something in a way they’ve never quite done before, the audience senses and is deeply moved. But it’s harder to reach it, and there’s a critical aspect of our minds that must be dealt with and overcome.

As a performer, I’m always aware, challenging myself to be so present, so much in the moment, that I bring the audience along. And I want them to experience something together –as a group.

Sports has an easier time of that.

Yeah, Springsteen can fill the Meadowlands with 70,000 people. He’s a great performer – maybe, to my mind, the best performer out there. But even the Boss couldn’t do it eight times in the space of three months.

There’s a lot of reasons why, but one of them is that the drama of sports is real.


Don’t get me wrong. I love my job.

But second base for the Red Sox would be good, too. Let me know if Pedroia gets hurt.

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