Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tasting Menus for the Performing Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………….."

More than a decade ago, great chefs became celebrities - on a global basis.  Gastronomic excellence became like haute couture - food as fashion. And the vast majority of Michelin Star Restaurants (especially the rare, exhalted Three Star establishments) moved to exclusively offering the Tasting Menu as the only menu option - seven to forty individual courses served over anywhere from three to six or more hours - each featuring the highest level of the chef's talent and experience in a feast for the body, mind and soul.

The Tasting Menu has become a sought after experience - by not only the gastronomes among us, but for ordinary people who simply wanted the experience (people with the money, of course, because these Menus tend to be very pricey) .  Indeed, the Michelin Stars offering the experience are usually booked months in advance, and the trend is so popular many restaurants require up front payment with the booking.

These meals are different from ordinary restaurant fare, in that they are "tastes" of what extraordinary dishes the kitchens of the most talented, most renowned chefs in the world are capable of producing.  For most people, it is an expansion of their whole idea of dining - let alone merely "eating".  Most people who do this, very likely only do it once or twice in a decade - or maybe in a lifetime.  It is as much "theater" as dining.

There are critics of the Tasting Menu phenomenon in the restaurant world - most singling out the inordinate amount of time a dinner that features 20, let alone 40, courses requires.  But for our purposes, it ought to be easy enough so that we can appropriate the idea, tailor it to our own needs, and make it appealing to our target audiences.

And the idea of a tasting is something I think the performing arts organizations ought to consider borrowing from -- performing arts organizations in a given area working  in collaboration with each other. Thus, say eight or more ballet or other dance companies, symphonies, operas, jazz groups, choral organizations, theater companies and / or multicultural groups in the various disciplines could produce a single show with short pieces performed by each participating organization in a two hour program.  These individual pieces would be examples of the excellence of each of the companies; calling cards if you will for what they offer.  Something like movie trailers perhaps.

Versions of this kind of approach have, of course, been tried by us before.  I remember an annual event done in San Diego whereby tickets were sold to an evening that featured brief performances by dozens of artists from scores of arts organizations; performances staged in various rooms at a downtown hotel - all accompanied by fancy buffet food.  Tickets sold out.  It was an annual fundraiser for something or other, and it worked on a number of levels.

But I'm thinking this kind of Arts Tasting Menu would not necessarily be just a one off promotional kind of gimmick, but rather a more permanent (for a time anyway as an experiment) fixture of a group of arts organization's regular annual performance schedules - say three or four such evenings over the regular "season".  That kind of commitment would, I think, be necessary to see whether or not such an experiment might really change things - perceptions, loyalties, new blood etc.  What if eight arts organizations got together and did three or four such shared Tasting Menu performances each year as part of their schedules.  And what if they thought out of the box in terms of the venues they used (thus for example a warehouse with multiple temporary stages and seating, with bars and food buffets spread around, so people could sample the different offerings on their own timeline etc. instead of the conventional auditorium with seating in front of a fixed stage.)  This kind of approach allows for some experimentation and reasonable risk taking.  It isn't really about replacing an existing approach or structure - it's more of an add on; something new and different. 

This theoretically might do several things:  1) It might be a way to attract new audiences for, and excitement about, what has remained hidden to a lot of people; people who are unsure they want to attend a long program of any single discipline organization -- exposing them to a wide variety of the arts and culture available in a given area. Priced right, these events might attract new audiences spread out across various demographic categories including age, income levels, geographic location etc.; 2)  It might prove so popular that ticket prices could be raised and the event could be a positive source of income for the participating organizations; 3) It could cross pollinate the spectrum of arts offerings thus strengthening the whole of a field in a given area.  Most importantly though, it might open the door to potential new audiences / supporters / donors, AND it might be yet another way to program performances highlighting the best of what the organization and its artists have to offer.

If the idea had any legs, all kinds of possibilities in the same city might be possible:  thus, for example, eight theater groups could collaborate on such a Tasting Menu evening.  Or eight varied dance groups.  Or eight Latino Arts groups.  Or eight symphony, opera, choral, jazz etc. groups.   It might be an idea for big and small arts organizations.   Of course, all these organizations want to produce and perform full works within their disciplines - that's their mission and that's a given, and the vast majority of their annual offering schedules would be what they have always done.  But nowhere is it written that they can't offer "tastes" or samples of their work to entice more people to want to experience more - and do so in a different way that excites people and fosters a buzz in a community.  And were this a viable approach, it might be reasonable that if a portion of the audience preferred sampling to the alternative of full immersion -- then providing them the option would help subsidize the longer form of the art.

Part of the "sell" of this kind of approach is for people to try something new, but the risk is minimized in that they are pretty much guaranteed that what they will be trying (sampling) is certifiably excellent.  I certainly would be up for trying an evening like this and I think I could convince any number of friends who don't usually patronize the arts on a regular basis to join me.

If we want more people to feast on the arts, it may be necessary to first get more of them to "taste" what we offer.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit