Songs for the Struggling Artist

What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #10

# 10 – Creating Welcoming Theatre Spaces

On my last trip to London, I revisited some theatre institutions I’d spent a lot of time in back when I lived there. I hung out at both the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and the National Theatre. Funny thing was, I didn’t see a show at either one during this trip. I walked in and out of the front doors of both places dozens of times – sometimes to meet friends, sometimes to write in the cafe, sometimes to see what was playing. I felt welcome.
At the BAC cafe, for example, I saw new mothers with their babies.It made me think about how those babies would grow up with the theatre – how that theatre would always be part of the fabric of their lives. Not just the shows they saw but the hours they spent in its walls. I saw design meetings for shows both at the BAC and elsewhere. I saw people of all ages from all ends of the neighborhood. You can feel how these are PUBLIC institutions. Like a library. Everyone is welcome.
There is no American Institution (that I know) that has this kind of atmosphere. American Theatre Institutions are consumption experiences. You come in, you watch the show, you maybe get a quick drink at intermission and you’re out the door.
You can’t just walk into Lincoln Center and feed your baby. You need to be there to buy a ticket for a show. There are cafes in Lincoln Center but you will need to purchase something (expensive) to sit in one. At BAM, where I used to work, there is a restaurant (an expensive one) but it only opens before certain shows and closes by the time the show is over. Furthermore, if you wanted to try and walk into the building, to say, visit someone in an office, you would need to get written or verbal permission from someone upstairs who would have to either come down and get you or call the security desk to let you in and then you would need to show your id. I worked at BAM for over 10 years before I had an ID that actually got me in without having someone come escort me to the office.
Having a truly public theatre spaces means that more people are likely to feel comfortable in them and that only benefits the work – even if someone never actually buys a ticket for a show. If we find ways to make our institutions more welcoming, we increase our audiences, we diversify our audiences, we probably even sell more tickets.

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe - where you can just hang out

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe – where you can just hang out

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My Customer Service Whisperer

My boyfriend is a genius at calling customer service, or anything like it. He manages to stay calm and collected and get what he came for. When I get on the phone with customer service, I become almost instantly furious. And I am not, in any other area of my life, a particularly furious person.

Watching him negotiate a call system, immediately after I’ve hung up blinding mad, is like watching a miracle in progress. I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. Why is he so successful at it and why am I so terrible? And is it gendered?

When my first pass at my most recent customer service exchange failed, he jokingly offered to call them back with his “authoritative male voice” (said with some irony) – and we laughed about it, especially when I said, “Yes, please!” in my damsel in distress voice. But I think there’s really something TO this idea of authority.

The fury that builds in me when I’m on the phone with customer service (or tech support or whatever) is related to a sense of extreme powerlessness – a feeling that nothing I do will yield the results I’m looking for.

The National Theatre produced a fantastic podcast about the Female Voice and in it, one of the participants mentioned that she noticed her voice getting higher whenever she talked to customer service. I do something similar. And it is what I try to do in life as well, I think. I think I’m going to win by charming the person, by seducing them with my niceness and if all that fails, I’ll attempt to have them empathize with my plight. I try to get what I want by smiling. These can be feminine strategies for survival in life in general. But they just don’t work for me in this context of calling customer service. They almost never yield results.

One of the things that my boyfriend does with customer service is to immediately establish his own authority, to see the phone call as HIS and not the operator’s. This seems to me to be a key aspect of the success of his call. He controls the conversation rather than letting the conversation happen to him. He never feels helpless while talking through endless circles of bureaucracy because it’s always his space and he’s just patiently waiting for other people to behave appropriately.

This sense of ownership of space feels like the key missing ingredient for me. I’ve been socialized to defer. The world belongs to men and I’m usually just asking for what I want from that world, even if I’m asking a woman. When I come in to a space, I wait to see where and how the space will make room for me, I do not come into a space and posses it.

I recently watched a Ted talk by Soraya Chemaly called the Credibility Gap.  She talked about the various ways the world is built for men and not for women. Her thesis was that (aside from the home) all spaces were men’s spaces – even women’s restrooms. She points out that our understanding of this starts very early – that socialization teaches all of us that women are not to be trusted or listened to. We (teachers, parents, everyone) interrupt girls and let boys talk. We affirm boys who take up space and shame girls who do. Chemaly wrote an article called 10 words every girl should learn  which gives us concrete ways to be heard, just by saying “Stop Interrupting Me,” “I just said that” and “No explanation needed.”

I have found ways to be heard in a lot of areas of my life – but sometimes when I get on the phone with customer service, all the ways I have been dismissed over the years rise up and the circular logic and bureaucratic red tape add up to make me vibrate with fury. Explaining what I need for the 10th time to the 10th person is all too familiar in this heightened concentrated form. It is concentrated helplessness.

I think I could use some of the tips my customer service whisperer uses the next time I have to make a call like that but I know, because of the way the world has always been, that I will never be able to put it to use in quite the way someone with a male voice could. It just goes that way. For now.


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