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This is the last post here on blogger for Divergence Vocal Theater.
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Unplug: Dare to Live Life Live

I’m the first one to want to tweet and text from the opera. I want to take pics of the impressive velvet curtained proscenium and tweet them. I want to record the orchestra tuning and tweet that too. Maybe I’ll make a little video of the Crazy-Cool Old Lady in the Silver Lamé Pantsuit, or snap one of those two guys who show up in matching black leather get-ups and I’ll upload those to Facebook before the curtain rises. I’ll take an artsy micro-environment pic of my über-fabulous silver tasseled scarf resting against the red velvet of the seats. That’s a good tweet. Then I’ll check and see how many hits my pics got on Twitpic or if anyone retweeted my tweet. Oh, yeah, I am good at this.

So let me say, when it comes to live performance, I am all for classical musicians and performing arts peeps experimenting with non-traditional, unconventional audience practices: twitting, texting, social media connectivity, all before, during and after performances. There are some cats out there working through all of that. The Houston Symphony recently had a “tweetcert”, where the company tweeted program notes during a live performance; the Royal Opera House created an opera from tweets. That’s cool. Go for it, guys.

Wanna know what I think?

The constant, unrelenting, electronic social “connectivity” is gimmicky (certainly when it comes to what arts groups can do with it in a live performance situation) and ultimately only serves to disconnect us from each other and from what’s going on around us in Real Life. And well, it appears that it’s really screwing with our cognitive abilities. Forget The Arts, I’m talking about our brains, people.

The NYTimes recently ran several articles on brain chemistry and the constant tech barrage, and lo and behold! - it seems it might be bad for the ol’ noggin. Are we going to become so ADD from all the tech input and multi-tasking, that we can’t even hold a conversation, much less sit quietly for an hour at a performance?

If we lose the ability pay attention, we lose the ability to experience life.

So, here’s what I’m gonna do:

When you come to a Divergence Vocal Theater performance & social event:

For little you, m’dears,
My artsy conspirators and I create:

  • a space to unplug from Digital Life and connect with in-the-flesh human life-forms, tête-à-tête.
  • a beep!-bleep!-zing!-ting!-brrrrinnnng!-free environment.
  • an update-free, cellphone-free, iPad-free, iPhone-free, Droid-free environment.
  • a place where you can relax and escape from the onslaught of emails, texts, tweets, pics of your third cousin’s neighbor’s newborn, and links to hilarious Youtube kitty videos.

Maybe we’ll even make little sockie sleeping bag cozies for your iPhone so it can get some shut-eye.

What then?

We feed your soul with music.

And, yes, you’re very, very welcome. It is, quite seriously, my pleasure.


PS - Oh, yeah, of course don’t forget to tweet this and post it to Facebook! :)


The Arts Biz

The Rise of the Classical Indie Artist

Actually, I might just say, The Rise of the Indie Performing Artist. More than ever, performing artists - particularly classical musicians - are getting out there and doin’ their thing: new music ensembles, opera and dance companies, and new theater companies are popping up everywhere. But we’re in a bit of a pickle when it comes to arts business models.

A performing artist’s standard biz route has been to incorporate as a non-profit organization. This is, initially, relatively simple, and in a nutshell consists of a performing artist, or small cohort, creating a mission, enlisting a board of directors, a volunteer squad, and seeking tax-deductible donations and grants - and of course filing the necessary legal documents to incorporate, as well as adhering to annual reporting guidelines. Unfortunately, the creation and maintenance of an organization is very time consuming, and often the performing artists who start the company have little time to devote to the art form because the maintenance of the organization becomes a full-time job.

The creation of an arts organization is not the creation of art, and somehow we’ve gotten that all mixed up and turned around. When a performing artist strikes out on their own, there is an unspoken expectation that (of course!) they’ll create an organization because that’s the “only way to do it” and that’s “how it’s always been done”.


As a performing artist, my job is to create work and to find the simplest and most economical way to put that work into the world. James Undercofler, Professor of Arts Administration in Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design questions the arts organization model, “So, is the NFP [Not For Profit] too cumbersome in its structure to impede the flow of artistry it is created to facilitate? As a one-size-fits-all model, the answer is absolutely ‘YES’. For small start-ups, and for perpetual start-ups, the requirements to achieve NFP status, as well as the ongoing requirements, from financial reporting to maintenance of a fiduciary board, often overshadow the creation and presentation of artwork.”

Must performing artists be beholden to the non-profit model, one that typically does not serve the art form, particularly in an organization’s early stages of development? And even larger, older, established non-profit organizations suffer from ill management, in-fighting and fiscal irresponsibility.

Might there be another way? If not, can we create one? We’re creative-types, us artsy-folk, so let’s use some of that creativity on the business side of the arts.

Forming a non-profit is not the only option for performing artists. Creating work project-to-project as an independent performing artist is an excellent, sustainable model, and keeps an artist focused on making and funding the creative work, and concentrated on tangible, Now Goals: Put on a show. Rinse. Repeat. All revenue goes into the project not the company. There is a lot that goes into producing a performing arts project, but it is do-able for an individual artist or a small arts cohort, without the need for much back office support. It’s all DIY, baby. Creative people are coming up with hybrid business models, taking the best from both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. The emerging Fourth Sector, consisting of social entrepreneurs, is literally changing the world.

Generating Cash - Fiscal Sponsorship & What it Can Do for an Artist


The big deal to forming a non-profit is that the organization can accept tax-deductible funds and apply for grants. Well, fiscal sponsorship is an awesome little hybrid: a performing artist (or artist in any discipline) can accept tax-deductible donations (just like a non-profit) from individuals and companies/corporations via an agreement with an incorporated arts organization, and that arts organization cuts the artist a check for those donations. Additionally, being fiscally sponsored allows individual artists to apply for some grants that are normally only open to incorporated organizations. There are a couple of national-level arts service organizations that provide fiscal sponsorship: The Field and Fractured Atlas (here in Bayou City, Dance Source Houston provides the same service to Houston dance artists). Fiscal sponsorship is not a miracle solution to arts funding, but we are in desperate need of hybrid arts business models and fiscal sponsorship is a powerful tool. If an indie performing artist couples the benefits of fiscal sponsorship with ingenious ideas on generating a commercial revenue stream, then the indie artist becomes as viable as any incorporated arts organization. No need to incorporate as a non-profit. Period. The artist maintains artistic and production independence allowing for nimble creative and business practices, and quick response to changing cultural dynamics and fluctuating market conditions. Keep. It. Small.

Fiscal Sponsorship is a viable, long-term business tool; it is not an Arts Purgatory that precedes the Non-Profit Status Panacea. Major non-profit service orgs, Third Sector and BTW, both support fiscal sponsorship as an arts biz model and not as an interim step to incorporation nor as an incubator. BTW published a particularly thorough look at fiscal sponsorship: More Than the Money: Fiscal Sponsorship’s Unrealized Potential.


Arts orgs that offer fiscal sponsorship usually charge a membership fee, and a small percentage to process donor payments. Some granting institutions will not fund fiscally sponsored artists --- many enormous ones, like the Rockefeller Multi-Arts Project Fund, absolutely will. Granting bodies’ policies on fiscal sponsorship seem arbitrary and nonsensical, and are very specific to each granting institution. In part, reticence from a granting institution to fund fiscally sponsored artists emerges from a fear that independent artists are irresponsible with the granted funds, that fiscal sponsors lack speedy reporting of distributed monies, and lack organizational stability themselves. But there are plenty of uninvolved and untrustworthy Boards of “Trustees” roaming around out there in Non-Profit Organization Land. A recent NYTimes article reports on a state-level investigation of fraud against The New York State Theater Institute. Granting institutions can no longer hide behind the indefensible excuse that funding sponsored individual artists is fiscally irresponsible. No business model is immune to fraud, but simply wearing the non-profit organization mantle does not guarantee fiscal responsibility, longevity/sustainability, nor artistic excellence. With the establishment of organizations like The Field (with over 25 years as an arts service org) and Fractured Atlas (founded in 1998), both specializing in fiscal sponsorship, granting institutions’ need no longer be reticent to support sponsored artists.

Ole Prof. Undercofler adds (ok, maybe he's not old, he could be a hottie for all I know) "…in order for this option [fiscal sponsorship] to even be considered seriously, foundations and government funders must rewrite their guidelines for this alternative to be considered." HALLELUJAH! Houston Arts Alliance does not accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists for organizational grants and they will not fund interpretive artists in their individual artist grant category; Texas Commission on the Arts does not accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists either; on the other hand, the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division does accept proposals from fiscally sponsored artists. Why are many individual artist grants only open to artists who create new work (choreographers, composers, playwrights)?, but not open to interpretive artists (classical musicians, actors)? This “policy”, unreasonably, forces interpretive artists to form nonprofits.

I don’t have the answers to the arts funding conundrum, but it's imperative that artists understand their options as entrepreneurs, and fiscal sponsorship is one option. It’s also important for my fellow artists and local arts service organizations to understand the power and legitimacy of fiscal sponsorship. The City of Houston and Texas state granting institutions need to re-visit their guidelines concerning the funding of fiscally sponsored artists. Even better, all granting institutions need to re-visit their guidelines and re-implement substantial grants to individual artists in all disciplines.

Although being a fiscally sponsored artist allows for a lot of creative and organizational freedom, right now, and particularly in Texas, most grants open to organizations are not open to fiscally sponsored artists. So why bother? Why not just incorporate? Well:

  • I'm convinced a “one-size-fits-all” non-profit model for the small arts does not work.
  • I'm particularly interested in what artists might do with commercial/for-profit/hybrid business models.
  • Granting institutions must change their policies and guidelines to include more grants for individual artists - particularly performing artists and interpretive artists - and open their organizational grants to fiscally sponsored artists.
  • If more performing artists remain independent, granting institutions will likely alter their guidelines based on this trend.
  • Investing in an individual performing artist’s career is as important as supporting the efforts of an arts organization.

It is time to take a serious look at the merit of individual performing artists’ work, their relationship with and contribution to the community, and stop burdening performers with organizational red tape and administrative hoop-jumping. Performing artists are creators of original art, but we also interpret and re-imagine established music and theater repertoire. In part, the success of the arts depends on the encouragement of commercial arts ventures and on embracing the individual performing artist as a creator and interpreter of significant work.

Here’s what a few fiscally sponsored artists and indie artists are doing:

Divergence Vocal Theater - Opera & multi-arts performance company. New works & re-imagingings of old rep. Houston-based. I’d be terribly un-savvy in my marketing department (that’d be me) if I excluded myself from this list. Fiscally sponsored artist with The Field.

Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (ERPA), The Field’s arts entrepreneurial lab, seeds and supports significant work by indie artists.

A few Fractured Atlas fiscally sponsored artists:

Rubber Repertory, theater artists in Austin, recipients of the monster-prestigious Rockefeller Multi-Arts Project Fund grant.

PearldAmour, theater artists. Recipients of both the Multi-Arts Project Fund grant, Creative Capitol grant (national-level indie artist grant), and significant foundational and individual donor support.

Pocket Opera of New York (founded by two alumni of the Juilliard School)

New York Arabic Orchestra

String Orchestra of Brooklyn


Interested in fiscal sponsorship and artist support services? Check these out:

The Field - national

Fractured Atlas - national

Dance Source Houston - hometown

Spacetaker - hometown (does not offer fiscal sponsorship, but offers a host of artist career development resources)


Serendipitously, I recently met with Audience Development Diva, Shoshana Fanizza, and she blogged about our conversation on arts business practices: here


Surfing the Selkie Project

Photos: Dave Nickerson

We had a blast with Selkie Project in Austin. The idea of integrating performance into an installation was a challenge, learning experience, and ultimately a success. The other 10 artists in the exhibit created some amazing work: from hanging, hollow, glass mini-humans, to an explosive paper display, to a tiny wooden multi-level world. The opening was ridiculously well attended and I’d like to thank Xochi Solis of Creative Research Laboratory for all her work making it happen.

Our installation of fabric, painted wall wordscapes, sand, glass, bottles, lighting, and media was infused with voice, piano, actors, and the incomparable dance of butoh artist Caroline Sutton Clark - the missing link in our piece. Because the work is in progress, we rehearsed as performers in different groupings and at different times, adding Caroline in last - but: viola! What a treat and perfect match!

In moving forward with the project, we learned a lot about the type of multimedia we’d like to use, and I’m considering other folkloric and mythological ideas…so stay tuned! --- Misha


Just gonna get my feet wet until I drown...

From a post I started writing on 1/16/2010:
"The Selkie Project has been a really organic creative process. Misha shares my lack of concern over not quite knowing what I'm doing, allowing work to exist and breathe and spontaneously become whatever it needs to be in that moment. The intention with The Selkie Project is to experiment on creating a longer operatic piece. We're starting this month with the hybrid installation-performance piece at the Creative Research Lab in Austin, and planning to move onto the next step of the project this spring in Houston. It's a really interesting way to begin creating a theatrical piece. We're creating an environment for something to happen in. The environment itself has evolved and morphed more than once in the past few weeks. We began last weekend by just sitting in the space and imagining what could happen there. I'm trying to imagine what the design process for a more traditional play would look like if we began by sitting in the empty theatre for a couple of hours. By the end of last weekend we had settled on this idea of stenciling the words Misha wrote for the piece in very pale sand and sea colors on the walls. We then quickly learned that stencils of that many words and lines of poetry would cost more than my rent. We moved onto trying to project the text onto the wall and then painting over the words, keeping as close to the font as possible. That idea flew out the window when we discovered that the images of the text weren't of a high enough quality to be that exact. We could either wait to get better images, or we could move on to plan C. Using the projections as a guide, Misha lightly and quickly painted the words onto the wall as if scrawling a letter. The end result was walls that looked like love letters written to a missing lover, stuffed into a bottle and floated on the sea for months - pale, watery, full of longing. It's amazing how even the most spontaneous and unplanned decisions can ring so perfectly true to the "story" you thought you were telling in the first place."

That sentiment pretty much carried throughout the rest of the process. We had ideas and preconceived notions of what would work, only to find in the actual specific SITE they didn't. The choices that ended up in our final performance this past Saturday night were those that were made instinctively; things that we had tried to PLAN weren't as successful. If you want a ball to bounce you gotta let it go, just let it go. Embrace whatever the present moment is telling you to create, and let go of the idea you've been clinging to for two weeks.

The performance at the opening reception went well and was VERY well attended, and we walked away from the experience with a TON of things we didn't know before about our project and how to take it to the next level.

- Megan


Naked Sea Nymphs

(photo: Dave Nickerson)

Are there any other kind, really? Ha! I bet that got your attention. Well, there aren't any naked nymphs here, not yet, anyway! But I spent this past weekend in Austin with Megan M. Reilly working on our installation/opera/new music piece Selkie Project. (Selkies are half-human half-seal creatures and there are oodles of great stories about them from Irish folk traditions). We’re mounting a work-progress as part of the curated exhibition, Idea of Mountains, at UT’s Creative Research Laboratory. We’re actually not sure what it will become, but we’ve got two actors involved, a pianist and dancer/choreographer, Carline Sutton Clark, plus I’m singing two world premier pieces on the program by composer’s Elliot Cooper Cole & James D. Norman. On January 23rd. Yikes! We’re actually really excited about the project and are thrilled to get a chance to workshop the piece, using design as the entry-point into the work.

I dashed home Sunday to play salonnière to an awesome house concert for composer Elliot Cooper Cole and his very cool avant/pop/chamber collective. They presented two original song cycles and an exciting solo for double bass. Too bad their harpist had the flu and couldn’t join us!

More Selke Project madness next weekend with Megan: paint, stencils, fabric, a music rehearsal, and rehearsal with the actors, and will the projectors be mounted? Got you curious, have I? I know I’m dying to see what it will become! ~ Misha


Selkie Project: gestation

A mythical half-seal, half-human creature bobs her beckoning head: seduction to dive below the waves…Selkie mythology revolves around creatures torn between lovers they take on land and their desire to return to the sea. Have you ever wanted something so much that returning to it is almost instinctual - is there anything or anyone that could make you just get up and leave to pursue it without even a thought to saying goodbye to your current life?

Divergence Vocal Theater collaborates to create cross-disciplinary installation environment for multimedia, performance, opera and new music-theater: Selkie Project: gestation, a work-in-progress. Voice performance, text, electronic sound design by Misha Penton; multimedia, lighting & theatrical design by Megan M. Reilly.

Performance January 23, 7pm: Misha Penton, mezzo soprano; Maimy Fong, piano; Steffanie Ngo-Hatchie, Chase Crossno, actors; Caroline Sutton Clark, dancer/choreography; Megan M. Reilly, lighting & media. Performance is a multi-arts work in progress, featuring the music of James D. Norman, Elliot Cooper Cole, Benjamin Britten and Charles Gounod.

Project Artistic Direction: Misha Penton & Megan M. Reilly.


Modus Operandi

(You'll need to click the cartoon to make it bigger!)

Why I do what I do is pretty simple. I am not a political artist, nor a social activist artist, I don’t create work that “reflects” current cultural or societal conditions. Those are all valid ways of working. I am interested in a vision of what is possible: the artists that inspire me, create work that points to what is inherent, yet far greater than what we might suspect, in all of us. - M