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The Elusive Art Of Putting On A Successful Salon

June 9, 2010

moscone.jpgWhat's the formula for staging a successful cultural salon? I've been putting them on and going to them for several years now and I feel like I should have figured out the formula. The truth is, there is no formula. Sometimes, soirees that are carefully orchestrated with many beautiful features such as live performances, well-crafted discussion points, a convivial space, good food and wine and a great, lively crowd go horribly awry. Sometimes, you turn up without having much of a clue about who's going to be there, what's going to be discussed and little more than a baguette and a few cheap bottles of plonk to entertain people with and the proceedings progress marvelously. It's a bit of a crapshoot really.

Last night's Theatre Salon is a case in point. The group of six that organizes these periodic get togethers for members of the performing arts community (Rob Avila, Mark Jackson, Beth Wilmurt, John Wilkins, Kimball Wilkins and myself) have been feeling overwhelmed of late. It's been hard to get ideas for salons bubbling, let alone make time to actually put a soiree together with all that it entails from coming up with a discussion theme, sending out invitations, organizing the space, cooking and getting some form of entertainment. But somehow we managed to pull it off last night, and I have to say, that as skin-of-our-teeth the event was in terms of pulling all the pieces together, I think it was one of the best salons we have put on to date.

Here, to my mind, are some of the reasons why:

1. We didn't over plan.

2. We had a great, airy venue with lots of light -- thanks to Lisa Steindler, the director of Z Space at Theatre Artaud for opening her doors to us.

3. We had the perfect balance between people who have come to our events before and new blood and a good mixture of people from many different parts of the arts community and at different stages of their careers. We numbered about 50 in all.

4. We had wonderful music provided by a cool bass player while everyone mingled at the start.

5. We served tasty snacks (though I still question the combination of sliced baguette with strawberries albeit that no one complained.)

6. The discussion topic, "the curse/blessing of topicality in theatre," was broad enough to keep small group discussions going for an hour or more. In our group, the conversation meandered from attempting to define and separate topicality from relevance to getting underneath the Bay Area obsession with producing plays about science and technology and why so many of these works fail.

7. An easy structure to the evening which created just enough formality while allowing for plenty of informality. The evening started off with people mingling over wine for about an hour while our musician played. Then John gave a quick introductory speech, then we went and sat at one of four tables, each with ten seats. Then we discussed the topic and ate and drank for an hour or so. Next, individuals took it in turns to stand up and share their thoughts with the rest of the room. Finally, the formalities dissolved and everyone chitchatted until they felt a desire to leave. We were done by around midnight.

8. The evening had some lovely whimsical elements. Chief among them was a sort of "art installation" at the front of the room which consisted of a metal bin, a large ear of corn, an orange plastic inflatable donkey and some fairy lights arranged in an arc. When people got up to share their discussion points with the rest of the group, they held on to the donkey and stood behind the lights. (See California Shakespeare Theatre's Jon Moscone doing the honors in the picture above.) This provided a nice theatrical touch.

9. Cleanup at the end took less than half an hour.

10. Today, my head is still buzzing with the ideas that were generated at the salon. The quality of the discussion was, I thought, higher than many such discussions that we've had in the past. I'm not sure why. Maybe the topic was broad enough to allow people to come in from many angles. Maybe people had had just the right amount of wine to drink. Who knows?

All in all, it made for a pretty good way to spend an evening.

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