WAA Day 1: Deer in Headlights


As I had mentioned in my first post, I had some idea of what to expect after seeing how fashion trade shows worked. I was not expecting a crowd at The Nouveau Classical Project booth, since I figured most of the attendees had scheduled meetings beforehand, but I also didn't expect to hear crickets. Over at the Launchpad corner, it was just me and Isabel most of the time, our fellow Launchpadders MIA. I figured people would at least browse the booths, but there was not much of that in our empty corner. For heaven's sake, we were CHOSEN to be here! Isn't anyone interested in meeting us?! Apparently not...even after sending out dozens of e-mails mentioning that we were part of WAA's Launchpad, I only received about five responses. Launchpad did not equal street cred. I also heard that people were scheduling meetings even farther out in advance, so I'm sure that these presenters were also extremely busy and needed to prioritize. Luckily, the conference was three days long and there would be time and in-person opportunities to make connections and schedule more meetings.

So innocent and optimistic. Me and Isabel heading down to the Opening Reception

So innocent and optimistic. Me and Isabel heading down to the Opening Reception


One of the activities I signed up for was Speed Leads. It's like speed dating, but with six presenters and one artist or manager at a table, and no one is horny and only one of us gives a shit about making a good impression. Each artist or manager gets two minutes to pitch a project to six presenters at each of the four tables without the help of any printed collateral or iPads. I came into this with confidence, as I'm a naturally social person (hell, I've even made projects happen from chance meetings at parties), and the project I was pitching was so obviously a winner: a multimedia piece with a Rome Prize-winning composer who was recently awarded a major commission for the project. Although it would have helped, I don't think practicing my pitch would have saved me, as we later learned that the project was too complex/very "New York", but I would have at least felt like I did a decent job. Anyway, the nerves immediately kicked in: I began by introducing NCP, saw the perplexed looks on everyone's faces, and then thought, shit I'm running out of time already, and so I jumped into "55-minute multimedia project with Rome Prize-winning composer Nina C. Young...<bumbling, bumbling>...integrates music, fashion worn on musicians, choreography, kinetic sound sculpture..." and as soon as the word "Anthropocene" spilled out of my mouth, I felt like everything was in slow motion and I had an out of body experience where I was like, "Nooooooooo!" Confused looks everywhere (later learned a lot of people do not know what the Rome Prize is, nor do they care), needed to explain the term "Anthropocene", then TIME! For the first two tables I basically bombed but by the third and fourth, I better understood how to pitch. While I couldn't avoid saying "Anthropocene", I figured out which order to explain the many elements of the project, and actually remembered to distribute my business cards. (By the way--props to Stephen Seifert from University of Denver for knowing what the Anthropocene is!) The reaction from the final two tables was significantly more positive than the first two. Being a former volleyball player, I know how to shake off a bad play and regrouped immediately. I started saying "concert" to provide greater clarity. In my mind, a "concert" sounds ordinary; I've noticed artists, including myself, using terms like "hybrid works" or "multidisciplinary" and at this conference, I found that these descriptors just confuse presenters. 

Granted, one usually gets more than two minutes to pitch a project, and while discussing a potential performance doesn't typically take place in this weird Shark Tank-esque setting, I still think this exercise was helpful. I'm used to having to explain projects on paper to grant makers, and as with this presenter situation, it requires immediate clarity since you often need a one-sentence description at the start. However, in this two-minute space without any visual aids, you have paint a picture immediately with words. 


The name of the game for this first day was How to be Crystal Clear Without Scaring Away Presenters. And the way you do that is by NOT sounding too unique. Or by reframing unique to mean interesting but accessible/familiar in the context of an arts conference. After attempting to describe NCP in our usual way to booth visitors, we realized that the fashion element was something that people would get fixated on and required way more explanation than was necessary. So we decided that the best thing to say is that we're a contemporary music ensemble that incorporates visual elements. To us, that sounds like something everybody is doing, but here, it was a good thing because it's something the presenters were familiar with. This was one of the most eye-opening, and quite frankly, disconcerting things for me: the level of accessibility we had to provide with our introduction. But I get it: presenters need to fill seats and they need to feel like they're making a sound investment.

By the end of the day I felt a little discouraged and less like an artist. It's not sexy to have to think about how to downplay a major part of your identity. My team and I had created booklets with visuals, a cool vellum cover, and I felt like I had fucked up by featuring projects that I thought were compelling, but now looked too complex and not simple enough. Plus I have a project I'm working on where I'm going to explore new territory, directing a hybrid project and digging into my Filipino roots, and my head was clouded with the idea that there is clearly no space in this world for that kind of project. (I tend to have intense reactions to negative experiences, but I get over them pretty quickly). As an artist in New York, one is encouraged to take risks. In fact, it seems like risk-taking is commonplace: nudity is acceptable and there is abundance of multidisciplinary work. Not everywhere is New York, as Isabel and I learned. A lot of the feedback was that some of our projects work in New York and not everywhere else. Well, I grew up in a town called "El Sobrante" that means "the leftovers" in Spanish, and I'm pretty sure there are some people in the middle of nowhere that would love something new, and even strange, to come to their town. 

While it's important to stick to your guns, I think there's a way to finesse your way into presenters that might be initially hesitant; for example, the way we stopped emphasizing fashion in our elevator pitch. It doesn't change what we do but new contacts are less likely to shut down. And like audiences and grant makers, there's no way in hell to please everyone, and it is possible to find those who share your vision. There were way more than the 24 presenters that were in that Speed Lead session at WAA, including people who were receptive to what we do. Things looked up after Day 1.