Shopping! Shopping? Shopping...

Aleksandra Efimova Shopping, shopping, shopping... When we hear this word, we may think of endless racks of clothes or shoes, colorful bags filled with our purchases, and swiping the American Express card to pay for these material indulgences. But several days ago, I found myself in the middle of a vastly different shopping situation, with no dressing rooms or size options, no gift wrap or gift cards, no credit card receipts to sign.

In fact, I was at the expo of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference, which brings together an amazing international array of performers, presenters and managers, with executive directors of theaters and concert halls.

The directors had a wide range of shopping options. From household names like Hubbard Street and Paul Taylor, to those seldom seen in the U.S., such as Ballet Folklórico de Antioquia; from classical musicians and dancers to the innovative Nai-Ni Chen; from acts intended for the most sophisticated audience to the child-friendly American Family Theater, there was no shortage of choices and temptations. (If only I had my own theater!)

Personal shopping can be challenging, especially when we’re choosing gifts and trying to keep the recipients’ tastes and preferences above our own. A theater director faces a more complex challenge in choosing performances for upcoming schedules. He or she must balance audience preferences, responses and feedback on previous seasons, and the tastes and trends of current society, with the need to stay true to the organization’s vision and mission. Personal tastes certainly play a role in the process, too. Predictably, this can be a hard balance to achieve, and the director may feel pulled in different directions.

When I was a little girl, my loving grandparents read to me the old Russian fairy tale “Lebed, Rak and Schyka” (“Swan, Crawfish and Pike”). In the tale, three very different animals tried to move a carriage at the same time. The problem was that Lebed flew upward, Rak pushed toward the fields and Schyka used all her efforts to move the carriage toward the water. Needless to say, at the end of the story the carriage was exactly where it was at the beginning. The moral of the story is that when people work against each other, little can be accomplished. We have to make sure that everyone on the team agrees on the final goal and direction, and to choose the right people for the team. I was probably two years old when I first heard these words of wisdom, and they still ring true, and are often repeated even at Harvard Business School (where I’ll be attending my culminating term of the Owner/President Management Program next month).

The theater director’s shopping task may seem exciting and glamorous, but he or she must feel pulled in as many directions as there are potential audience members, in trying to meet everyone’s expectations at the same time that he or she makes choices that truly inspire. Standing on the expo floor, I realized that the decisions about to be made would bring dancers, singers, musicians, actors and other performers from all over the world to millions of audience members; I thought about the potential impact of those decisions. Every performance we see leaves a mark on our lives, a mark that we can’t always anticipate as the curtain rises. When the performance is of the highest caliber, it will entertain but also challenge and inspire us. We may find a connection to our own lives, or discover new ways to explore our own dreams long after the curtain goes down.

Can the average shopper make a mark on others with their purchasing decisions? As I watch young ballerinas being fitted for pointe shoes at our Boutique, I think of how their choices may affect their artistic growth, and how they may awe audiences in a few years. Top chefs awe their own audiences – restaurant diners – partly based on carefully selecting the finest produce, meat and seafood (like they did during the Australian-inspired food show last weekend at Chicago Trump Hotel). On an everyday level, fashion-minded ladies scanning the sales racks of the Magnificent Mile may be about to turn heads on the street with their striking new outfits. It could be said that all of our shopping has an impact – superficial or of much greater depth – on those around us.