As some of you may know, I’ve been writing a monthly column for The Stage in London since the beginning of the year; regretfully, it is only available in the print edition so not easily shared stateside or online. For my July column, I had planned to write about the TCG conference held in Boston in late June. Unfortunately, my focus didn’t suit The Stage‘s requirements, despite two efforts that differed in style but were perhaps too alike in content. So, a bit belatedly, I share with you all two versions of my reflections on TCG 2012, which also serves as an insight into an amateur journalist struggling to meet an editor’s requests, and not succeeding. However, there’s no hard feelings, and I’ll be back in the pages of The Stage later this month.
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Version #1: MODELING MOVEMENTS AND CHANGE IN THE AMERICAN THEATRE
Attending the 2012 Theatre Communications Group multi-day conference in Boston felt somewhat like being thrust into an epic mashup of Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, going from hotel ballroom, to meeting room, to lunch session and then doing it all again, perhaps five cycles altogether. But while the roughly 1,000 attendees, made up of leadership and staff from large and small companies across the U.S., did gather for full conference plenary sessions, the rest of their time was divided among self-chosen breakout sessions and segments where one is segmented by affinity group (be it job title, budget size or particular creative focus). Consequently, every attendee had their own unique experience.
Not being a seasoned conference-goer, and having not attended TCG’s conferences for more than a decade, I was struck by the sheer scale; I remember the days of 400 attendees on a bucolic college campus. There was a barrage of information, opinion and inspiration coming non-stop, all focused on the making of theatre, and far too much from which to choose. For example, there were 53 breakout sessions, of which one could attend only 3.
The conference theme was “Model the Movement,” referring to the resident theatre movement which is roughly 50 years old (TCG itself is exactly 50 years old). Various models arose in discussions, but the breadth of the event rendered it difficult to pursue one theme singlemindedly. The takeaway from such a varied buffet is not sharply defined, although the persistent theme of change permeated the event. As an attendee, what I recall most were key thoughts, each of which might form a worthy topic for its own conference.
- Opening speaker Howard Shalwitz of Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company questioned the new trend in talking about theatre as storytelling. “I’m not saying that stories aren’t a critical part of what we do in the theatre, but to say they’re the whole thing is a bit like a symphony orchestra saying they play melodies or an art museum saying they show pictures.” Shalwitz also worried that in an effort to develop an efficient system of producing theatre seasons “that places the entire burden of innovation at the feet of our playwrights.”
- Marketing guru Seth Godin, observed that “100 years ago, everyone went to the theatre because there was nothing else to do”; spoke to the attendees’ hearts with “You are in the arts because we want you to fail and do it often until you do something that blows our heads off”; and most vividly suggested, “Don’t strive to be heard when you’re there. Work to be missed when you’re not.”
- Diane Paulus, artistic director Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre and director of Broadway’s Hair and Porgy and Bess, expressed her belief that, “It is a generous act of the audience to come to the theatre and give several hours of their life to you,” while desirous of moving past established patterns because, once, “Theatre was ritual, theatre was pageant, theatre was all different kinds of things. Let’s not limit what we think theatre is.”
- Kwame Kwei-Armah of Centerstage in Baltimore, speaking of play selection, surprised many by saying, “I don’t have to love it. I have to love that my community will really love it and get something out of it. I’m not here to serve myself.”
- Clayton Lord, marketing director of Theatre Bay Area and editor of the intrinsic impact study Counting New Beans called for unity with, “We have to instill loyalty to art, not ‘my art’.”
- Ralph Peña, Artistic Director of New York’s Ma-Yi Theatre, counseled, “Within every organization we have to get leaders to acknowledge their own biases, because if you don’t see anything wrong, you’re not going to change.” He also asked pertinently, regarding diversity, “What art is not ethnic-specific?”
- Adam Thurman, marketing director of the Court Theatre in Chicago, spoke to the ever-present conference theme of change with, “Discomfort causes everyone to focus and everyone to hear each other…the ability to live in that discomfort creates the progress that this industry is looking for.”
- On the same panel as Thurman, Suzanne Wilkins of The Partnership Inc. of Boston, spoke of organizations’ need to “tolerate complexity and paradox – the capacity to connect across difference” in efforts to diversify both internally and within their audiences.
Two final observations, distinct from the inspirations that abounded:
- While most resident theatres produce musicals, that theatrical form was barely mentioned in any session I attended and seemed to not be on anyone’s minds. As evidence, a breakout on a student arts education program, which included on its panel Broadway stalwarts Rebecca Luker and Marc Kudisch (who both sang), drew only 25 attendees. In other circumstances, this would have been packed, but obviously this crowd had other interests.
- The conference gave ample time to controversial monologist Mike Daisey, whose piece about Apple became a major news story when it was revealed he’d fabricated elements. Daisey presented a two-hour work-in-progress performance of his newest piece (about his life and travels post-scandal) and included him on a plenary panel about “Theatre’s Role in Activism,” where he was confronted from the audience by one marketing director who remains deeply angry at being made complicit in Daisey’s lies. “You didn’t do it,” he said to her in a packed hall, “I did it. You may be stuck with having to react to it. But it’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s not a communal failing.” In the wake of director Julie Taymor’s appearance at the 2011 TCG conference after she’d been removed from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Daisey’s appearance suggests that the TCG conference may not just provide inspiration. It may be the place to go for artistic absolution as well.
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Version #2: DAVID BOWIE AND THE AMERICAN THEATRE
While “Model the Movement” was the stated name for the Theatre Communication Group’s 2012 national conference, it may as well have been “Changes: Turn and Face the Strain” from David Bowie’s early hit song. “Change” was certainly the word on everyone’s lips throughout the course of this gathering of the leadership and staff of many of America’s not-for-profit theatres. Perhaps it is the theme of every professional conference these days, but as I’ve only attended theatre conferences, and few recent ones, the theme of alteration was startlingly prominent.
Held in late June in Boston, the conference itself was an enormous change from what I’d experienced in the past. I hadn’t attended a TCG conference in more than ten years, and my most vivid memories go back more than two decades, when the event was held on a small-town New England college campus and perhaps 400 attendees explored the issues of the day. The 2012 conference brought together some 1,000 participants from theatres large and small in a hotel conference facility and one vast ballroom. While I encountered a number of leaders in the field who I had met over the course of my career, I was struck by how many people I didn’t know at all, a result of some combination of my most recent jobs, the significant expansion of the conference, and the inevitable influx of new talent, both artistic and administrative.
The vastness of the attendance, while to my eyes strikingly inclusive, was apparently not perceived that way by all. During the conference, and in the weeks that followed, various topics of contention arose. In tweets and on blogs, there were charges of elitism, as the cost of the conference had proved prohibitive for some smaller companies; of censorship, as volunteers chafed against being told that they were observers, not participants, and should not ask questions in public forums; and of an artistic-institutional divide, as some took issue with the declaration by Michael Maso of Boston’s Huntington Theatre, upon receiving an award, of his belief in institutional theatre. “Does that make us overstuffed bureaucracies?” asked Maso. “Bullshit!”
But those assorted debates seemed to take on larger life post-conference. In the moment, the event was an almost head-spinning array of non-confrontational challenges to orthodoxy, made essential by shifts in the field as well as the larger society. The opening keynote by Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, was a saga of self-exploration, of a producer who worried that his theatre had become so skilled in its producing model that it had become an assembly line, leaving too little room for innovation. “It’s not just the stories we tell,” Shalwitz decided, “but why and how we tell them that determines our success.”
The pervasiveness of change was perhaps best demonstrated when, during a period of elective breakout sessions, I split my time between panels on “Hacking the Not-For-Profit Model with For-Profit Methodologies” and “Artistic Decision Making: Weighing the Balance in a Complicated World.” Despite the former panel consisting of for-profit veterans who had just made the shift into not-for-profit at New York’s Public Theater, and the latter comprised of not-for-profit artists including Kwame Kwei-Armah, just completing his first season at Baltimore’s Centerstage, my move from one panel to the other seemed merely a change of location and personnel. I had left a room where new leaders at The Public spoke of the change they hoped to instill, only to enter a room where the necessity of change for survival was under discussion. Was this happening in every break out, I wondered. Were seemingly specific themes being subsumed by an overarching theme of change? I would have had to jog about quickly to attempt to find out: during three time slots with breakout sessions, there were 53 panels from which to choose.
Since transformation is change, the presence of monologist Mike Daisey reiterated the unofficial conference theme. Having experienced a highly public fall from grace after it was revealed that he had invented portions of his piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the conference offered the semi-fallen Daisey both an artistic platform (he previewed a work-in-progress) and an intellectual one (as a panelist discussing “Theatre’s Role in Activism”). In the wake of director Julie Taymor’s appearance at the 2011 TCG conference after she’d been removed from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Daisey’s quasi-rehabilitative appearance suggested that the TCG conference may now be the place to go for artistic absolution.
Although I found the conference exhausting, there was something reassuring simply in being part of a vast gathering of professionals who all, ostensibly, are genuinely dedicated to the well-being of theatre outside of the Broadway realm. Given the variety of theatre companies around the country, with different artistic goals and economic means, perhaps it is inevitable that it could not be all things to all people, and if it did not yield a singular model for the regional theatre movement, it certainly reinforced the necessity and inevitability of evolution.