“We’ve been having this conversation for years.” I can’t tell you how often I hear that statement, and for good reason. So many challenges seem to endlessly reoccur in our lives, organizations and the theatre field overall. Is it strategic paralysis? Is it a preoccupation with the idea that we are not leading if we aren’t creating something new—which prompts us to abandon unfinished business? Is it that we do not have the attention span for the unglamorous work of attacking a systemic problem for decades until it is solved?
At a TCG board meeting in November 1987—a quarter-century ago!—then executive director Peter Zeisler suggested that the organization’s upcoming national conference address issues relating to the diversity of our theatres and of our multicultural nation. Indeed, diversity and inclusion continue to be major topics for TCG and the field—topics that get special attention, as was the case five years ago when the Young Leaders of Color program was inaugurated. It is one of those conversations we’ve been having for years—and that’s one reason TCG’s current strategic plan has such a specific, action-oriented diversity and inclusion initiative and action plan, designed to lead to visible change in our field.
Coincidentally, it was at that same board meeting when field leaders responded to a report written by Todd London, compiled from interviews with artistic directors of theatres large and small across the U.S. The report was part of TCG’s National Artistic Agenda project, later titled The Artistic Home, and it was penned by London, who is the subject of Stephen Nunns’s profile in this issue. Todd is one of the people I have known the longest in the American professional theatre field. In reading the article, I was reminded of what a generous, thoughtful, gentle and principled man he is, and of how many contributions to our field he has made through his artistry, his advocacy and his writings.
Sitting around the board table in ’87 were such people as Robert Falls, John Conklin, Maria Irene Fornés, David Henry Hwang, JoAnne Akalaitis and John Guare. Reactions to the Artistic Home paper were mostly positive, and some felt it didn’t go far enough. Others were frankly skeptical. In fact, the conversation was very similar to those we have in TCG’s board room today, with many bright minds analyzing a project or problem in search of consensus.
The late Garland Wright—one of the most brilliant directors and thinkers of the late 20th century, and a colleague of mine at the Guthrie Theater—called the paper a “moving document” and said, “Like theatre, these discussions cannot be trapped in time. What is important is that the conversation be ongoing so that the moment keeps existing in the present tense.” Reading that remark made me think that one of the things we aren’t so good at as a field (and perhaps as human beings) is keeping the thread of a conversation going in order to clearly map out the steps toward change.
What’s interesting about The Artistic Home is that the phrase itself has indeed stayed in the present tense over the decades, and is now mostly used to describe a state of deep connection between an individual artist and an organization—a connection that remains elusive for many who populate our predominantly freelance theatre system nationally. Creating this connection is becoming a renewed priority with some funders and other forces in the field, through sponsored artist residency programs and commitments to full-time artistic positions that theatres such as the Goodman in Chicago have prioritized for years.
But The Artistic Home went beyond that to discuss the impact of institutional life on the art itself. At the time the conversations in the book took place, theatre leaders were grappling with the crushing effect of institutionalization on artistry. In a “highlights” section of the book, among the ideas broached were these:
- Artistic directors need more reflection time, more interaction with other artists and more opportunities to explore other disciplines.
- There needs to be more flexibility in the rehearsal process to accommodate the unique needs of specific projects; and more flexible subscription plans, performance and programming schedules to accommodate a variety of developmental needs.
- Theatres must constantly renew their commitment to making homes for artists; address issues of chronic undercompensation; and find ways of integrating artists into the ongoing life of institutions.
- Relationships among artists, management and trustees should be improved, in order to ensure that business doesn’t drive the art.
Our movement is now more than 50 years old, and all of the above topics are still being discussed—some with ever-increasing urgency. At our Boston conference in 2012, Howard Shalwitz’s keynote on artistic innovation called for building more flexibility into structures for creating work, and made the case that our “assembly line” for mounting seasons tends to suffocate the art. This topic was one of four arcs at our 2013 conference in Dallas, where discussions on artistic innovation were co-curated by Shalwitz himself (the only person in the theatre field I have known longer than London). Clearly, we have a lot of unfinished business to attend to!
Perhaps rather than looking back at our “to-do” list for yesterday, last week or last year, we should consider what our “to-do” list has been for the past several decades. As Wright said, “These discussions can’t be trapped in time.” Which is, in a way, a hopeful message. It’s okay to keep talking—particularly if we transform the talk into effective strategies for action.