Two provocative addresses—one by Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson on the imperiled state of African-American theatre, the other by iconoclastic Canadian author and cultural theorist John Ralston Saul—stimulated four days of dialogue and debate among the 560 participants in Theatre Communication Group’s 11th biennial National Conference, held June 26–30 at Princeton University and the McCarter Theatre Center for the Performing Arts.
Wilson jump-started the event—which encompassed a wide-ranging agenda focused on the interaction of artists and society, the use of technology in theatre art and maintaining healthy institutions—with a jolt of controversy. His impassioned keynote address decried inequities in funding for minority theatres and the inability of most critics to analyze culturally specific work, but it was his harsh condemnation of “colorblind” casting that sent shock waves through the audience, sparking private conversation and public discussion that soon shared the spotlight with the conference’s official agenda.
Conference organizers had intentionally built more flexibility into this year’s program than ever before, and the impromptu debate was swiftly incorporated into the proceedings. Director Benny Sato Ambush took on a diplomat’s role, skillfully moderating two packed ad hoc meetings to continue the dialogue that Wilson’s address had engendered. Despite wide divergence of opinion on many issues, the exchange was open and productive, and while the outcome was not necessarily unity on these thorny issues, the process seemed to help participants recognize and accept the wide diversity of viewpoints.
That spirit was crystallized in the opening remarks of TCG board president Ricardo Khan, who pointed to a “rising tide of honesty” in the field. “When we’re together,” he said, “all we need to do is acknowledge and believe in the possibilities.”
The conference brought theatre leaders from around the country together at a time of considerable transition for the field. As TCG executive director John Sullivan said in his opening comments, “The pace of our work is accelerating to the rhythms of a new world of global information and spectacle.” It is a time, according to Sullivan, when “the mantra of perpetual change has for some time been pounding at our collective consciousness.” He urged participants to not get overwhelmed by change. Calling to mind a credit-card advertising slogan (“Whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, we’re here to help you do more!”), Sullivan noted, “I’m not so sure the world is better off with everybody doing more. In fact, a good case can be made in 1996 for using the new conveniences of our wired global information society to do less more thoughtfully.”
Despite all the pressures theatres are under, the conference was markedly upbeat, filled with a sense of possibility and cooperation. There was a general acknowledgment that theatres are moving forward through adversity, jumping into seas of uncertainty and improvising new ways to swim ahead.
For the first time, artistic staff of TCG’s associate member theatres were part of the gathering, joining artistic and managing directors, actors, playwrights, directors, designers and trustees from constituent companies and a slate of independent artists. The meeting was funded in part by major corporate support from AT&T Foundation, with additional support from The Pew Charitable Trusts; Dayton Hudson Foundation on behalf of Target Stores, Mervyn’s and the Department Store Division; The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation; Viacom Inc.; the Canadian Consulate General, New York; and general operating support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts; The Scherman Foundation, Inc.; and The Shubert Foundation.
It was in John Ralston Saul’s rigorous yet freewheeling talk on the roots of our current corporatist society (see excerpts on page 22) that the broadest context was set for viewing theatre as a cultural phenomenon. Ideas, not economics, have always driven history, Saul argued, but our impression that society is run by economics prevents real discussion. Society can change through our ability to think and to articulate ideas, and clear language is essential to that end. Unfortunately, he pointed out, the anti-democratic language of beaurocratic corporatist thought is rampant today.
“There’s always been a great battle between doubts and questioning and communication, on the one hand, and answers, solutions, certitude, inevitability and ideology on the other,” Saul suggested, pointing out that theatre falls squarely in the former camp. “Theatre is a very questioning, doubt-filled form of language,” he went on. “As soon as theatre is filled with assurance, it’s bad theatre.”
Responding to a question from interviewer Emily Mann, artistic director of Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, he outlined four steps to help theatres get the debate rolling and not become an “official loser” in a world defined and managed by corporatist thinking: Theatres need to prove that content is more important than form; to use their stages to identify reality; to convince people to have respect for themselves; and to communicate the message that people will find reflections of themselves when they come to the theatre.
If Saul provided fresh and heretical intellectual perspectives, it was Wilson’s keynote that galvanized the conference on a more practical level. Of 66 LORT theatres in operation today, the playwright noted, only one of them could be considered black. “If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive…it is vibrant…it is vitaL.it just isn’t funded.” He went on to castigate New Republic critic Robert Brustein for his contention that a new surge in work by minority artists leads to confusing standards and sociological instead of aesthetic standards. “Quite possibly this tremendous outpouring of works by minority artists,” Wilson countered, “may lead to a raising of standards and a raising of the levels of excellence.”
Wilson’s most controversial remarks, though, came halfway through the speech when he attacked the practice of “colorblind” casting, first in terms of its role in deflecting funding from black theatres, but then as a practice altogether. “Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection. For a black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigor and spirit of his heart.” He also had strong words for most theatre’s reliance on subscription audiences, a structure he feels keeps blacks out of the theatre.
The fallout from Wilson’s speech was almost instantaneous: the countless conversations that sprang up among friends and colleagues were harnessed by Ambush, who suggested an additional meeting be called. Under the large tent used for cocktail hours, Ambush skillfully guided the more than 200 in attendance through difficult racial terrain. The discussion spilled over into a second session the following day. (For exceipts, see page 20.) Wilson himself participated in both spin-off meetings.
At lunchtime, the same large tent was reserved for “playwrights’ slams,” where clusters of playwrights read five minutes from their latest works to a sea of munching faces. Artists on the program of evening performances at the McCarter included John Kelly, whose solo piece Constant Stranger opened with Kelly in street clothes dancing a supple “Dying Swan,” who in the moment before death has the wry good sense to flip the heavens the bird. The same evening offered a mixed bag of performance poetry by Miguel Algarin, Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Su and Bob Holman. Holman, a veteran of MTV whose mission is to “bring poetry into daily life by all means,” characterized his art form as “an eightcar pileup at the intersection of art and entertainment, where everyone is a survivor.”
Chanteuse Angelina Réaux sang cabaret songs from 1920s Berlin, and her sophisticated interpretations of Weill standards and wickedly funny satirical songs brought the conference audience to its feet. When the California-based Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Rie Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) took the stage on closing night to perform Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami, they provoked laughter and cheers for their sharp, irreverent take on cultural and ethnic differences in a community not their own.
Distinguished British actor Simon Callow did not perform, but nonetheless roundly entertained his audience in a conversation with Kenneth S. Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute. In addition to rare reminiscences of working with Laurence Olivier and a gloomy report on the current state of British theatre subsidy, Callow offered pithy analyses of Al Pacino’s performance in American Buffalo (“heartlessly technical”) and London theatre criticism (“barroom gossip”).
The artistic centerpiece of the conference was a production casebook of the tap musical exploration of the black experience in America, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, created by George C. Wolfe, Savion Glover and Reg E. Gaines. The show’s Broadway cast made the short trip to Princeton to perform a 20-minute segment, followed by a panel discussion with the artists moderated by New York Times Sunday theatre critic Margo Jefferson.
Bring in ‘Da Noise grew out of Wolfe’s experience directing Jelly’s Last Jam, where he worked with young dancer Savion Glover for the first time. “I realized that tap was a language,” Wolfe remembered, and he approached Glover about creating an original piece together. That process was abundantly collaborative, with every element becoming another voice in the musical’s complex layers of rhythm.
“This show was a united effort,” confirmed Ann Duquesnay, who created much of the music that she sings in the production. Poet Reg E. Gaines said for him content was not as important as the sound symbolism of the words. For his part, Glover loved dancing to Gaines’s words: “Reggie is raw.” Although the work was in many ways about AfricanAmerican history, Wolfe felt it was important that it feel immediate: “We were creating a certain intimacy with history.”
Another central concern of the conference was the role theatre plays in the changing world. In a session entitled “Seeing Theatre Through Other Eyes,” three nontheatre professionals who had been given the assignment of attending theatre reported their outsiders’ impressions.
New York writer Ann Douglas suggested that theatre must fail when it tries to compete with other media: “Theatre is intimate. Whenever it works against that it cuts its own throat” Los Angeles-based filmmaker Renee TajimaPeña found large imposing theatres like the Music Center and the Shubert to be intimidating, designed to “keep the rabble out”; she favored smaller, more hospitable neighborhoodbased theatres like Hollywood’s Cast Theatre or East West Players. Visual artist Fred Wilson agreed that theatres need to concentrate on providing experiences that are about direct communication and interaction. He reasoned that new technologies and media developments should not be seen as a threat: “The virtual cannot make us forget the experience of the real. Theatre can provide this experience.”
In a small-group session on advocacy in an election year, Anne Green from the civil liberties organization People For the American Way picked up on the theme of working locally: “We need to learn something from the religious Right and start working on a local level.” Steven Woolf, artistic director of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, pointed out that trustees are a crucial link to the community: “Boards are the most amazing bipartisan people who can be used for this kind of purpose.” One Florida theatre came up with a novel approach to gaining bipartisan visibility in an election year: they plan to offer their historical landmark building to both Democrats and Republicans as a venue to help them kick off their local campaigns.
John Sullivan, in an informal talk before the entire group, also stressed the importance of a bipartisan approach: “Part of our challenge today is how do we become more political and not become more partisan. That takes enormous self-restraint. It takes enormous focus.” The arts community needs to start framing the issues, especially in this election year, by systematically raising questions about politicians’ arts policies. He cautioned theatres to frame such questions in a way that is not defensive, that will not place the candidate in the wrong. “My experience from running political campaigns,” Sullivan confided, “is that there is nothing that gets a candidate’s attention in their organized life more than if suddenly questions start popping up that are not on their big chart.”
Sullivan is fascinated by how theatre fits into a world with which it often seems at odds: “Here we are making culture, here we are making art, here we are making theatre—expressing what’s in our hearts, the really essential resource we’ve got. But we’re doing it in this world that, first of all, simply doesn’t value the heart, doesn’t even know it’s there, in some cases. It is a world of spectacle, of constant daily manipulation, in which you open a newspaper and behind every article is a press release; behind every article is a specialist, a craftsman, a public relations expert, who is figuring how to frame that issue, how to eliminate the downside, how to maximize the upside and assume greater power.”
This manipulation of culture has been especially evident in the distortion of language during the so-called culture wars. “We began to see the calculated destruction of the world liberal,” argued Sullivan. “We began to see the demonization of the word humanism. And those are very important words to who we are. Liberal came to mean a lot of overweight Democratic politicians. Once that happened, the word was taken from us.”
Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, responded to Sullivan’s speech by returning to the theme of local community. The decentralization of American theatre, Davidson suggested, has challenged theatres to become more closely connected to and reliant upon their neighbors. ‘It’s become much more important” he said, “that we know about each other, not only in talk, but that we see each other at work.” Davidson said he has come to realize that theatres can’t be everything to everybody. “I have felt tremendous pressure in recent years to try to reach out even more and try to redefine ourselves in the broadest possible terms. But there is a danger that you lose something at the core because you can’t serve everyone. So it is so important to help nurture within your community other efforts for similar types of expression, so that collectively, humanly, we are more than we set out to be.”
As though in accordance with Davidson’s hopes, attendees at this year’s conference had more chances than ever before to sit with their peers and talk face to face. While some issues were tackled in traditional large-scale plenary sessions, the conference featured a great variety of smaller groupings. In addition to thematic breakout groups, affinity groups were introduced to provide for less-structured communication. Whether participants identified themselves as gay or lesbian theatre artists, trustees or new-works enthusiasts, they could gather with peers and brainstorm, commiserate or swap stories. With TCG’s associate theatre members in attendance, there was greater diversity among the attendees than ever before.
Out of this interaction came countless signals that theatres are finding creative new ways to cope. Innovative mergers and partnerships are helping some theatres survive financial crisis through pooling resources. “We had to do something or die,” said Anne DesRosiers of Great Lakes Theater Festival, which recently formed an affiliation with local arts groups and GLTF’s landlord, Playhouse Square. Since different artistic visions are involved in such unions, negotiating them can be delicate work. A possible merging of Arizona Theatre Company of Tucson and Phoenix with Childsplay of Tempe is proceeding much like a courtship: “Is this a marriage where someone changes their name, hyphenates their name or keeps their name?” wondered ATC managing director Jessica Andrews. “I suggested we go steady for a year,” responded David Saar of Childsplay.
Many larger theatres are beginning to work with the commercial sector. In a wellattended session devoted to the topic of nonprofit-commercial collaboration, seasoned veterans passed out advice and warnings. Tom Hall, managing director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, stressed the importance of creating a “white paper,” a carefully crafted position paper that stresses three points: the commercially-oriented project must fit into the mission of the theatre and into the repertoire for the season; it must be something that the theatre’s resources can physically accomplish; and the theatre must be able to budget it completely from within.
Terrence Dwyer, managing director of La Jolla Playhouse, warned participants of the financial risk involved: “There have been one or two relationships with the commercial sector that have almost closed our theatre. The most important thing is to carefully pick the producer.” Paul Tetrault managing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, offered more specific advice: “Get a good New York entertainment lawyer on your team who will know how to deal with the shark pool.” It’s critical, he stressed, to retain artistic control. Victoria Bailey, general manager of Manhattan Theatre Club, discussed her theatre’s unique approach: commercially producing their own shows by extending the runs of successful productions whenever it makes sense to do so.
Other theatres are experimenting with the Internet and various advanced technologies to find new ways to do business; some have their own home pages on the World Wide Web. At a session on theatre and cyberspace, computer-savvy panelists demonstrated the wide variety of ways in which cybertechnology is being used by theatre practitioners.
Alan C. Levine of the McCarter Theatre Center demonstrated how a system called Arts Web links a group of New Jersey and New York theatres to help them with everything from audience-building to approaching funders. The Non-Traditional Casting Project, executive director Sharon Jensen reported, has put resumes for 3,700 actors online, making the files accessible nationwide. Computers are being put to artistic use as well. Charles McClennahan demonstrated how he used high- ly advanced architectural programs to design sets in three dimensions; Cheryl Faver and John Reaves of the Manhattan-based Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre presented a computer- linked interactive project between American actors and a Japanese butoh company.
In a creatively structured extended session, four experts examined the theme of reinventing institutions from a variety of perspectives, focusing on the blurring of traditional boundaries between business, government and the nonprofit sector. Robert Rosen, founder and president of Healthy Companies Institute, contended that every successful change is leadership-drivetvand if institutions are to change, so must their leaders^rporate consultant Patricia Moore enumerated some of the qualities that make up a visionary leader, including creativity, a guiding philosophy and the ability to reinvent him- or herself.
Jerr Boschee, president of the National Center of Social Entrepreneurs, examined nonprofit/profit relationships by addressing the question of whether moral imperatives and profit-making ventures can go hand in hand. Based on his experiences in the health and social services sectors, he thinks it is possible—if one has a clear purpose, a strong commitment, a set of core values, a sound business concept, the right team and sufficient resources. Since there is no one right way to relate to the for-profit world, Boschee asserted, it is most important to have an ability to improvise.
Mark Volpe, executive director of Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, described one such venture: his organization and two other nonprofit groups entered into a strategic partnership to form a new entertainment, commercial and education complex, with the ultimate goal of the revitalization of a major section of downtown Detroit.
For the more than 45 trustees in attendance, a record number, there were sessions focusing on innovative approaches to board organization and maintenance. Michael Coles and Barry Grove of Manhattan Theatre Club said they believed a successful board needs a strong mission statement, members that reflect the community and are of the highest quality, a mentoring process for new members, annual evaluation and the chance to have to have fun. Nancy Roche and Peter Culman of Baltimore’s Center Stage outlined their board wish-list: to keep art central, have the artistic director speak at every board meeting, place first-year members on the finance committee, and conduct strategic planning in tandem with another theatre so they can share and brainstorm together.
As in previous years, a participatory high point of the gathering came at the late-night “Speak Out” session, emceed by Huntington Theatre Company managing director Michael Maso. The open-mike session elicited raillery for a local hotel chain, a satirical banjo ditty from Lisa Mount of Atlanta’s 7 Stages, an earnest appeal from dramaturg Jonathan Marks for rapprochement between the professional theatre and the academy, and a surreal, mindbending riff from Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya. Like his troupe’s performance, Montoya’s inimitable take on the 1996 conference seemed to embody the reckless joy that can be found in embracing the unknown. “We don’t know that we know where we’re going,” he avowed, “but we’re going.”
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