Inside Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton Hotel one balmy Thursday this past June, slick young professionals in freshly pressed suits and ties, toting their leather briefcases and sweating water jugs, did some intense speed-networking. Just down the escalator one floor, scruffy anarcho-syndicalists in slogan-bearing T-shirts clustered in intense clumps to debate political strategy or browse a display of incendiary books. While the first conference, “Buyouts Chicago,” offered attendees better “deal flow” and “market intelligence,” the second gathering. “Socialism 2010,” promised to address social justice issues from Gaza to Arizona, with a glance back at forebears from Lenin to the Black Power Movement.
It was among this milieu—and in some senses between these two polar opposites—that Theatre Communications Group staged its own three-day annual conference, June 17-19, titled “Ideas Into Action.” Facing a still-slouching global economy, a nation riven by environmental catastrophe and toxic partisanship, and state budgets stretched beyond breaking, America’s theatremakers gathered in Chicago with a palpable appetite for fellowship and dialogue, but above all for practical solutions and actionable plans to ensure not merely their survival but their continuing social and cultural relevance.
If the first step in a recovery is acknowledging that there’s a problem, America’s nonprofit theatres arrived in the Windy City with that step already well behind them. More than a litany of economic and social ills, what they wanted—and what many got from each other, and from several speakers offering fresh perspectives from outside the theatrical trade—were scaleable examples, business models, to-do lists and, yes, business cards. Ever adaptable and pragmatic, they were as open to talk of entrepreneurship, brand marketing and “demand pricing” as they were to calls for radical inclusion, reshaping the public discourse, even changing the world.
So there were fiery manifestos and demographic-mapping storytelling games; there were also wonky sessions on ticket pricing and work-flow networking programs. This sprawling group of 926, the biggest ever assembled for a TCG conference, brought not-quite-equal parts show-business savvy and visionary idealism to the task of bolstering both the live arts and the human capital that sustain them. As Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, put it in one discussion: “We’re all seeking a meeting point between an advance of the art form and a deep engagement with our audience and with the community. That’s tough, but that’s exactly the place to be.”
By nature, theatre is defined by its context, and TCG’s 2010 convening was no exception. Indeed, Chicago—the pragmatic, progressive, quintessentially American crossroads where so many transformational leaders and social movements have been formed, on the political as well as the theatrical stage—set the upbeat, no-nonsense tone. From its headquarters at the historic Palmer House, the conference ventured out for a plenary at the stately Goodman Theatre, for a cocktail reception on many floors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s impossibly picturesque lakeside digs, and for a half-day of meetings and mullings in the various spaces the town’s signature ensemble company, Steppenwolf, calls home.
It would probably even be fair to say that, as a model arts city and a laboratory of theatrical success, Chicago fairly dominated the conference. Everywhere you turned, there was a top-flight case study of how it’s done in the Windy City: Lookingglass Theatre Company board chair Lisa Green explained how she maintained support for a company that only does new, and hence inherently risky, work. Playwrights Tracy Letts, Rebecca Gilman and Lydia Diamond compared notes with Chicago Dramatists founder Russ Tutterow on the city’s unique virtues as a home for writers. Tribune critic Chris Jones and his storied predecessor, Richard Christiansen, reported on how an influx of big-ticket musicals in downtown Chicago, with their generous ad dollars, has helped subsidize the non-hierarchical theatre coverage Christiansen trailblazed—coverage that arguably helped create the city’s legendary theatre scene as we know it. At an audience-of-tomorrow session with teens from Steppenwolf’s Young Adult Council and their counterparts from the Goodman and California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the youngsters effused about their involvement with every level of that company’s work and outreach. Emerging talent Tanya Saracho, a playwright born in Mexico, mused on how at 34 she’s already run the town’s entire career gamut, from founding a storefront theatre company (Teatro Luna) to receiving Teatro Vista, Goodman, Steppenwolf and About Face productions.
Impressively, there was also Da Mayor himself, Richard M. Daley, who sauntered into the Saturday morning general session in a loose-fitting guayabera (there was a Puerto Rican Day Parade later the same morning) to hold forth with offhanded conviction about the way the arts, and in particular the theatre, both embody and reflect his city.
“If you don’t have theatre, you don’t have society,” Daley said, in one of many applause lines. “The way to change a city is through the arts. Artists will tell the story of your city.” Another choice Daleyism: “Government can’t bring people together; theatre brings people together.” Then there was this startling statement in the birthplace of Super Fans: “Artists bring more to a city than its sports figures.” And only at a theatre conference would this line get a spirited round of applause: “We’re putting theatres on the convention and visitors’ bureau.” Talk about playing to the crowd! If there’s another mayor of a major American city as eager to tout his city’s “storefront theatres,” TCG listeners haven’t heard from him.
The importance of vibrant city life to a thriving creative ecology was, not coincidentally, a throughline of several sessions, starting with the opening plenary, in which keynote speaker Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired and author of How We Decide, stimulated discussions that resonated throughout the conference. He cited the work of physicist Geoffrey West, who’s shown that cities with higher levels of creativity (measured in number of patents) tend to have denser, more lively streets with an increased probability of fruitful chance encounters. And, referring to tests showing that children who develop attentional self-control early on fare better in life, Lehrer ventured that “a play may be the hardest cognitive workout…The best way to prepare the mind for the 21st century might be to see a 16th-century play.”
Another of Lehrer’s tales made an even bigger impression: He recounted how Procter & Gamble’s search for an improved floor-cleaning liquid floundered for months until a researcher, charged to observe women doing housework, noticed one sweep up spilled coffee grounds with a handheld paper towel. Thus was the Swiffer mop born. Lehrer intended the story to be an illustration of empathy as a practical tool—“Sometimes the hardest part is not finding the answer, it’s finding the problem,” he memorably summed up—but this simple Swiffer story soon took on a life of its own across the days of the conference, as attendee after attendee was heard to wonder aloud: Is our way of doing business broken, and are the solutions staring us in the face? Is the nonprofit theatre a well-worn mop–and if so, who’s got the theatrical equivalent of the Swiffer?
One solution that seems obvious to many in the beleaguered nonprofit arts world is the notion of joining forces, and possibly sharing venues, with other performing arts organizations or presenters. “Could we have a Cleveland Play House and Orchestra?” asked Play House artistic director Michael Bloom near the start of his “morning manifesto,” one of 20 such mini-speeches that constituted a kind of modular, interactive alternative to yet another series of talking-heads panels. Even more ambitious and far-reaching ideas arose at a breakout specifically on the topic, “Theatres Becoming Centers in the 21st Century,” moderated by Greg Phillips, executive director of Portland Center Stage, which runs its daytime lobby like a combination cafe and museum, with food and free Wi-Fi luring folks who might also notice “display modules” about the theatre’s past and current offerings. The result, Phillips reported: A third of first-time single-ticket buyers initially came to his theatre building for something other than theatre. Another important suggestion arose: Host yoga classes and bar mitzvahs in your theatre to beef up your community standing, not your bottom line. This breakout session also cast an envious eye on the nation’s megachurches, where the faithful can get cooking classes and day care along with their religion, but an important caveat was voiced: A megachurch embodies its members’ shared values. Doesn’t, or shouldn’t, a theatre do the same?
This harking back to core principles and questions popped up even in the most nuts-and-bolts discussions. At a gathering of artistic leaders from theatres with less-than-$l-million budgets, moderated by Olga Sanchez of Oregon’s Miracle Theatre Group, the room was thick with encouraging tales of theatres banding-together in co-productions, tour packages and other collaborative strategies to cope with lean times. But Tony Adams, of Chicago’s small Halcyon Theatre, reminded the group that theatres don’t exist merely to keep the lights on. “I’ve talked to funders and they tell me that 90 percent of companies say in their mission statement, ‘We speak to the human condition,'” Adams said. “We need to be more specific in how we talk about what sets each of us apart.”
Those Friday “morning manifestos” offered several such specifics, tracking four surprisingly complementary thematic throughlines: artists and artistry, race and gender, the arts-learning continuum and creative ecology. Playwright Betty Shamieh, for instance, made the case for leaving identity-politics squabbles behind and embracing theatre’s leadership role: “I don’t want to argue about the size of the pie, or my slice—I want a different pie,” Shamieh said. “Let’s not talk so much about who’s telling the stories but about what the stories are, about what we’re presenting to the world. Whether we have health care and wealth or not, we are part of the intelligentsia; we are intellectual leaders. And what stories are we telling?”
On a similar note, while some theatre artists, like Native American playwright William Yellow Robe, appreciate the role that “slot”-style programming has played in ushering minority voices onto the mainstage, Crossroads Theatre Company of New Jersey’s artistic director Ricardo Khan said bluntly that it’s time for theatres to “stop the obvious pairing of artists from certain groups with certain material. We should target individuals as partners and advocates, not generalized groups.”
The manifestos and their open-format discussions generated another recurring conference theme: the often-thorny relationship of artists to institutions ostensibly created to make art. As lighting designer Dawn Chiang put it, “Artists are asking for involvement, permanence and continuity. Artists want in. They find institutions inhospitable or closed to them. And theatres need to make the first move. It’s the art that makes the money, not the other way around.”
This sentiment resonated in both directions, from an affinity group of freelance artists in which Todd London’s bleak book-length portrait of the state of new-play development, Outrageous Fortune, was a touchstone, to a breakout session on “Passing the Torch” between generations of institutional theatres. In the first, playwright Lydia Diamond helped attendees reclaim a sense of ownership of their careers both within and without nonprofit theatres, while in the second, Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic director Eric Rosen facilitated a discussion among youngish artistic leaders—themselves not all that far from the freelancers’ orbit—who are grappling with organizations that, as Rosen put it, can seem “rigid and impermeable but were created by people who didn’t intend them to be that way.” Another quote from a morning manifesto discussion put it even more tartly: “If the founders of today’s big theatres hired themselves today at the age they were when they founded them, they’d come in and destroy everything they built.”
A little bit of creative destruction might be inevitable, given the economic retraction of the past two years. And its effects may be as clarifying as they have been painful. Said the Cleveland Play House’s Michael Bloom, “The best thing that happened to my organization was the Great Recession. It put the writing on the wall much more clearly than I could have.” Not that such writing brings only bad news: “There’s more good-to-great theatre around now than at any other time in my life, and young people are still eager to be a part of it. So the question is: Is getting smaller a way to get less conservative? How do we blow up our buildings, literally or metaphorically?” (Shamieh, a Palestinian-American playwright, was quick to quip after Bloom’s talk: “I just want to point out that it was the white man who was talking about blowing up buildings.”)
The Great Recession and its unlikely upside were the explicit subjects of anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff’s post-manifesto presentation, “Living Under the Threat of Joy.” Blinkoff, like Lehrer bearing anecdotes and analogies from the worlds of social science and marketing, reported that 43 percent of people polled last year said the recession had had a “positive impact” on their lives. “Over and over, we’ve talked to people who have said, ‘The American Dream has died,'” Blinkoff said. It apparently isn’t particularly missed: “We had allowed the marketplace to become our culture, and we’ve realized that we can’t shop our way to enlightenment.”
What’s taking the market’s place, he posited, is the old town square, where such communitarian practices as busking are “through the roof.” (Blinkoff then helpfully demonstrated with a few bars of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on ukulele.) He didn’t make an explicit link to the role that theatre might play in this grassroots cultural revival (as it did during the Great Depression), but he hardly needed to: the opportunity to make more with less, to find resources and audiences that already exist but are being needlessly overlooked, and to reboot with a stronger sense of mission, were signature concepts that emerged over those three days in June.
Another that recurred markedly throughout the conference was the idea of the entrepreneur–a word that seems to have lost none of its self-reliant, anyone-can-make-it luster, moribund American Dream or no. In the affinity group moderated by Lydia Diamond, Dramatists Guild executive director Ralph Sevush said, “When you’ve written a play, you’re an entrepreneur, whether you know it or not.” And a playwright in that group, Christine Evans, testified to her own efforts at self-producing rather than continually “submitting” (in more senses than one) to institutional theatres.
Another post-manifesto commenter urged theatre artists “not to run away from the term entrepreneurship.” Mayor Daley used the term to describe his beloved Chicago storefront theatres, and actor/playwright Tracy Letts, in a session called “Born in Chicago,” broadened the point from his own backyard, saying, “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here, but I think there always is to some extent in American theatre.”
If, in Chicago’s case, what starts out small often grows up tall, humble beginnings mean that the Windy City’s storefront theatres know where they come from; Letts says he still thinks of Steppenwolf as a “big storefront theatre.” As former Tribune critic Christiansen, who started trumpeting Steppenwolf when it was still doing plays in a tiny Highland Park church basement, pointed out, “Theatre in Chicago did not grow by the placement of a large cultural center in downtown. It was not trickle-down. It came from below.” The lesson for today’s challenged arts organizations should be clear: Building (or rebuilding) from the ground up, with a clear picture of both one’s means and one’s ambitions, creates the kind of hardy but flexible structure that can weather the icy winds as well as the more arts-temperate climes.
Playwrights may be model self-starters, as Ralph Sevush said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from—or suffer when they lack—a network of support, from literary managers, dramaturgs and play-development programs like those offered by Sundance Institute Theatre Lab or the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. One piece of big news over the weekend pushed the needle in an optimistic direction: the announcement that Arena Stage of Washington, D.C., would hire five playwrights to be full-salaried residents over three years as part of its American Voices New Play Institute.
Indeed, one striking thing about the sessions ostensibly dealing with play development was how quickly discussions of individual artistry and the literature of the stage shaded into concerns about audience development, marketing and collective purpose. After all, what theatres put on their stages is who they are, and what audiences show up—or don’t show up—to see.
“Theatre creates a community that can be transformative if it’s diverse, but I think that same community-building can be dangerous if it just reinforces elites,” posited Joy Meads, literary manager at Steppenwolf, who offered a case study in how her theatre had bookended a risky new work with familiar favorites–only to find that the new dramatically outperformed the old. Literary agent Morgan Jenness told the story of her erstwhile boss, the Public Theater’s Joseph Papp, taking her to task for sending a play he’d passed on and given it to another theatre; she told him, “I like to think I work at the Public Theater, but I work for the American theatre as a whole.”
And Long Wharf Theatre of Connecticut’s associate artistic director, Eric Ting, wondered if the frequent emphasis on turning every play into an “event” is a wise or sustainable way to make theatre. “There is a decadence in this idea of ‘events’: It’s like we’re saying, ‘You want to get a new play done? Get a name attached.’ Events can’t be the norm; we have to build a relationship with our audience over an entire year. It may be what we need to be asking is: How can we turn an entire season into an event?”
The conference-closing plenary featuring playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Tanya Saracho tied together many of the gathering’s threads (race, gender, artistry, creative ecology), with Rebeck offering this clear-eyed charge to her peers: “Retain your identity as seekers, and don’t get too battered by the politics of making it all.” She added, echoing the notion of an artist-centric form but making it still more specific: “Playwrights must be at the center of the theatre.”
And reflecting the way in which the dialogue has moved beyond identity politics—but only because theatre artists have moved through that self-defining phase—Saracho said, “The support of women and Latinos has helped me not to think of myself as just that.”
At an appropriately conjoined affinity group near the conference’s end, moderator Philip Himberg, producing artistic director of Sundance’s theatre program, presided as playwrights and play-development staff thought out loud, mapping and matching interlocking lists of things they have and things they need. What followed was an exuberant, free-wheeling exchange of contacts and resources—a spontaneous cluster of connective activity that at the Buyouts Chicago conference would have been called “networking” and at Socialism 2010 might have been called “organizing.” In that fertile breach between enterprise and experimentation, between the marketplace and the temple, the American theatre looked right at home in Chicago in June.
Trailblazers All: 5 Award Winners
TCG doesn’t gather every year only to schmooze and kibitz; the organization also uses the occasion to recognize some of its best and brightest. Not that these are competitive or critical prizes; Anne Kauffman, who took home the Alan Schneider Director Award, perhaps framed the awards’ purpose best when she said, “There is no set path for a director to take. We are all trailblazers, and my career has seemed to me like a series of a series of random events and miracles. This award helps me to map it.”
Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch, accepting the Visionary Leadership Award, told how the blind writer/performer Lynn Manning had once insisted on playing a character as sighted, against Rauch’s best intentions—and to the play’s ultimate benefit. Rauch’s conclusion—that Manning’s “need to transform himself was far more powerful than my artistic impulse or my political agenda”—illustrated his belief that “to lead is to serve.”
Accepting the Peter Zeisler Memorial Award for risk-taking artistic leadership was Jack Reuler, founder of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, which he called the “real mecca of American theatre,” in good-natured contrast to the conference’s host city of Chicago. “Theatre can effect social change—I’ve seen it,” said Reuler, who added that he was “happy to have had a career at the center of the margins.”
Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new artistic director, Jenny Gersten, accepted the Theatre Practitioner Award on behalf of her father, Lincoln Center Theater executive producer Bernard Gersten. “My father always says, ‘There’s no profit like nonprofit,'” said the younger Gersten, adding, “He didn’t mean that financially but spiritually, emotionally.”
Another young theatrical inheritor, Alex Kilgore, was on hand to accept the National Funder Award on behalf of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an annual award for plays by women administered by his mother, Emilie S. Kilgore, in memory of the sister who gives the award its name. Said Kilgore memorably, “It’s not only playwrights that need prizes—prizes need prizes, too.” That would apply as well to the Joyce Foundation, whose senior program officer Michelle T. Boone picked up the Regional Funder Award on the organization’s behalf.
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