Theatre people love to talk. We wax enthusiastic about upcoming projects, trade stories of past triumphs and failures, share bits of gossip, swap strategies in an effort to improve ourselves as artists and leaders. We’re an idealistic set, and often, in this less-than-perfect world, we complain about the less-than-ideal circumstances—both economic and artistic—under which we toil.
In group gatherings—at staff meetings or after tough rehearsals—a sense of frustration often hangs in the air like a cartoon cloud of doom. At theatre conferences, these clouds can multiply. After all, a conference (Webster’s tells us) discusses matters of common concern. And a conference that brings together 1,000 theatre folk tends to generate a lot of talk and a lot of concern.
“Model the Movement,” the overarching and oft-repeated theme of Theatre Communications Group’s 2012 National Conference in Boston, helped make this landmark June 21–23 gathering a refreshing change of pace. The “Model the Movement” mantra, uttered from the podium at large plenary sessions and by participants in an array of breakout discussion groups, kept the clouds of concern low on the horizon by reminding conferencegoers to take action—mainly by ditching models that don’t work and embracing methods that do. The theme managed to strike both an idealistic and practical tone, as well as to hearken back to the aspirations of the historic movement that led to the flourishing of regional theatres across the nation.
That history was evoked at the conference’s outset in a video montage that reminded attendees packed into the chandelier-filled ballroom of Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel of pioneering director Margo Jones’s stirring statement: “If we succeed in inspiring the operation of 30 theatres like ours, the playwright won’t need Broadway.” The number of not-for-profit companies in the U.S., as TCG executive director Teresa Eyring pointed out in her welcoming remarks, has burgeoned to well over 1,800 in the years since Jones’s Dallas-based Theatre ’47 helped pave the movement’s way. Negotiating the hallways of the plush, 85-year-old hotel in the city’s Back Bay district—and tolerating a record heat wave as they trooped to nearby venues such as the gilded Cutler Majestic Theatre and the cavernous Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts—conferencegoers traded stories about models that have and haven’t worked, eyed innovations for future theatrical structures, and proposed creative ways of deepening involvement with audiences. Whatever clouds that might have shadowed the proceedings seemed to part, allowing dappled sunlight to peek in on a multitude of open and honest conversations about the field.
Michael Maso, managing director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, sparked one such resonant interchange right off the bat with his acceptance speech for TCG’s Theatre Practitioner Award. Maso recalled with borscht-belt humor his childhood reenactments of obscure musicals, and how at age 21 he found himself up for a general manager position at NYC’s Roundabout Theatre. “I had no professional experience. I had no training in general management. I hadn’t even applied for the job,” he deadpanned. “Yes, they were a bit insane, but these are the people responsible for my career.”
Maso went on to argue on behalf of the validity of ongoing relationships between institutional theatres and individual artists. “Over the past 50 years we have brought moments of transformation to millions and millions of theatregoers and new opportunity to tens of thousands of artists,” he said. “We have not done that as a monolith, and there is no one right path. The ecology of our field is based on a wide diversity of institutional structures. Our job, each in our own ways, is to empower artists to make great art and share it as widely as possible. And in that fundamental task, our theatre has not failed America.”
Here Maso was referencing, and in effect challenging, monologist (and conference presenter) Mike Daisey’s widely performed show How Theater Failed America. Later, arts manager and funding specialist Diane Ragsdale argued with Maso’s description of the relationship between institutions and artists in a Jumper blog post titled, “When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?” Maso responded to Ragsdale on the TCG Circle (www.tcgcircle.org), and a lively conversation followed, eliciting comments from numerous colleagues.
Circles, in fact, are emblems of both the Boston cityscape and this year’s conference configuration. Boston’s roads (said to have developed from meandering cow-paths of the 1700s) are as curlicued as the region’s distinctive accent. The shape of discourse at this year’s convening was also circular, offering fresh perspectives on subject matter explored in years past—and the talk that started in Boston has continued circulating online, including on TCG’s own social-networking platform “Conference 2.0,” where groups like “Latinos in Theatre” and “Theatre for Young Audiences” have linked up for the longer haul.
Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, took a studied approach in his much-discussed keynote address, “Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?” Shalwitz called into question the ubiquity of the term “storytelling” as an all-encompassing description of field practice: “To say [stories are] the whole thing is a bit like a symphony orchestra saying they play melodies or an art museum saying they show pictures,” Shalwitz reasoned. He went on to admire European models of theatre, in which directors are prone to reinventing the very art of theatre for each and every production. Reinventing theatrical form isn’t high on the list of artistic tasks for U.S. artists, he maintained. “[We place] the entire burden for innovation at the feet of our playwrights, but ask little of directors, designers and actors other than to try to fulfill the playwright’s vision.”
Looking back to the Group Theatre model, Shalwitz extolled the shared sense of purpose that marks great ensemble work and challenged the U.S. theatre’s current “assembly line” culture, in which a script is first researched, written and developed, with design and rehearsal bringing up the rear. “Am I supporting playwriting innovations, but essentially limiting the potential of our actors, directors and designers?” Shalwitz asked pointedly. Ultimately, he suggested, larger institutional theatres need to consider a more holistic approach to art-making. “Theatrical innovation is the job of actors, directors, playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, production managers, technical directors and everyone else who works in our theatres,” Shalwitz declared. “But creating the space for that innovation to happen—that is the job of artistic directors, managing directors and other theatre leaders.”
Among panelists responding to Shalwitz’s remarks, Sarah Benson, artistic director of NYC’s Soho Rep, offered her theatre’s current staging of Uncle Vanya as a model of design and conceptual collaboration from the get-go. “All art is devised and generative,” she asserted. “Let’s stop type-casting,” proposed founding artistic director Blanka Zizka, of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. “Theatre is about transformation.”
Boston is a city of tribes. Any local can tell you that Beantown’s biggest tribe is composed of Red Sox fans, a passionate group of straphangers who ride the nation’s oldest public transit system to get to Fenway Park. Collegiate clans also proliferate—Boston and its environs boast some 65 colleges and universities, not to mention the world’s highest per capita rate of Ph.D.s.
The tribe mentality was a headline item for “Invisible or Remarkable?” plenary speaker Seth Godin, the best-selling author of such books as Small Is the New Big, who applied the tribal concept to theatremakers. In discussing how Broadway shows get marketed to tourists, Godin pointed out that “6 percent of Broadway audiences buy 33 percent of the tickets.” He paused to let this fact sink in; if a small core of ardent Broadway fans is buying up so many tickets, why even try to pander to the mass market? It doesn’t make sense, economically or otherwise.
A wiry fellow who would seem at home in a TED Talk setting—and he has done one—Godin described how marketing in the 20th century followed a “let’s alert the masses” mind-set, with the expectation that “if you ran enough ads, you would make money.” But things have changed. “We’ve branded ourselves to death,” he quipped, gesturing at a humorous projection of a baby covered in logos. In the old days, theatre could be successful by virtue of its singularity, but that’s not the case anymore—there’s too much competition from too many other sectors.
It is the job of theatres to “lead their flock,” Godin posited, and not just the normal, bell-curve portion of that flock. “Find the center of your tribe,” he advised, referring to those passionate ticket-buyers who will not just attend a show but also bring a friend or two or three. “The masses have never been inside the theatre and never will be!” he declared. As for art-making, Godin noted, “If failure isn’t an option, then neither is success,” pointing out that the inventor of the ship also invented the shipwreck. Finally, in rousing, impassioned tones, he urged his listeners to make art, do work that matters and connect people. “Please will you lead us? I hope you will.”
Leaders of all stripes and aesthetics were, in fact, in abundant supply at conference breakout sessions, for which topics were split into four different tracks: Art, Organization, Community and Field. (Conferencegoers could even collect temporary tattoos designed to represent each of the tracks.) In a session entitled “The Playwright as Artistic Leader,” when the idea of self-producing popped into the conversation, 13P playwright Erin Courtney noted that once a playwright has produced her own work, it is easier to gather a team to help “birth a play” in the future.
In a packed breakout session titled “Models Against Mediocrity”—devoted to such provocative questions as “How do we create a theatre where producing something that is just ‘okay’ is a sin?”—a quartet of artists from large and small theatres broached touchy issues of artistic quality and institutional risk. Rob Melrose, artistic director of San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, evoked his company’s recent experimental projects, such as Tenderloin (an exploration of the company’s notorious downscale environs), to illustrate alternative methods of developing work.
Marc Masterson, who recently inherited the reins of California’s South Coast Repertory, agreed with Melrose’s thesis that the production process should always be “tailored to the play and to the artists” involved, and made a point of rejecting what he viewed as cynical remarks in the press claiming that institutional theatres considered “commerce more important than art.” Artistic director Oanh Nguyen of Anaheim, Calif.’s petite-sized Chance Theater brought audiences into the equation: “Reconfigure them, affect them, physically and otherwise—scare them,” he recommended. Associate managing director Meghan Pressman of California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre praised her theatre’s audiences for their savvy and reliability as she touted BRT’s generously funded new Ground Floor initiative, which she called a model for “out-of-the-box play development.”
As for getting out of the black box, a session titled “Beyond the Wall: Imagining Theatre in Nontraditional Spaces” plainly laid out a number of ways of making work in community settings. Whit MacLaughlin, artistic director of Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories, described his company’s stake in what he calls “Internet real estate,” and showed footage of a recent performance that consisted of a first act via video in viewers’ bedrooms, followed by act two as a public intervention with the use of iPhones, and act three as an underground concert. John Francis Bueche, executive artistic director of Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis, and Diane Paulus, artistic director of Cambridge, Mass.’s American Repertory Theater, extolled their own theatres’ use of community spaces. For Paulus, realizing that the idea of her theatre was stronger and more potent than the building itself was a revelation.
The happy trans-Atlantic intersection of a sturdy Pennsylvania company and the unexpectedly adventurous National Theatre of Scotland (a peripatetic troupe that has been performing since 2006) headlined a session on international collaboration, subtitled “Go Global to Act Local.” People’s Light & Theatre artistic director Abigail Adams described the theatres’ energizing teamwork on last summer’s Winter’s Tale, which placed its youthful cast under the supervision of international professionals. NTS’s Simon Sharkey is slated to direct a follow-up session this summer at People’s Light.
In a festive twist on the “Model the Movement” slogan, an actual fashion show took place at the Cyclorama. “We were looking for a fun way to connect the theme of the conference to the late-night party,” said Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Boston’s Company One. “The runway seemed like the perfect way to showcase some of the city’s costume designers and actors, too. People seemed to dig it!” Indeed they did, judging by the hoots and cheers that greeted an actor from Company One’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety when he appeared on the catwalk in snug-fitting gold lamé boxer briefs.
Paul D. Miller, who presided over the conference’s most rousing plenary session, sometimes models himself as DJ Spooky, a name he came up with when he was an undergrad studying philosophy and French literature. The name is derived, Miller noted, from the Jungian “notion of the uncanny.” Utilizing his artistic persona, Miller—an eclectic video-maker, musician and all-round Renaissance man who has collaborated with such name-brand artists as Robert Wilson and Yoko Ono—drew deftly on a variety of topics, pointing out history’s influence on DJ-naming pop culture, and how the modern art of sampling draws from an ancient tradition of remixing. Miller’s media-savvy presentation was the quintessence of Gesamtkunstwerk—total art—as he proposed the thesis that sound and memory reflect on one another, promoted his film Rebirth of a Nation (a “remix” of the silent 1915 D.W. Griffith film), and showed off the cutting-edge work he has done on iPad applications. “You guys ready?” he asked a pair of classical musicians from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, one on violin and one on cello, whose live performances were overlaid with musical tracks from Miller’s soaring video renderings of Antarctic landscapes.
“The street and fine arts have blurred, and the Internet has absorbed both,” Miller posited. He knowingly played to his audience of theatre professionals, specifying Jean Cocteau’s The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party as his favorite play and casually suggesting that the Italian Futurists were the first punk-rockers.
A more somber tone marked a plenary titled “Ensuring the Sustainability of Our Field,” moderated by F. Javier Torres, senior program officer of the Boston Foundation, with participation from Ralph Peña, artistic director of NYC’s Ma-Yi Theater Company; Roche Schulfer, executive director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre; Adam Thurman, director of communications and marketing of Chicago’s Court Theatre; and Suzanne Wilkins, director of program services at the Partnership, Inc., a Boston nonprofit organization devoted to diversity and talent issues. Peña kicked things off with a brass-tacks story about a group of Asian theatre artists calling themselves the Asian American Performers Action Coalition who set out to create a database tallying the numbers of roles given to Asian actors in NYC; the statistics confirming Asian disenfranchisement in the field ultimately made its way into the New York Times and raised awareness over casting discrepancies.
Schulfer touted his flagship Chicago theatre’s history of putting work by artists of different backgrounds on stage, and of nurturing organizational diversity behind the scenes, as well. “Cultural and aesthetic diversity is a core value [of the Goodman], and has really become the identity of the theatre,” he said. He noted that the Goodman’s 2010–11 season featured four out of eight productions by playwrights of color, “and it was our most successful season in 15 years.”
Wilkins reminded listeners that diversity isn’t easy. “The capacity to connect across difference, to make space for someone else’s experience, to understand in the process that you and your organization may be changed is the big challenge,” she asserted to applause.
Thurman offered a story about the varied makeup of audiences at the Court’s 2008 production of Caroline, or Change, and asserted that when the audience is not diverse, “You’re depriving them. What happens when the audience changes is that the energy changes.”
At the conclusion of the session an audience member pointed out that despite its title’s reference to sustainability, the conversation focused almost exclusively on diversity. That topic got further attention in meetings such as the affinity group of theatres with budgets of $1–3 million, where artistic leaders wrestled with questions over how to bring more ethnic diversity into high-level positions throughout the field.
Conferencegoers hiked to Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theatre for the closing plenary, “Theatre’s Role in Activism,” moderated by Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. Mann gently engineered the conversation—among director and playwright Ping Chong of Ping Chong + Company in NYC; Steve Cosson, artistic director of the NYC–based documentary ensemble the Civilians; KJ Sanchez, CEO of a theatre company known as American Records; No Child… playwright, actor and teaching artist Nilaja Sun; and controversial monologist Mike Daisey—about the relationship of their work to political and social activism.
The conversation inevitably turned to the recent angry debate in the press and social media about forged facts in Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which Mann euphemistically referred to as a “kerfuffle”—in reference to what Daisey ironically called “the controversy” in his new monologue, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), which had a conferencegoer-only workshop performance on Friday night.
“Did I get in trouble with my audience or…with cultural arbiters?” Daisey asked rhetorically, before self-effacingly declaring, “I’m a noted fabulist now. Do I really need to warn people that I might make something up?” Speaking from the audience, Alli Houseworth, former director of marketing and communications at Woolly Mammoth, earnestly chastised Daisey, asserting, “Why do we do this work? It has to be about us and [our audience]…. We have let them down.” Daisy responded in a quiet and contrite manner: “I did it. You didn’t do it…. It wasn’t a problem before I showed up. It’s just me.”
Bringing the “Model the Movement” theme full circle, Teresa Eyring joined the panelists on stage to introduce TCG’s newly minted vision statement (see www.tcg.org). As a slide heralded the 2013 conference, slated for June 6–8 in Dallas, Eyring concluded: “At heart, this vision, and the strategy that accompanies it, realigns our mission toward serving theatre people. We reject the counterproductive dichotomy made between institutions and individuals. I believe that our seeming differences—from aesthetics to geography, from size to culture—are not a symptom of a broken system but a sign of its strength.”
The TCG Awards: 5 Looks Forward
Five awards were given during the TCG 2012 National Conference, and with them came five speeches. Of those five, it was Michael Maso’s that elicited the most response in the days following the conference. As Maso, managing director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, accepted the Theatre Practitioner Award, he leveled some critical remarks at the field, but closed on a note of encouragement for the future: “Whether you are fighting for change from within an institution or building your own framework from scratch—break a leg! Go forth! Model the movement!”
Building a new framework is an apt description of the work of 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles, which received the Peter Zeisler Memorial Award, recognizing risk-taking artists and companies. Executive director Jay McAdams accepted the honor and announced that starting with the 2012–13 season, 24th Street was going to focus “exclusively” on work for young audiences. “We’re going to become the risk-taking TYA theatre of Los Angeles,” he announced to applause.
As playwright Ed Bullins accepted his Visionary Leadership Award, he recalled—in a speech punctuated with emotional pauses—“After Malcolm X was put away, I changed my life. I wrote what I believed.” Since taking part in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Bullins has written more than 50 plays about the black experience in America.
The >National Funder Award went to the American Express Foundation, sponsor of the American Express/TCG Leadership Boot Camp. Foundation president Tim McClimon accepted the honor, saying, “I applaud all of you who are working to bring the challenges, joys and rewards of theatre to people everywhere.”
On receiving the Alan Schneider Director Award, Los Angeles–based director Bart DeLorenzo took a moment to admire his surroundings. “I thought this was where the king lived,” he said, remembering his impression of the Park Plaza Hotel when he was 10 years old. “This award has suddenly made me official. Look at me, I get to accept an award in the house where the king lives!” To view videos of the awards, visit www.tcg.org/events/conference. For the full text of Maso’s speech, visit www.tcgcircle.org. —Diep Tran