TEMPE, ARIZ.: As a genre, theatre for young audiences doesn’t lack for venues: It has its own institutional theatres big and small, its own conferences (IPAY, AATE, New Visions/New Voices), even its own eponymous organization (Theatre for Young Audiences USA). Perhaps less well known is that the field has also had its own new-play development festival, the Waldo M. & Grace C. Bonderman Playwriting for Youth Symposium, initially headquartered at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, then at Indiana Repertory Theatre.
When the Bonderman’s founder, Dorothy Webb, retired a few years ago, IRT partnered with Childsplay, Inc., in Tempe to reimagine the gathering, and the result—with $100,000 of backing from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—is Write Now, which met at Childsplay March 14–17, and will meet again in 2015 at IRT.
The conference’s goals, according to Childsplay communications specialist Sarah Sullivan, are to “facilitate new-work development, engage in fieldwide communication, create common language and seed artistic collaborations.” Kicking off the convening—which welcomed not only writers but dramaturgs, directors, producers and teaching artists—with a characteristically bracing keynote was Doris Duke’s arts program director, Ben Cameron, and leading a plenary on new-play development was Jason Loewith, former head of the National New Play Network. Playwright Susan Zeder led a searching town hall discussion on the delicacy of presenting work on controversial topics for young audiences, with Emily Freeman’s play about same-sex penguins in love, And Then Came Tango, as a sobering and illuminating case study (the play, scheduled for a tour of Austin, Tex., public schools last fall, met official resistance and cancellations).
But Write Now wasn’t all talk. True to its playwright-centered aims, it was organized around lively readings of four new plays, selected in initial rounds by blind submission: Miriam Gonzales’s The Smartest Girl in the World, Jonathan Graham’s The Boy Who Loved Monsters and the Girl Who Loved Peas, Nicholas Kyrah’s Birdsong and Andrew Morton’s Bloom.
Childsplay’s managing director, Steve Martin, spoke about the urgency of creating children’s theatre as vital, relevant and challenging as any “theatre for big people,” noting that “a 10-year-old today has never lived in a nation that hasn’t been at war, and a 3-year-old today will never hold a textbook in their hand.” Even when faced with varying degrees of well-meaning reluctance or outright opposition from parents or educators, artists who make theatre for young audiences must strive, as Tango scribe Freeman put it, to “create a safe place to talk about our scary world.”
Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
Audiences are an essential component of theatre, but too often discussions about them have focused mainly on the quantitative: How full is the house? Will they keep coming? Where can we find more of them? What are they willing to pay?
Those are important questions, but there’s a revolution afoot in the way theatres relate to the people they serve. Patrons? Customers? Guests? Collaborators? Just who are those people who show up at our theatres to absorb work from our stages? What are they looking for? What do they take away? How do their lives connect to the life of the theatre and of the artists who work there? How can the theatre experience have a real and lasting impact in their communities and their world?
These were the kinds of questions—qualitative, urgent, full of implications—that buzzed through the atmosphere at Theatre Communications Group’s Audience (R)Evolution Learning Convening Feb. 20–22 in Philadelphia. Nearly 250 theatre, arts and cultural professionals from across the U.S. were on hand for a program of guest speakers, model-sharing and peer-to-peer consultation, conducted in the sleekly designed auditoriums and meeting rooms of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. For nearly half the crowd (many of whom had “marketing,” “communications” or “community relations” in their titles), it was their first TCG-sponsored meeting.
The topic was audiences—not just how to pack them into seats, but how to engage them fully and deeply in the art of theatre, then parlay that engagement into community revitalization. The watchword of the event, for multiple reasons, was “revolution”—with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall only blocks away, America’s historic beginnings seemed palpable, and the event organizers capitalized on the resonances. Consultant and facilitator Lisa Mount, banjo in hand, enlivened the opening session with repurposed lyrics to a Revolutionary War–era tune (“Oh, I’ve come to Philadelphia / To see if I can see / What I know about my audience / And what they know about me”); and a steady emphasis on up-to-the-minute technologies and their potential gave the word another twist. “We’ll be exploring revolutionary ideas of theatre and community, and also practical models evolving one step at a time,” noted TCG executive director Teresa Eyring in her welcoming remarks. She thanked the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for underwriting the multi-year Audience (R)Evolution effort.
As co-organizer Emilya Cachapero, director of TCG’s artistic programs, explained, the convening represents “the second of four phases, after research and assessment, of this new initiative unfolding over three years. Next come 10 grants of $65,000 each for innovative audience-engagement projects, followed by dissemination throughout the field of our findings.”
Three plenary sessions were designed to view audience engagement through distinctively different lenses—gamification, or problem-solving through the use of game thinking and game dynamics, led by Gabe Zichermann, a specialist in the field and author of the upcoming book The Gamification Revolution; hospitality, the operating concept of the food and guest-services industries, with David Steffen, a client advisor at the New York City–based firm Hospitality Quotient, as speaker; and digital engagement, encompassing a wide range of online activities, from fundraising and advocacy to social networking, elucidated with flair by Rich Mintz, executive vice president of the cutting-edge company Blue State Digital.
These presentations alternated with small-group gatherings in every corner of the CHF facility, where a rigorous schedule kept participants on the move exploring relationship-building, on-site engagement and community impact. Guest graphic artist Lynn Carruthers documented plenaries and speeches via giant graffiti sheets that proliferated as the event progressed.
A place on the program for agitation and inspiration was provided by a quartet of (R)Ev-ifestos, five-minute speeches by invited theatre practitioners designed, in Eyring’s words, “to widen the frame, challenge old assumptions and imagine new ways of working.” The speakers—Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Oregon’s Sojourn Theatre; author and cultural consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne; Anthem Salgado, founder of the web resource Art of Hustle; and Trish Santini, external relations director of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater—contributed to a number of “aha!” moments that participants shared aloud and on Carruthers’ graffiti billboards. “It boils down to this: We do the best plays we’re capable of and we’re really nice to the people who come see them,” declared the Guthrie’s Santini.
It was in the convening’s smaller rooms that the mechanics of a nascent audience revolution were examined, piece by piece. Some examples:
- Mixed Blood Theatre Company managing director Amanda White Thietje declared, “We take the ideal of inclusivity seriously,” as she touted her theatre’s Radical Hospitality program, designed to erase economic roadblocks for Minneapolis audiences. Free performances are also a strategy for the Theater Offensive of Chicago, which takes its collectively created OUT in Your Neighborhood shows to targeted spots in the city to address issues like homophobia and racism.
- Claudia Alick and Mallory Pierce of Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviewed the rigorous process that gave birth to OSF’s Audience Development Manifesto, completed in 2010 at the urging of artistic director Bill Rauch. The theatre’s diversity and inclusion efforts have “transformed negative assumptions, like ‘People of color will never come to Ashland,’” Alick reported. Diversity, suggested Arkansas Repertory Theatre producing artistic director Robert Hupp, can also be addressed via content, as was the case in ART’s landmark production It Happened in Little Rock, about the desegregation of the city’s Central High.
- Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, waxed enthusiastic about his theatre’s three-year-old audience strategy known as Connectivity, in which “a superbody of community volunteers, staffers and board members become evangelicals for each show.” The New York City–based Wooster Group keeps its audiences hooked with daily videos posted on its Facebook home page “like a diary to keep visitors returning to the site,” according to assistant director Jamie Poskin.
- Two Boston-area companies, American Repertory Theater and Huntington Theatre Company, emphasized their on-site atmosphere as audience magnets, focusing on the former’s high-visibility Oberon space, a club environment essential to artistic director Diane Paulus’s aesthetic, and the latter’s shift toward extracurricular audience involvement, reflecting artistic director Peter DuBois’ philosophy.
- Paired up in a community impact session, Minneapolis’s Bedlam Theatre and Brooklyn’s Foundry Theatre celebrated their commonalities—Bedlam chief artistic office John Bueche touted his company’s multiple identities as a bar, restaurant and theatre club, and the Foundry’s Andre Alexander Lancaster relished his organization’s community organizing bent, formalized in its Audience Ambassadors program.
- Youth violence in Chicago prompted a response from Steppenwolf for Young Adults, in the form of its citywide Now Is the Time initiative designed to “bring teens to the table,” in the words of artistic and educational director Hallie Gordon. Peter Brosius, artistic director of Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company, creates high-level investment for his young audiences via the Teen Director’s Lab and Festival, which puts a yearly production totally in the hands of kids.
A range of other innovative audience strategies—outreach to military communities at Virginia Stage Company and Florida Studio Theatre; invasions of city neighborhoods with the artists of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts; on-site and online communiqués with the public at New York City’s HERE Arts Center and Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories—were explored in break-out sessions. In a bonus workshop, veteran experimentalist Ping Chong introduced his acclaimed multi-year project Undesirable Elements.
In a culminating move, the convening broke up into six designated groups for facilitated “clinics,” wherein theatres sought “prescriptions” among the strategies they had learned.
“I feel that we’re moving away from numbers and butts-in-seats and toward real civic engagement and involvement—and that’s so great,” reflected Penumbra Theatre Company’s Sarah Bellamy after the sessions. Rob Ready, of San Francisco’s Z Space, concurred: “It’s easy for us to get stuck in little bubbles, with no time in our days to stick our heads out. It’s a pleasure to learn about things all these companies are doing that are wild!” Pew Center for Arts and Heritage representative Fran Kumin said she headed home bearing “new models and new ideas I can share with my community.” Her sentiment seemed universally shared.
Sing the Body Eclectic
CHICAGO: What is disability art? Is it reserved only for work created and/or performed by artists with disabilities? And must disability be its sole or central theme? For Carrie Sandahl, a professor in the University of Illinois–Chicago’s department of disability and human development, the opportunity to discuss these definitional questions is among the key attractions of Bodies of Work (BOW), a festival of visual, performing and literary arts designed to highlight the work of artists with disabilities, running May 16–25. The convergence of location and theme is not incidental, says Sandahl, who serves as the festival’s director.
“The conversation here in Chicago is way beyond issues of accommodation and basic access and on to thinking about aesthetics and politics,” enthuses Sandahl, who attended the first BOW in 2006 as a visiting academic from Florida State, and set about revivifying it after arriving at UIC in 2009. “I went from having to argue for accessible bathrooms to getting to participate in this dynamic and growing conversation around disability.”
The multidisciplinary festival is particularly focused on “supporting new and innovative work on disability that doesn’t take a medical or a sentimentalizing approach. We’re interested in how disabilities, and unique bodies and minds, can generate new aesthetics; we’re not interested in the narrative uses that disability has typically been put to.”
BOW’s theatrical offerings include Lookingglass Theatre’s Still Alice, about brain science and identity (May 16–25); a run at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, the acclaimed play by Australia’s Back to Back Theatre (May 16–19); a reading of Good Kings, Bad Kings, a new novel by playwright Susan Nussbaum (May 18); Todd Bauer’s The Birdfeeder Doesn’t Know at Raven Theatre (May 19–22); and two one-night events at Victory Gardens Theater, a workshop reading of Arlene Malinowski’s A Little Bit of Not Normal (May 19) and a performance of Brian Lobel’s trilogy BALL and Other Funny Stories About Cancer (May 24). Cross-genre programming includes a two-night series at Access Living called Counter Balance, featuring performances by Lisa Bufano, Baraka de Soleil and Alice Sheppard (May 17–18). Sheppard’s dance work, Sandahl notes, has been “instrumental in getting us to think about the ways that bodies can incorporate disability movements as part of the aesthetic. Alice is virtuosic, but she also has some involuntary movement, so her work explores, how can choreography become influenced by involuntary movement?”
August in May
NATIONWIDE and NEW YORK CITY: There can be little argument that among the best things about the plays of the late, great August Wilson are their soaring, searing monologues, which are justly compared to operatic arias. These barn-burning speeches also make a great introduction to his work for young audiences and performers, as the August Wilson Monologue Competition has proven since 2007.
When finalists from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, L.A., New York City, Pittsburgh and Seattle gather to perform on May 6 at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre, they’ll compete for the chance at the contest’s top prizes ($1,000, $500 and $250, plus copies of TCG’s “Century Cycle” edition of Wilson’s plays).
The contest was hatched by True Colors Theatre Company artistic director Kenny Leon and his associate artistic director Todd Kreidler, who proposed the idea to Jack Viertel, a senior vice president of Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters, who in turn brought in the NYC‑based nonprofit LEAP (Learning through an Expanded Arts Program) to administer a New York contest. Soon regional competitions were added to the mix, with the cooperation of the resident theatres in each of the cities listed above. Viertel reports that perennial favorite monologues include the “age-old wisdom speeches from Two Trains Running” and Vera’s tell-off to Floyd in Seven Guitars.
Hilda Willis, who now administers the contests, estimates that around 1,500 students compete each year in the seven cities. Three semifinalists from each city are then winnowed down to 12 finalists, who will perform monologues on May 6 in a montage-style staging. Though the majority of competitors are African-American, Willis points out that white, Latino and Asian performers who’ve contended also “really hold this material in an incredible way. They have proven that August’s work crosses all racial boundaries; these stories impact all people struggling to find their way in America.” Willis says the most memorable against-type casting came when a girl in a wheelchair delivered Rose’s fierce pushback from Fences, which opens with this line to her philandering husband: “I been standing with you!” Recalls Willis, “The room was dead silent. The audience got that monologue on the next level. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
WASHINGTON, D.C.: Doing theatre in the nation’s capital can make every play feel site-specific, given the history that has been made there. In the case of Arena Stage and George Washington University, being located in historic Foggy Bottom puts it “cheek by jowl with the center of the city during the Civil War,” as Arena artistic director Molly Smith puts it.
Of course, D.C. isn’t the only site with Civil War history. To commemorate the war’s 150th anniversary, Arena is teaming with three other theatres (American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.; CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore; Alliance Theatre in Atlanta), who are in turn teaming with academic institutions (Harvard University, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts, respectively), to create 12 new multidisciplinary works about the war and its legacy.
The National Civil War Project was the brainchild of choreographer and MacArthur “genius” Liz Lerman, who will create a theatrical dance piece called Healing Wars for Arena in the summer of 2014. Other artists on board include Daniel Beaty, who will create a solo piece about the entire human breadth of the war, also for Arena; at ART, Steven Bogart’s Boston Abolitionist Project plays this month, and Jim and Ruth Bauer (The Blue Flower) will write a new musical piece, War Dept. CENTERSTAGE will host the debut of At War with Ourselves, a new piece by Kronos Quartet that will include a 500-voice choir.
In short, these won’t be dry historical docudramas, and Smith explains why. In this project, which includes collaborations among theatre artists, historians, medical and literary departments, “the relationships between artists and scholars is going to put a different spin on the pieces that are created.”
WHARTON, TEX.: The late Horton Foote found a certain repose and quiet wherever he went—or, at least, he was able to recreate the stillness and leisurely pace of his East Texas upbringing in much of his stage work. Now fellow playwrights can sample Foote’s serenity with the establishment of the Horton Foote Writer’s Retreat, a four-week residency at his restored Texas home. The first playwrights so honored were David Lindsay-Abaire, whose residency was in February, and Annie Baker, who will reside there this month.
The Horton Foote Legacy Project, administered by his heirs Hallie Foote, Daisy Foote, Walter Foote and Horton Foote Jr., plans to offer six four-week residencies a year, including the opportunity to work at the same desk where Foote wrote his iconic plays and films. Pressure, anyone?
CLEVELAND: May is festive at PlayhouseSquare in Cleveland, first with the Theatre for Young Audiences/USA’s One Theatre World 2013 (May 8–10), featuring such international , cutting-edge, youth-oriented shows as Perth Theatre Company/Weeping Spoon Productions’ The Adventurers of Alvin Sputnik and Windmill Theatre’s Grug (both from Australia); Theatre Lovett’s The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly (Ireland); and ZooZoo, from Portland, Ore.’s Imago Theatre. The convening also includes master classes with Windmill’s artistic director, Rosemary Myers; Daryl Beeton, artistic director the U.K. company Kazzum; and Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company. Visit www.otw2013.org.
Cleveland Play House’s New Ground Theatre Festival (May 2–11) will encompass CPH’s current mainstage production, Victoria Stewart’s Rich Girl, and also on the program are The Better Half, a dance/theatre piece from Chicago-based Lucky Plush Productions; and readings of new work by Jordan Harrison (Marjorie Prime), Crystal Finn (Becoming Liv Ullman), Deborah Zoe Laufer (Informed Consent) and Pamela DiPasquale (Margie and Mike).
PORTLAND, ORE., SAN FRANCISCO, NEW YORK CITY: This June in Portland, Profile Theatre will relocate operations to one of the city’s resident theatres, Artists Repertory Theatre. Profile plans to produce and rehearse its 2014 all–Sam Shepard season there.
In February, San Francisco’s Z Space assumed the lease at Project Artaud, formerly occupied by the Jewish Theater. The latter organization disbanded last year after 34 years. The space, an intimate 88-seat black box, called Z Below, supplements the company’s 229-seat mainstage.
And in NYC’s Soho neighborhood in June, the Culture Project will rename its mainstage, currently known as 45 Bleecker Street, after the late Lynn Redgrave, who performed there in The Exonerated and developed her final play, Nightingale, in the space.
INDIANAPOLIS: Now in its sixth year, Indy Convergence, a unique two-week workshop and “pop-up” residency running through May and culminating in an open lab performance on June 1, brings together U.S. and global artists to work on a single “umbrella project.” Each artist also works on one or more personal side projects and teaches a workshop in their field of expertise.
This year’s umbrella project will be directed by Ellen Denham, and participating artists will include Indianapolis-based Tommy Lewey, Milwaukee-based Sara Yanney-Chantanasombut and New York City–based Joshua Morris.
What’s Up, Docs?
WASHINGTON, D.C.: Americans may be leading practitioners of documentary theatre, but we didn’t invent it. Troupes from Germany, Austria and Switzerland gather June 16–19 for Zeitgeist DC to show us what we can learn from the Europeans about this form. Among the staged readings will be Konradin Kunze and Sophia Stepf’s A Small, Small World, about a thwarted Bangladeshi immigrant to Germany; Kathrin Roggla’s Worst Case, on catastrophes and their politicization; and Milo Rau’s Hate Radio, about the inciting broadcasts that abetted the Rwandan genocide. Venues include the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre and Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center.
NEW YORK CITY: Last December, readers of the New Yorker were riveted by Rachel Aviv’s long, heartbreaking report on the lives of the city’s gay homeless youth. On the front lines with LGBT youth on New York’s streets are the “Jokers,” a team of performers and writers who work with the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC to create fledgling theatre troupes among communities facing discrimination in New York’s five boroughs. TONYC’s LGBT Homeless Youth Forum Theatre Project culminates this month with a festival of performance, dialogue and legislative theatre. If that last category sounds unfamiliar, it’s a format in which “ideas presented onstage by audience members…may be adapted to become proposals” to governmental entities. Representation by improvisation?
LOS ANGELES and MONTREAL: Sure, actors memorize lines, but what about all the listening they do? Benjamin Mathes, an actor and educator based in LA, is the founder of Urban Confessional, a group of artists who believe people need to be heard and have set up listening sessions around the world for passersby. Artists take to the streets with signs that read, “Free Listening” and “Wanna Talk? I’ll Listen” for interested chatterboxes.
“It began as an unconventional way to train actors,” says Mathes, who believes that when actors listen, it opens up their “empathy muscle.”
“Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you heard. Listening is active,” posits casting director Michael Shurtleff, the author of Audition. According to Mathes, actors in Urban Confessional discover that training doesn’t necessarily happen in a safe place. “Real training is realized when we step into danger.”
Mathes will attend the 34th International Listening Association’s Annual Conference in Montreal June 20–23, where he will present his paper “Urban Confessional: How a Free Listening Project Changed Actor Training, and the Actors who Train.” Mathes describes how his band of listeners are encouraged to let conversations be unbalanced, engage in empathetic agreement and to respect silences. Say Mathes, “Listening is an art, and the listeners are artists.”
BERKELEY, CALIF.: How many different ways are there to put on a play? As many ways as theatremakers can dream up. California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts recently announced the first cohort of Triangle Lab Artist-Investigators, who will develop and devise new models for theatremaking. The 10 Artist-Investigators were selected from a pool of 140 submissions in the Bay Area.
Says Triangle Lab director Rebecca Novick, “The goal of this project is to support experiments that will yield models that can be replicated by other artists.” Each Artist-Investigator receives a stipend of $3,000 in addition to $1,000 for project expenses. The selected projects range in discipline and structure. Many projects won’t happen in traditional theatre spaces. Two unfold on street corners, including Dan Wolf’s Corner Collisions and Debby Kajiyama and José Navarrete’s The Anastasio Project, which uses the stories of Rodney King and Anastasio Hernández-Rojas to explore race relations with East Oakland youth. Jo Kreiter’s project will involve 10 young women ages 14–18 and will examine how a street in the Bayview District of San Francisco has transformed from a junkie paradise into a greenway with gardens. Queer pubs will provide the setting for Kegan Marling’s project, which will feature stories about role models while growing up in the AIDS epidemic. An elementary school serves Chris Black’s dance-based site-specific performance, which explores the relationship between students and their physical and cultural environments.
Some projects turn an investigative eye toward violence. Arielle Julia Brown’s The Love Balm Project, which will travel throughout Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, features stories of mothers who have lost children to violence. Meanwhile Sky Burial, by Susie Lundy, is a community processional project composed of 131 mixed-media wings that will be installed at homicide sites around Oakland.
Another pair of projects capitalize on technology. Desdemona Chiang will make a 30-minute interactive play with QR codes, while David Szlasa’s Full Balcony aims to be a crowd-sourced video performance of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
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