This year, TCG was one of three national service organizations to participate in the EMCArts Innovation Lab. The program has been available for many years to producing arts organizations, but this was the first Lab to accept service organizations into a rigorous program that investigates the assumptions underpinning our work. The Lab challenged us to think about the unexamined assumptions that guide us—how we unearth them, question them and develop new pathways forward to create more public value.
For EMCArts, innovation is defined as a shift in underlying organizational assumptions—a shift that is discontinuous from previous practice and identifies new pathways for fulfilling one’s mission. It’s not about coming up with the proverbial “shiny new object,” but rather identifying a key adaptive challenge that invites a bold response.
One of the directives from our phenomenal facilitator, Melissa Dibble, was the urgent advice to stay in the “why zone.” It’s invaluable, she counseled, to set aside time to ask why certain things are the way they are—rather than jumping, sometimes prematurely, to a solution. It turns out that this is very hard for theatre people. We are all about getting things done, getting the show open on time, raising needed funds, meeting deadlines. Persistently asking why doesn’t always come easily for us.
For TCG, the burning question (which ultimately defined our adaptive challenge) had much to do with how we function and provide value in today’s content-saturated, highly networked world. TCG was founded in 1961, the same year that the Berlin Wall was erected, three years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and 30 years before the advent of the Internet. It was a time when the members of TCG could fit easily around a single table, sharing information in order to improve their work in this new, barely tested resident-theatre model they were creating from scratch. This model was itself an innovation, testing the assumption that theatres could only reside in New York—in a commercial context.
Today we exist in a rich ecology of organizations, large, midsized and small, located in big cities, small towns and rural areas across the U.S. There are ensembles, and companies that produce on a show-by-show basis; there are thousands of independent artists working in multiple organizations and far-flung communities. We wrestle together with issues such as how to develop new work, how to provide the best training and networking opportunities for future leaders, how to develop successful audience and community-engagement strategies that can be shared, how to influence national legislation for the arts, and how to build an ecology that is as diverse and equitable as possible in order to engage the breadth of talent and multiplicity of voices in our field.
With all this the richness and diversity comes an increasing urge for people to find smaller groups of affinity—circles where those with similar job positions, identities, experience levels, challenges and interests can come together for honest, intimate discussion, while at the same time celebrating, engaging with and tapping into the larger theatre world—our “theatre nation.”
After asking ourselves why things are the way they are, and articulating our key challenge, we then asked: What would happen if we could create multiple, specifically focused groups, organized in a way that enables them to communicate amongst themselves as well as with TCG, while still tapping into the larger “community” that we are? In effect, we were recognizing that Theatre Communications Group is more than one Group: It is a group of groups.
The EMCArts process ultimately led us to a working prototype, consisting of five thematic categories, each with a staff liaison and two connectors from the field. The prototype themes are: Actor Activists, National Theatre Service Organizations, Production Staffs, Theatres of Color, and University Training Programs. These groups, with TCG’s input, will discover in the coming months whether there is value and traction in working together in this way.
Some may say, “This is not new—these groups have naturally occurred over time within TCG.” The Network of Ensemble Theaters, for instance, began as a small affinity group coming together at TCG’s conferences; the 2002 TCG Theatres of Color convening in White Oak, Fla. led to the formation of CAATA (the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists); similarly, a convocation of Latino artists at TCG’s 2011 conference in Los Angeles was a seed for the development of the Latino Theatre Commons.
What makes the EMCArts prototype truly innovative is its intentionality—the fact that it looks at what happens if we help to illuminate a pathway down which members of the theatre community are naturally walking, while also forging brand-new paths in order to make the journey richer and more universally rewarding for us all.
At the 2014 National Conference in San Diego, identity affinity groups gave people the chance to share commonalities and to strengthen their voices—but, at the end of the day, we all came together in plenary sessions, over meals and through informal encounters. We are communities within community, and it is essential to recognize our power in both contexts—as professionals with a range of shared experiences and values, and, when we are all together, as one unified “theatre nation.”