“I don’t remember who was sitting around the table, but I remember I had on a new red wool dress. It had to be a red dress. I thought, ‘Something important is going to happen in this room.’” —Zelda Fichandler in 2001, on the creation of TCG in 1961
Ten national conferences ago, in Minneapolis, I stood at the podium on the Guthrie Theater’s brand-new stage. The year was 2007, I was TCG’s new executive director, and we were clearly on the brink of field-wide change. Economists were predicting threatening times ahead, in the way meteorologists identify the tropical depressions that lead to hurricanes. And to illustrate the opportunities contained within the rapidly evolving world of technology, conference speaker and futurist Jack Uldrich cited a quote from Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice declares, “One can’t believe impossible things,” the Queen replies: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice…sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
This idea of impossibility—of tackling big ideas in the midst of uncertainty and change—stuck with me. My question about that undertaking was: How can we, as a field, discover and realize our potential for collective impact? How can we set out together to achieve the seemingly unachievable?
At that Minneapolis conference, we talked about at least three areas of “impossibility”:
- First, what could theatre do in the complex, fast-moving times we inhabited? What was the unique role of theatre and theatre artists as this new dynamic takes hold? This question spoke to our activism. It spoke to the need for theatre to model new pathways forward in society. It ultimately gave birth to our focus on building a more equitable theatre field and to devising and sharing more ways of deeply engaging audiences and communities in our work. In a way, it was the precursor to TCG’s vision statement: A better world for theatre, and a better world because of theatre.
- Second, we wondered how we could shore up theatre’s relevance and relative positioning in the midst of rapid change—and, most especially, rapidly changing technology. At the time, we marveled that MySpace had 80 million visitors a month; Second Life, the online virtual world, was also a big new thing, with more than 6 million residents and $1.5 million dollars being handled every day through the sale of virtual land and goods, including artwork. Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith, in her brilliant conference keynote, had spoken about an ancient prophecy that this century would move very fast, and human beings would move away from the Earth. She linked that rapid change to how the Internet had radically altered the landscape in which we were working. In the following years, MySpace and Second Life were all but gone. Twitter and eventually Facebook took over, and theatre people were early adopters learning to network, publicize their work, and publicly opine with the help of these new tools.
- Third, we talked about changing the very model and way of organizing that had defined our field and our art form for 46 years, since TCG was founded. A shortage of core funding had us straining to keep institutions moving forward artistically while also providing sustainability for not only the institutions themselves but the lives of those who worked in them. Did that mean revised structures, new ways of attracting income, enhanced partnerships, major positioning campaigns to attract a larger piece of the philanthropic pie—or something entirely new that we hadn’t thought about? We wanted to define a new architecture for how we do what we do, rather than preserving at all costs what we’d done in the past. The subsequent recession of 2008 placed most theatres in a position of rethinking their budgets and programming in radical ways. And the conversation about the business model is still with us.
These ventures into impossibility also made me realize that we had this ability to think and work collectively on a national, even global scale because of the rich theatrical ecosystem that had been built up around us over 50-plus years. In retrospect, the growth of our field occurred because of the impossible dreams of leaders such as Zelda Fichandler, those who founded our first resident theatres and who stayed profoundly committed to the theatre world beyond their own turf. Zelda and other leaders of her time gave us the resident theatre movement and ultimately created the conditions for its growth, whether through the pioneering of the 501(c)3 model for theatre or through brilliant thought leadership.
I remember conversations I had with Zelda at her apartment in Washington, D.C. She marveled at the somewhat unexpected level of growth that had occurred since the founding of our movement—after all, Margo Jones had once stated her hope that there would one day be 20 theatres across the U.S., and now more than 500 theatres are part of TCG. And, yes, Zelda fondly recalled the red dress she wore to that landmark meeting where the idea of TCG was first discussed with Mac Lowry and the Ford Foundation.
Zelda’s deep thinking about theatre and its role in our society, as well as her fierce, entrepreneurial spirit in founding and growing Arena Stage, are hallmarks of our resident theatre movement. We lost her this summer, but her life and memory challenge us to think about what seemingly impossible things we might dream up in the years—or even just the season—ahead.
We stand on the shoulders of a giant.