This is one of a package of stories about this year's TCG conference. Allison Considine, Russell M. Dembin, and Diep Tran contributed reporting to this story.
You may think and speak of the national theatre conference held each year by Theatre Communications Group, this magazine’s publisher, as a single event. But a singular noun doesn’t begin to do justice to even the most cursory experience of attending the conference, held most recently June 5-7 in balmy Miami. This recent gathering featured, by my count, 110 distinct sessions, 20 food-or-drink-related meetings, 5 book signings, 3 pre- and/or post-conference gatherings, and 4 plenaries. Even if you just stayed on one of the conference’s 3 programming “tracks” (Audience Engagement, Theatre Journalism, Wellness and Well-Being), you would still be immersed in a multiplicity of voices, topics, and takeaways. At any given moment in early June #TCG19 wasn’t just a universe unto itself—it was a multiverse.
The tentpoles of the three-day gathering, as always, were its four plenaries—full-attendance presentations of speeches, conversations, performances, and awards, held mostly in the Grand Ballroom of the InterContinental Miami. The first, on Wed. evening, June 5, kicked off with local actor/filmmaker Joshua Jean-Baptiste crooning a good-natured challenge to attendees, “Do you believe in magic?” He welcomed the conference’s estimated 883 attendees to “a city that puts the ‘city’ after ‘diverse’—a melting pot so hot would make your abuela want to curse.”
TCG executive director Teresa Eyring picked up on that theme in her opening remarks, noting, “The future of our country is already here in Miami,” citing its “majority minority status” (by some estimates as much as 88 percent of Miami residents are Spanish-speaking and/or people of color). After a land acknowledgment by Houston Cypress of the Seminole Miccosukee nation, and a welcome from host committee members Beth Boone, of Miami Light Project, and Michel Hausmann, of Miami New Drama (who called Miami “the most American city in the country” for its immigrant and refugee population), the conference’s first honor, the Local Funder award, went to Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. Spring, hailed by many in the community as a visionary arts leader and advocate, called Miami’s theatre scene “tactile, immersive, and…performed in more languages than one.”
For her part, the first plenary’s keynote speaker, author Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak, The Art of Death), called Miami “a theatrical city—a dramatic metropolis in its landscape, mix of people, and even its weather.” She dropped some stats about her adopted hometown (she was born in Haiti): Miami, she said, welcomes more than 14 million visitors a year and has the highest number of foreign-born residents in all U.S. cities at 59 percent; it is also the 10th most expensive city in the country, with the second largest gap between rich and poor (after New York City) and 30 full-time resident billionaires (“I don’t know if Trump counts himself among them,” she quipped).
And though she’s found her success in novels, non-fiction, and films, Danticat called herself “almost a theatre person—a manque theatre person,” detailing her mostly fruitless experiences writing one-act plays at Brown University, including one about the race-related shooting of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst in 1989.
But she can trace her affinity for theatre, she explained, back to her childhood in Haiti, over which the legend of a production of Albert Camus’s Caligula loomed large. As she put it, “I grew up listening to stories about the role that theatre played in resisting oppression, both in the neighborhood where I grew up and in the country in general.” It had been staged as a protest against the 1964 execution of protestors by the oppressive regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and was brought up every time there was a political murder in Haiti, which was often, under both Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. “Theatre can build community, especially in places where it is actively being splintered,” she declared, adding two closer-to-home admonitions: “Theatre professionals, please never underestimate the productions you put on for school kids, especially if they see something that reflects their lives on that stage,” and, citing Hamlet, “The play’s the thing, and we may not be able to catch the conscience of our current king, but we may be able to catch the conscience of some of the people who support him.”
Danticat closed by sounding one of the conference’s main throughlines, climate change—a theme that could hardly be more pressing than it is in Miami, where the sea level is projected to rise by more than 12 inches by 2045.
The next morning, Plenary 2 kicked off with TCG’s deputy director, Adrian Budhu, acknowledging American Theatre magazine’s 35th anniversary (you can help us celebrate by filling out this survey and/or donating here). Then AT and TCG Books publisher Terry Nemeth present the Theatre Practitioner Award to Mabou Mines’ founder Lee Breuer, whom TCG has been publishing since 1979, and up to the present; Breuer’s new book, Getting Off, looks back on his 60 years of theatremaking, a unique blend of the avant-garde and the populist. A stirring video tribute sampled his company’s oeuvre, from Medea to The Gospel at Colonus, after which Breuer, 82, stood to accept the award. “I started to think about constitutes and achievement,” he said. “I don’t think anyone said it better than Sophocles: ‘Let every man in mankind’s frailty / Consider his last day; and let none / Presume on his good fortune until he find / Life, at his death, a memory without pain.’”
The plenary’s main event was a conversation between New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris and author/educator Todd London, currently the Dramatists Guild’s director of theatre relations. Morris wrote for Grantland and The Boston Globe before taking his current Times position, from which he writes about film, music, books, and theatre, and co-hosts the podcast Still Processing with Jenna Wortham. He recounted to London and the assembled audience how he got his start: Assigned an 8th grade book report on April Morning, he instead turned in an essay comparing the book and its made-for-TV film adaptation (“The book was okay, the movie was terrible”). His teacher’s response: “You didn’t do the assignment, but what you’re doing is called criticism, and it is a job that people can have.”
His career proper began with jobs at various papers around the country, and he found himself drawn to film criticism because the medium is “the most elastic and can also contain the most,” giving him the widest berth to comment on culture, politics, and fashion. Indeed one of Morris’s beats at the late, lamented Grantland was a series of pieces musing on the style and semiotics of athletes’ clothes.
As a critic, Morris’s approach is both humble (“I’m a glorified civilian…responsible for documenting my experience with things; I’m not that different from anybody else. I’m crankier, maybe’) and insistent (“You want the thing to do the most to you and for you; I wanna know what turns people on about art”). The subject of race came up when Morris and London spoke about the Times’s Margo Jefferson, whom Morris called “one of the great critics, but she’s also a Black woman.” His own race informs his approach, Morris hypothesized, in that he “never really had authority or ownership in anything. This year is the 400th anniversary of slavery being brought to this continent, and I’m aware of that every day when I go to work.” He thinks that’s why he has “no interest in being the most right. Your play doesn’t belong to me. I mean, the work is the audience’s once it’s out in the world, but our and my role is not to say, Should or shouldn’t you do this? but, Is it working?”
One play that Morris thinks works well, if in mysterious ways, is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s layered, meta-theatrical Pulitzer winner Fairview, which he called “a contraption in the best possible way, a mechanically engineered thing” designed to examine and explode expectations about race and the white gaze. But, though he wrote a brilliant Times essay classing it with a wave of new plays by young Black writers out to dismantle theatrical conventions, Morris confessed that at bottom “I don’t know how this play gets done. But that’s pretty much what I want when I go to the theatre—I just want something to blow my mind.”
Concern about climate change began the third plenary on Thursday afternoon. Devon Berkshire, TCG’s leader of conferences and fieldwide learning, kicked it off with a quote from environmentalist Bill McKibbens, who wrote about the unique ability for artists to dramatize the climate crisis. “Artists can register scale,” McKibben wrote. “They can transpose the fact of melting ice to inundated homes and bewildered lives, gauge it against long history and lost future. Science and economics have no real way to value the fact that people have lived for millennia in a certain rhythm, have eaten the food and sung the songs of certain places that are now disappearing. This is a cost only art can measure, and it makes sense that the units of that measurement are sadness and fury—and also, remarkably, hope.”
Miami-based artist Xavier Cortada gave a powerful demonstration of this thesis. “The power of art to transform is as real as the air I breathe,” he began by introduction to a “longitudinal installation” he staged throughout the ballroom, with various conference attendees representing a different point on the globe 15 degrees apart along the 90-degree north latitude. Reports of climate change’s deteriorating and/or devastating came from Maldives, Turkey, Nigeria, Tibet, Japan, Australia, Tuvalu, Micronesia, Colorado, Brazil, and more. But despite the bleak picture, Cortada pronounced himself optimistic.
“As we stare straight into the face of the largest existential threat humanity has ever endured—ecosystem collapse, mass extinction—at this very precipice of catastrophe, I could not be more hopeful, no more joyous,” Cortada said. “Because there are artists in this room—there are agents of change who through culture will see us through.”
That was the ideal cue for a series of performances by Miami artists, from the alternately harrowing and poetic Amal, a spoken-word piece by the Combat Hippies about the costs of war on combatants and civilians alike, to the vivifying testimonials of Viva La Parranda!, a piece presented by Miami New Drama, which was created by and about an Afro-Caribbean folkloric ensemble from the small Venezuelan village of El Clavo. To a backbeat of drums, including the distinctive butter-churning bass of the furruco, an ensemble led by Betsayda Machado offered songs and stories of life in one of Latin America’s most impoverished countries. The performance was capped by a fascinating video showing the results of DNA tests that traced the ensemble’s roots to specific regions of Africa, which had the effect of both quantifying and humanizing the diaspora.
The final plenary, held on Friday evening at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Knight Concert Hall, ended the conference on a high note. In accepting the Visionary Leadership Award, outgoing McCarter Theatre Center artistic director Emily Mann reflected on the huge turnover at the helm of many U.S. theatres, which is installing more women and people of color than ever before but is still far short of parity and full representation. Mann, who has broken many glass ceilings in her more than 40-year career, offered both encouragement and caution to the field. “Appointing an exciting new artistic director is only the beginning, and in fact it’s only the easy part,” she said. “What comes next is what will make or break that tenure…The board president must say to the A.D.: ‘I have your back, I believe in you.’” She closed with a salute “to the new artistic leaders: Congratulations and thank you for our courage, your energy, and your extraordinary talent. I will be so honored to be a resource to you.”
The Peter Zeisler Memorial Award was then presented to Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas, which its founder and executive director, Teresa Coleman Wash, described as “a platform for underserved, underrepresented voices.” At Bishop Arts Center, she explained, “We go out of our way to make audiences feel uncomfortable,” and, quoting playwright Pearl Cleage, added, “If people are uncomfortable in the face of truth, they have some work to do on themselves.”
Conferencegoers had some work done on them, and with them, by the final speakers, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and theatremaker Gabriela Sanchez, who are sisters. They spoke about equitable casting practices, with Hudes memorably stating, “Playwrights are job creators,” and mused on the “insatiable need for cultural clarity” reflected in the constant questions of “how” they’re sisters (they have same mother). Sanchez also spoke about Tierra y Cuerpo, an experimental theatre program she offers through her Philly-based Power Street Theatre Company. “We live in the age of burnout, and this program was a response to the need for self care; teach and be taught was the principle,” said Sanchez.
The heart of their presentation, though, was a glossary of Philly terms they grew up with and thought theatre folks would find useful in their practice. These included “jawn” (a sort of catch-all pronoun for a person, place, or thing), “decent” (cool, badass, fly), “bulumcuous” (“voluptuous but spelled better,” to which Sanchez added the instruction, “Post ‘all body types’ on your casting calls”), “yaaaaassssss” (Sanchez: “That means the goddess of me props up the goddess of you”), “sancocho” (a delicious Puerto Rican beef stew made from basic ingredients), “bruhealers” (a portmanteau based on “bruja”), and “the itis” (the full, tired feeling after a big meal—or a satisfying play). “I want theatre that gives me the itis,” said Hudes. “Theatre that fills me so much I need to sleep. Theatre that makes me bulumcuous.”
We who attended TCG19 may not all be bulumcuous, but after three-plus jam-packed days in June we certainly had the itis.
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