Spotlight On: Jerry Tischleder

I’m Raising My Hand

For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on a leadership role in the field?

Jerry Tischleder: In 2007 when I was touring frequently with Hand2Mouth Theatre. I performed with the ensemble and managed most of the bookings and logistics at the same time. We had strong relationships with a handful of curators, educators, and presenters who were advocates for our work and we were constantly pressing to present ourselves outside our city. We’d spend a year or more in rehearsal creating something that would run 3-4 weeks in Portland and after that we realized we didn’t want to let the thing die. Touring was really the only way to get enough time with a show to truly understand it and feel like we got it to where it needed to go.

I was inspired at each tour stop by the local artists we encountered. Portland has a very small “devised” or “experimental” theatre scene, so connecting to peers who deeply understood the work we were doing was a real shot in the arm. These fellow artists were always eager to bring their work to Portland and wanted to know how to do it, but there were very few opportunities to recommend to them. I started to obsess about other artist’s work and how to create more opportunities for visiting companies. I never truly felt comfortable with my own work as an artist; was rarely satisfied with the end product, and remained unsure on how it impacted audiences because I felt I was too far inside it. When I talked to other groups about their work it was easy to gush, critique, or absolutely love something because I had no hand in it. My interest quickly shifted from wanting to make work to wanting to make work possible.

So in 2008, I decided to dip my toe into bringing artists to Portland. I started a festival, modeled after my favorite touring stop in Seattle—the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards. The premise is to let artists propose an idea for a new work and then curate a festival of short new pieces that have just been created. I loved the mix of artistic disciplines, seeing many works in one night, and witnessing the launch of something new. Plus, there were Portland artists making work for the festival that were never performing it locally. So I talked with On the Boards and said, “I want to do this in my city.” They said, “Go ahead!” and then gave lots of advice and support. So now, nine years later, we have an incredible symbiotic relationship between these two platforms for new work. After a couple of years running the festival, I realized that all I really wanted to do was help artists get new work out into the world.

TCG: As an arts leader, what is your vision for the future of the theatre field, and what is your role in moving us towards the future that you envision?

JT: I see many theatre scenes that are incredibly disconnected from the practices of contemporary, independent artists who craft every aspect of a performance from beginning to end. It’s important stuff, and often some of the boldest and most innovative theatre happening, even if very under the radar. Art centers, galleries, dance studios, clubs, and museums are lining up for this work. But much of it goes unknown to the theatre community. We all know the one-man-show and many cities have a couple of “experimental” theatre groups on the fringe, but they’re not widely known or accepted as legitimate players in the theatre world. If they’re successful, they’re seen as complete anomalies. These companies create work outside the standard let’s-take-this-script-and-produce-it-in-five-weeks model that has become an industry. I love these plays and don’t think they’re going anywhere, but there are a lot of other models that should be explored, acknowledged, and celebrated on a wider scale. I actually believe a lot of the “experimental” work I see is more accessible than the average play. A traditional play often takes the audience’s investment in and familiarity with the form for granted, whereas experimental artists are often spelling out everything you need in order to enter the experience. Because of this, fans of rock shows, art galleries, or other artistically inclined folks can immediately jump in without paying any homage to the grand tradition of The Theatre.

I became a TCG fellow through the Leadership U program to try and connect the independent artists I work with to regional theatres. In my mind, they need each other desperately. There are a few theatres across the country who are already doing this work very successfully, but it’s not widespread. That’s my current obsession. It’s a wide gap to bridge without someone who has stood on both sides to navigate the necessary “how’s” and “why’s” that come with inviting a stranger into your home.

The benefits of these collaborations are immense, but it’s tricky to talk about aesthetic differences or why new models are important without coming off as judgmental or dismissive of the work many institutions represent. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the plays that are widely produced, but there should also be room for other ideas and especially ones that are more responsive to the current moment. The lengthy new play development process can keep an idea from the stage for years and sometimes that idea isn’t as urgent by the time it premieres. Producing theatres also cherish their role as artistic contributors, so bringing in an outside group that largely cuts them out of the art making process can be a hard sell. When it does happen, it’s easy for outside groups to be tossed off to the side as somehow less than the “shows we made” that happen on their regular stage.

I love theatre in all its forms and come from a genuine place when saying, “I know what you do and value it, but please take a look at this other thing because it’s important.” My goal isn’t to sneak something in, but to help everyone thrive. So my role ends up somewhere between matchmaker, advocate, and translator to try to create these relationships without anyone feeling invaded or marginalized.

TCG: What was a moment in your career as an arts leader where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?

JT: That’s pretty much what I do. Connecting my community to artists they don’t know about, connecting artists to wider movements in the field, traveling, and seeing a lot of work so that I can locate someone’s artistic practice in a way that is easily communicated to peers and organizations. I think that’s the point of this work, to make these connections and to raise my hand so that others can find me from the outside.

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Jerry Tischleder is a curator, producer, performer and arts administrator working in Portland, Oregon. Jerry is the founder of Risk/Reward – an interdisciplinary organization presenting independent artists who push the boundaries of live performance. Under his leadership, Risk/Reward has featured work by over 75 artist groups since 2008. He is a Company Member with Hand2Mouth Theatre and a Visiting Artistic Associate at Artists Rep. He is a graduate of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and was a participant in the Leadership U program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group.

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Photo Credits

TOP: Uncanny Valley by Hand2Mouth Theatre

SECOND: Everyone Who Looks Like You by Hand2Mouth Theatre

THIRD: Cherdonna & Lou at the 2010 Risk/Reward Festival

FOURTH: Queen Shmooquan at the 2012 Risk/Reward Festival

ABOVE:  Headshot

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