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You Can Get There From Here

TCG keeps the future of the field in the conference crosshairs as theatre leaders mix it up in Baltimore

By Jim O'Quinn

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It was early February, and Teresa Eyring and her crackerjack conference-planning posse were a little worried. A little anxious, a little wary. Theatre Communications Group’s 19th National Conference, slated for the first week of June in Baltimore, Md., was a scant 16 weeks away, and the news—from both within the field and without—was not good. Unemployment numbers, the media reported, were soaring off the charts. President Obama’s new stimulus package didn’t seem to be stimulating anything in particular. Money, everybody agreed, was evaporating in all directions. TCG had gotten the word, both anecdotally and via its surveys of the field, that theatres in various parts of the country were in fiscal and organizational distress, or expected to be so soon. The sign-up list for the imminent Baltimore gathering of theatre leaders and practitioners—tallied prominently on a marker-board at the entrance to conference coordinator Jenni Werner’s cubicle in TCG’s New York offices—had, well, plenty of slots available.

Werner, executive director Eyring and their planning cohorts had put their heads together over several months to create a forward-looking agenda for the Baltimore talk-fest: The programming would focus, in part, on generational issues of leadership and workplace practice, then hone in sharply on strategies and practices for the future—ideas that fell under such big-umbrella concepts as “working in an international and global context” or “the impact on the arts of technology and social media.” A staff brainstorming session had given the meeting a working title: “Roots, Renaissance, Revolution.” But was a world economy in crisis going to scuttle the team’s best-laid plans?

“There we were, debating with ourselves about whether the themes we had identified were relevant given the changing situation—or whether we should completely scrap the programming we had in place and start over again,” Eyring says now, some months after the Baltimore event has receded into memory but by no means—considering the enthusiastic response it ultimately received from those who were there—into irrelevance. “We were even more concerned after we talked about conference plans with the TCG board, which was meeting that first week of February, because a number of board members suggested that the economic crisis trumped everything else, and that we should go back to the drawing board.”

Werner, an indefatigable organizer with three previous stints as conference honcho under her belt, half-jokingly remembers that board session as the worst day of her life—“I felt like I was taking the heat, with everybody saying, ‘What, are you crazy?’”—but there were some humorous moments. TCG publications director Terry Nemeth ventured that the conference working title sounded like a reggae boxed set, and board member Jennifer L. Nelson suggested the alternative moniker “Not Yo’ Mamma’s Conference.” Nevertheless, there was a strong suggestion that, as Eyring puts it, “the work TCG does has to be right at the center of what the field’s concerns are.”

So the soul-searching continued. As Eyring notes, “We also heard from some people on the National Council for the American Theatre”—TCG’s trustee brain trust on matters of governance and board development—“who said, ‘You can’t just focus on the present—you should stick to your guns,’ because at the end of the day people will figure out how to cut budgets in difficult times, and they’ll learn from each other along the way. But what isn’t as clear is what happens when you’re developing your organization and trying to take advantage of potential future trends and opportunities.”

Ultimately, Eying says, the future won the toss.

“We decided a couple of things—that for some organizations, there would be a need to just focus on current economic issues, so we made sure there was programming for people who needed that—we created tracks that allowed them to go where they needed to go, and we incorporated a subtitle, ‘Defining the New Landscape,’” she allows. “But, fundamentally, we recognized that generational issues and thinking about the future are not going to go away. People come to a conference because they want to get charged up, because they want to use their creativity and their best thinking. Of course, they also want to learn about how to navigate today, but you have to do both, somehow.”

Even just the right programming, though, is no field-of-dreams guarantee. “We heard that theatres were cutting their travel and conference budgets, so we re-projected the numbers down to about 400 attendees,” Eyring says, measuring against an all-time conference high of 850. But as the month of June neared, the marker-board on Werner’s wall morphed at warp speed. “We ended up with close to 700 participants,” Eyring notes with evident pride, “and 275 of them were first-time conference-goers.”

The energy of these first-timers fed handily into the 3-R’s theme. Mixing with more established compatriots they often knew by name only, this new wave of theatre professionals (many in attendance thanks to TCG’s Young Leaders of Color initiative, funded by the Cummings and Joyce Foundations) seemed eager to build bridges to their roots in the early regional theatre movement, aware of (and healthily skeptical about) the renaissance in art and practice that the movement had engendered, and poised to parlay their own vitality and commitment into something akin to revolution. “Having the conference actively invite staff people under 30 was thrilling,” confirmed producer Kacy O’Brien, 28, of Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J., in a post-conference note to Werner. “Our discussions re-energized my love for this industry and sent me home buzzing with ideas from us Gen Y-ers as well as sage wisdom from veterans of the theatre world.”

The three R’s seemed simultaneously present as well in the conference venue itself, a multilevel performing arts center constructed around Baltimore’s showcase Hippodrome Theatre, a gilded ex-vaudeville house dating back to 1914. The Hippodrome’s dazzlingly restored interior provided more than eye candy for theatre junkies—it served as a resonant backdrop for the conference’s plenary sessions, in which theatre’s entertainment-history roots were programmatically reexamined in the light of cultural and technological change.

Before that serious business got underway, there were lighthearted, even naughty matters to attend to, as participants settled into the Hippodrome’s undulating sea of seats for an irreverent welcoming address from a native son of Baltimore, rebel filmmaker John Waters. Long after becoming famous for his notoriously transgressive underground movies of the ’70s (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living), Waters gained his theatre bona fides with the successful commercial stage adaptations of his more mainstream films Hairspray and Cry-Baby. “Everything is a drama here in Baltimore,” Waters quipped by way of greeting. “You think my films are fiction? Ha! Usually visitors, after exploring this great town, say to me, ‘I see your movies are really documentaries!’”

Bused to a post-keynote reception at the fancifully appointed American Visionary Art Museum not far from the city’s bustling waterfront, conference-goers were able to chat with the inimitable Waters in the presence of a much-larger-than-life papier-mâché incarnation (by artist Andrew Logan) of the director’s “leading lady,” the late drag actor Divine, resplendent in form-fitting orange.

The rather flavorless title “Generational Perspectives” couldn’t obscure the spirited response earned by award-winning journalist Nadira A. Hira in the conference’s first plenary session. A general assignment writer for Fortune magazine and a frequent expert guest on CNN, CBS and other media outlets, Hira outlined the particular qualities that distinguish “Generation Y” in American society, and particularly in the workplace. “There are 80 million of us,” Hira declared of Gen-Y-ers, meaning people born between 1977 and about 1995. “We just outnumber everybody else—you’re stuck with us.” An unprecedented affinity for and dependence upon new technologies and a contagious devotion to social ideals were among the qualities Hira attributed to the demographic. “The bottom line is hire young people—they are going to proselytize for you,” she urged leaders of arts organizations. “Using young people as ambassadors for your mission is an incredibly effective way of engaging better collaborators, and also of engaging a young audience.”

Demographics (which he called “one of the slowest, most difficult to reverse and most powerfully indicative forces at work in our world”) was one of several topics on the mind of futurist Andrew Zolli, a member of the consulting firm Z + Partners and a much-sought-after analyst of global trends. In a plenary dubbed “The Road Ahead,” Zolli—an ingratiatingly informal speaker with an arsenal of jokes—projected his listeners into a long-range future disrupted by population growth, climate change, mass migrations and other global-scale forces, but paradoxically rich in cultural opportunities. Extolling conference-goers for belonging to “one of the scrappiest fields in the world,” Zolli prodded them to “be ready to tell new stories, new narratives of integration, in the face of all these disruptive changes.”

Exiting the plenary sessions into the Hippodrome lobbies, attendees encountered a dozen-plus exhibitors in a vendor fair showcasing theatre-related products and services, ranging from ticketing systems to arts-friendly software. A raft of free-access computers on the mezzanine level was in constant use, and nooks and crannies throughout the complex harbored conversations arranged through TCG’s Brain Bank, a new program of one-on-one consultations between peers on topics requiring special expertise. On the heels of a Friday session devoted to “Theatre in Conflict Zones”—moderated by Theatre Without Borders co-founder Roberta Levitow and featuring panelists from Sudan and the former Yugoslavia—a spacious meeting hall adjacent to the theatre vibrated to the rhythms of Sinnar Crucible (Melting Pot), a rough-hewn, crowd-pleasing performance by the pioneering Sudanese company Albugaa. Due to bureaucratic difficulties attaining U.S. visas, only five members of the troupe—which conducts an annual theatre festival and encourages coexistence and harmony in its conflict-ridden region of northeastern Africa—were able to be present in Baltimore.

Over, under, around and through the conference’s main-theme programming ran daily affinity group meetings, which clustered conference-goers into six budget groups ranging from the smallest ($50,000–$499,999) to the largest ($10 million and up). In contrast to a slate of 35 breakout sessions, which addressed specific topics under three track headings—current reality (“staying afloat in rough waters,” “addressing burnout”), future visions (“aesthetic diversity and expanding horizons,” “theatre and the new green economy”) and ongoing stewardship (“creating an inclusive workplace,” “the case for cultural exchange”)—these affinity groups came together with no mandate except to plunge into conversation about the most pressing issues they shared, and to keep the conversation going, circling, deepening, for the duration of the conference.

Judging from the affinity-group sound bites this reporter collected, the plan was a success. On growing pains, overheard in Budget Group 4 ($3–5 million): “We’re growing really fast,” volunteered associate artistic director KJ Sanchez of Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theater Company, who described her 16-year-old organization’s successful transition to a new facility five seasons ago. “Since I came on board two years ago, the staff has nearly quadrupled,” she noted, “and we’re implementing a lot of great ideas—which means our job is keeping up with all the new programs and engaging with bigger challenges.” Development associate Kate LeRocque of Spring Green, Wis.’s open-air American Players Theatre, which inaugurated a 200-seat indoor stage this summer, sympathized: “We’re moving from five to eight shows in rep,” she noted, “and white-knuckling it through ticket sales. That means pulling back on touring, and doing classic plays with smaller casts.” Associate artistic director Sandy Shinner of Victory Gardens Theater, now located in Chicago’s historic Biograph Theater and on the verge of completing an additional 120-seat studio space, allowed that “we lost some subscriptions this year, but we’re artistically happy.”

On managing risk, overheard in Budget Group 6 ($10 million and up): “It’s not just new plays that are inherently risky,” reasoned associate artistic director David Dower of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. “Risk is in the nature of the material, its form and subject matter. In this economy, audiences are clinging to the familiar.” Yale Repertory Theatre associate artistic director Jennifer Kiger offered an example: the Rep’s recent staging of Octavio Solis’s sexually charged drama Lydia, which was initially a hard sell to New Haven audiences. “We learned that our patrons appreciate more information, letting them in on what the experience of the show will be,” Kiger noted. “How should theatres measure success? One way is to keep doing the kind of work that defines your theatre.” That prompted agreement from Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson, who plans to offer his “well-educated, adventurous” audiences three new works in an upcoming ten-play season. “We’re not backing off from that history,” he said of DCTC’s focus on the new.

“Casting the Optimal Board” was the title of a breakout session on issues of stewardship in which Curious Theatre Company of Denver’s Chip Walton admitted he was of two minds about trustees: “As an artistic director, passion is the number-one thing I look for in a board member; but thinking as a producer, financial considerations come to the fore.” A big issue for many boards, according to Steppenwolf Theatre Company board chairman Doug Brown, is “the desire of some trustees who are not artists themselves to have a more intimate connection to the art. If you figure out a way to do that,” he posited, “you’ve accomplished a lot.” Arena Stage board leader Mark Shugoll touted his theatre’s strategy of turning board members into “inside-the-process interns” on a production and ensuring that “at every board meeting there is some presentation related to the art.”

These in-the-trenches discussions—of which this account can provide only the most cursory glimpse—were preceded in the conference schedule by “ACTivate Change,” a day-long, dual-track event on June 3 some 35 miles to the south in Washington, D.C. One track of this pre-conference meeting delved into issues of internationalism and cultural exchange, the other into arts advocacy. British author and screenwriter Jeanette Winterson set the day in motion with a keynote address at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company [see sidebar]. “While art is not there to do the job of politics, art is there to remind us that creativity is at the core of living well, thinking well, finding the energy for change,” Winterson told the conference advance guard. Her theme of the essential, culture-bridging nature of art proved richly pertinent to both branches of the D.C. conversation.

On the international track: Visiting theatre artists from Argentina, the Union of Myanmar, Lebanon, Iran, Serbia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe mixed with representatives from U.S. theatres, government agencies and cultural ministries, aiming to exchange ideas, identify new partnerships and beef up the role of theatre in global affairs. The day included presentations and think-tank exercises led by Pennie Ojeda, director of international activities for the NEA; Philip Himberg, producing artistic director of Sundance Institute of Utah’s Theatre Program; and Georgia-based Lisa Mount director of Artistic Logistics. “The sessions combined practical information and visioning for the future,” pointed out Emilya Cachapero, TCG’s director of artistic programs and director of ITI/U.S., “and helped us to establish a sense of clarity and urgency for international work.”
Meanwhile, delegations of leaders from U.S. theatres headed to Capitol Hill for arts-advocacy visits with congressional representatives from their districts, an exercise that proved eye-opening and inspiring to many who had not experienced the lobbying process first-hand [see below].

Another first occurred the following day in Baltimore—an invitation-only meeting, arranged by TCG, between selected theatre artists and an array of theatre journalists—including critics from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Time magazine and other powerful media outlets. The convergence of artists and critics—which Eyring hopes to make a regular conference feature—generated a restrained, mutually respectful conversation that acknowledged how high the stakes are in the current crisis facing print journalism. Responding to Washington Post lead critic Peter Marks’s assertion that “theatre critics are generally more magnanimous toward the theatre field than the field is toward its critics,” Columbia University media scholar Philip A. Stephenson countered that the two camps have an inherent bond based on their common affinity for the art: “We’re all part of something that tries to convey the truth,” he reasoned. That common ground, suggested Free Southern Theatre founder John O’Neal, one of several veteran artistic leaders in the room, can best be cultivated by “listening more lovingly and carefully to each other.”

But the mechanics of such conversations have changed. “Online is where it’s happening,” pointed out Philadelphia-based critic Wendy Rosenfield, who writes the “Drama Queen” blog for ArtsJournal.com. New York Times reviewer Jason Zinoman regretted the downsizing of newspapers and the attendant reduction in arts coverage nationwide, but found glimmers of hope in the turnaround. “In this larger picture of a huge sinking ship, theatre is actually better positioned than most other arts,” Zinoman contended. “Papers across the country are becoming aggressively local—and theatre is a local art form. The commitment to covering local art first is a hopeful trend.”

Not every cloud under observation in Baltimore had a silver lining (and that included rain clouds, which kept the atmosphere drizzly for the meeting’s duration), but there was a strong consensus that, in the words of Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre associate director Barry Kornhauser, “In times of adversity, theatre people rise to the occasion.” Director/choreographer Karen Getz of Philadelphia put it more colorfully: “That’s what happens when the world falls apart—we get in gear and start kicking ass. People need us to lead the way, to think out of the box. In times like this, we become art-dependent rather than money-dependent.”

Arena artistic director Molly Smith sounding a similar note from the Hippodrome stage during the final session: “Theatre thrives in times of crisis,” she declared. “It’s in our collective genes to meet the challenges of this moment. Our whole field was born in the spirit of revolution. Now we’re on the verge of a new revolution.”

Sidebar: Jeanette Winterson: Imagine This

In a world of separations, art connectsit connects us to ourselves, to our past, to others, to the planet. Think of a work of art that has meant something to younow let it rest in your mind for a moment. You will become aware that one of the things it did was to make a joining, to bring things together, to allow your own mind to re-form in a different way. Sometimes we say, “I’d never thought of it like that.” Or, “I’d never felt like that.” Or, “That made me laugh,” “That made me cry.”

These emotions, these understandings, these realizations occur when what was split off is brought back together again. Art’s business is to take all kinds of disparate elements and fuse them into new wholes; this is not an imposition. Art is not colonialism; it is a revelation, a sense of things appearing as they are.

I believe that one of the reasons that we go back and back to art, why we don’t give up on it, why we keep wanting it, keep making it, is because art is the best representation we have of life’s intrinsic qualitythat everything is connected. This connection gives the self a chance to be a whole.

You know that bit of William Carlos Williams? “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

When we start to make connectionsusing our heart as well as our head, using our gut as well as our common sensewe start to imagine new possibilities. And whatever we can imagine we can bring into being.

British novelist Jeanette Winterson’s most recent book is The Stone Gods (2008). This is an excerpt from her June 3 pre-conference keynote address at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

  4 Views from Capitol Hill

Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.:
“We went to visit representatives from the Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia regionI’d hoped to meet with these elected officials personally, but in each case we met with staff, who gave us their undivided attention for the half-hour meeting. It really helped that we were so well prepared in advance by TCG with briefing papers and bullet points. One staffer was literally wide-eyed, commenting that he had no idea the theatre field’s interests were so wide-ranging as to include the Federal Communications Commission, charitable deductions and the Departments of Education and State. As we shuffled back and forth between the various office buildings in the shadow of the U.S. Capital and the Supreme Court, I felt an enormous sense of pride and patriotism in what we were doing that day and what each of us does every day in the not-for-profit theatre.”

Amy Merrill, playwright, Lyric Stage Company, Boston:
“Our group, which represented New England and Pennsylvania, met with two congressmen and three senators, speaking with them about arts-related issues that ranged from support for Rocco Landesman as head of the NEA to the impact of the Fulton Theatre’s work with youth in Lancaster, Pa. It was exciting to wander (or sprint, as the case may be) all over Capitol Hill and see all the other advocacy groups engaged in similar efforts.”

Mark Booher, artistic director, PCPA Theaterfest, Santa Maria, Calif.:
“Visiting the inner sanctums of the Capitol Building and the Senate Office Building, I felt the occasional smallness of being merely a visitor among all these elected officials and their designeesbut I was also encouraged to feel a sense of mutual need with our legislators. We need them to act on issues of importance to our theatres and the field, and they need usour expertise, information, vision and support. We need to know how their system works, and they need to know how our theatres are at work in their regions. We must be advocates and apologists for the need of art, and we all need to be persuaded that knowledge is better than ignorance, connectedness is better than isolation, vision is better than blindness, purpose is better than listlessness. These officials need to see the connection between the health of the nation and the health of its artistic community.”

Aimée Hayes, artistic director, Southern Rep, New Orleans:
“The highlight was meeting Congressman John Lewis (GA), who asked us to step up to see his office view. As we looked out together onto the Washington Monument and beyond, he described standing here during President Obama’s inaugural watching thousands of people celebrate the historic day, and the emotional effect it had on him as an African-American man. The weight of history and the simple importance of one person’s work seemed to crash together for me. I think we all realized from that meeting that advocating for the arts is possible, necessary and fundamental to our field, and should take us wherever our passion leads us.”

Praise for the Best and Brightest

Five 2009 TCG Awards, designed to recognize the most committed, talented and innovative contributions to the field, were handed out at intervals during the Baltimore conference.

Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists in New York, was the recipient of a newly minted honor, the Visionary Leadership Award. On the heels of a 25-year career as a journalist, essayist and artistic administrator, London was cited for his consistent and forward-thinking efforts to enrich the American theatre, specifically his tireless advocacy for playwrights and individual artists. Accepting the awardin the form of a statuette designed by puppet master Ralph LeeLondon enumerated “the many gifts TCG has given me,” beginning with the assignment to travel the country with longtime executive team Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch in preparation for his landmark 1993 study The Artistic Home, and continuing through his ongoing association with American Theatre magazine and a new book contract to collect “the writings of our nation’s theatre pioneers.” That volume, Founding Visions, is tentatively scheduled to be published by TCG Books in 2010.

The TCG Peter Zeisler Memorial Award—designed to celebrate the ingenuity and artistic integrity that Zeisler, late executive director of TCG, prizedwent to the innovative New York Citybased touring ensemble Elevator Repair Service. Founded in 1991 by John Collins and a group of actors, ERS was cited for its pioneering practices, its dedication to freedom of expression and its fearless risk-taking. ERS is best known for its 2005 piece Gatz, a marathon presentation of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The troupe most recently performed it in Australia at the Brisbane Powerhouse and the Sydney Opera House.

Peter Culman, who recently retired as managing director of Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE after 34 years of collaborative work with the company, was handed the Theatre Practitioner Award. The citation recognized his long history of contributions to the field, including stints as president of LORT, chairman of the NEA’s companies panel, and on the boards of TCG, the American Arts Alliance and other organizations. Culman served as both an adjunct professor of homiletics at St. Mary’s Seminary and University and as a trustee of the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies.

The Boeing Company was the winner of the National Funder Award (combining TCG’s former Corporate and Foundation Awards), in recognition of outstanding sustained national support of theatre in America. The technology company was cited for providing grants to encourage nontraditional audiences to experience theatre (for example, partnering with TCG on Free Night of Theater), funding arts education and supporting the capacity-building of theatres by providing grants to theatres to share back-office functions.

Finally, the Regional Funder Award, which recognizes grant-making leadership in the region in which the conference is being held, went to the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. The Cafritz Foundation, which since its establishment in 1948 has granted awards totaling more than $314 million to some 900 organizations, was praised for its longtime commitment to improving the quality of life for residents of the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area by encouraging the growth and enrichment of the arts.