The Big Time in LA: TCG National Theatre Conference

by Eliza Bent

As I watch As You Are Now So Once Were We, one of 15 productions mounted in June at RADAR L.A., an international festival of contemporary performance, I’m thinking about Theatre Communications Group’s giant 2011 National Conference that’s about to kick into high gear in Los Angeles. As You Are Now, performed by a Dublin–based group called the Company, started out as an adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, according to program notes. But when the troupe and its director, Chilean–born Jose Miguel Jimenez, realized that Joyce’s sprawling epic was virtually impossible to stage, As You Are Nowmorphed into a witty examination of the everyday. Four young characters whisk an array of cardboard boxes around the stage to create distinct set pieces: a doorway, a sink, a mirror. But the players’ individual interpretations of quotidian events vary wildly—each sees what he or she wants to see. A dance with the boxes at the beginning elicits entirely new meanings when we see it again at the end.

Watching the reconfigured boxes change from bed, to table, to chair, I consider the grand-scale, three-day confab of theatre leaders that’s about to commence at downtown Los Angeles’s historic Biltmore Hotel, where conversations about new models of theatremaking will morph (not unlike the boxes in the play, I figure) into discussions about artistry, advocacy and administration, and then veer back to the challenge of the new. Over the course of June 16–18, a record 1,100 conference-goers, hailing from all corners of the U.S. and many points abroad, will launch into conversations and debates about theatremaking. Much as the actors in As You Are Now swap verb tenses from past, to present, to future and future perfect, each seeing the cardboard constructions in front of them with different eyes, so will participants in this exhaustive get–together chart their own one-of-a-kind responses to the array of programming TCG conference planners have on tap. How can one reporter represent all 1,100 versions of the event?

Terence McFarland made my dilemma all the more apparent the following night: This was to be a big meeting in a big town. The executive director of the conference’s host organization, the LA Stage Alliance, in his opening remarks at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, asked conferencegoers for a show of hands if they were from St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee or five other cities. As audience members raised their arms they called out hoots of hometown pride. “Well, guess what?” McFarland declared. “All of your cities could fit into L.A.”

In fact, Los Angeles is less a city than a string of suburbs slapped together with freeways and palm-lined boulevards. The Biltmore, the epicenter of conference activities, sits in the heart of city center, an amalgam of offices by day and hip restaurants by night. The cutting-edge performance venue REDCAT, the Los Angeles Theatre Center complex and Central Los Angeles High School #9 for the Visual and Performing Arts—one of the nation’s best-equipped arts high schools—are all within walking distance, and TCG planners took full advantage of their proximity.

If L.A.’s big, the world beyond is bigger, as the opening plenary speaker, Egyptian–born journalist Mona Eltahawy, made eloquently clear. Her subject was the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year, and how social media, rap music and documentary filmmaking played vital roles in inspiring citizens to take action. Calling on such examples as Tunisian rappers El Generaland Balti, Eltahawy pointed out how political action was fostered by critical artistic voices who gained traction via the democratic wheels of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Social media would continue to mediate the TCG conference, but first some face-to-face socializing was in order. 

Stirred by Eltahawy’s remarks, conferencegoers spilled out onto the Chandler Pavilion plaza for a celebration kicking off not just the conference but TCG’s 50th anniversary year. There was a lot to discuss, since, for the first time ever, the conference coincided with seamlessly integrated theatre viewing via the aforementioned RADAR L.A., a younger sibling of New York City’s six-year-old Under the Radar festival, as well as the second annual Hollywood Fringe and the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (both of which began on the same day as the TCG conference). Also in nearby orbits were Directors Lab West, an offshoot of New York City’s Lincoln Center Directors Lab, and the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. The latter hunkered down to produceEngine 28, an online journalistic hotspot for coverage of the full range of these concurrent events.

Some had already dived into state-of-the-theatre discussions at RADAR L.A.’s symposium, where the conference’s much-publicized theme—”What If…?”—took palpable form in a series of manifestos about the future of theatre. Guillermo Calderón, director of the Chilean company Teatro en el Blanco; Raelle Myrick–Hodges, artistic director of San Francisco’s Brava Theater Center; and Shawn Sides, co-producing artistic director of Austin’s Rude Mechs, ruminated with wit and conviction on their wishes and visions for the coming years. Richard Montoya, co–founder of L.A.’s own Culture Clash, held the room captive with a particularly impassioned speech. “I worry that we are fatigued with the diversity question,” Montoya declared. “We can discuss it at the Arena [Stage] convening in D.C. until we are purple in the face—and that purple can count as diversity.” He went on to call artists to action: “We cannot wait to be selected, because our theatre lives and breathes outside of the structures of the grants, the admin, the dramaturgy, the cycles, the selectors.” (For the full text of Montoya’s speech

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Do you have Douglas McLennan’s phone number?

I do. No, I’m not a stalker, I simply sat in on the Arts Journal founder and editor’s talk, “The Community Formerly Known as the Audience: Who They Are, What They Want, What to Do About It.” McLennan gave his number to a packed conference room at the Biltmore, urging participants, “If you have a question or comment, just text.” As McLennan roamed the room, live Tweets and texted audience questions popped up on projection screens. Referring to what Forrester Research has coined “Social Technographics,” McLennan described Internet types as “creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators and inactives,” descriptions that could easily apply to inhabitants of the theatre world, too. Referencing author Malcolm Gladwell, he opined that you can’t ask audiences what they want—because they don’t know. What to do? Make the highest quality art you can, of course, while also making the audience feel engaged and part of the experience.

While McLennan touted audience engagement in the technological age of distraction, artists in a neighboring Biltmore ballroom detailed their own artistic processes and creations at a clipped pace, with a given individual showing 20 images, each for 20 seconds. In the manner of PechaKucha (a format named for the Japanese term for “chit chat”), these short “Creativity by Encounter” presentations felt a bit like low–pressure speed–dating. Whether it was Matias Viegener’s account of making jam from locally ripened fruits or Chris Kallmyer describing a symphony performed in a coat room, each artist account provided a unique glimpse into the artist’s mind and work.

Theatre is steeped in history—but what about the future of the field? Futurist David Houle, author of The Shift Age, spoke at length in the conference’s second plenary about the rapid speed of change. “You have two realities you have to manage,” he said, “your physical reality and your screen reality.” In our digital age, there are fewer gatekeepers to keep industries and their consumers separated. “What you’ve seen is the evisceration of the middle man,” Houle proffered. “Publishing right now is where music was 10 years ago.” And, he cautioned coyly, “Don’t do what they did—they went out and sued their customers.”

Today’s television consumers want to watch what they want, when they want it, Houle noted. Why should theatre be any different? Houle did not suggest that theatre “go digital”—to the contrary, the more high–tech our environment becomes, the more “high touch” we crave to be, and “Theatre is high touch!” he exclaimed to warm applause. While the live and shared experience of theatre sits uniquely outside of social–media reality, Houle cautioned that theatre leaders must listen and respond to “digital natives,” a reference to contemporary young people who have no recall of a pre–computer age. (TCG was one step ahead of Houle, as it hosted teen councils from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company that were packed with digital natives who enlivened many of the conference offerings.)

Breakout sessions and affinity groups are trademarks of any TCG conference, and this year there were a whopping 80–plus sessions to choose from. Sessions were labeled thematically: a “New Models” track offered such meetings as “Beyond Folklórico: Another Paradigm of Latino Theatre,” and the expansively titled “Leveraging Partnerships and the Ecology of the New Work Pipeline, or What If…We Went from Florence Nightingale…to Che Guevara?” The “Nuts and Bolts” category included such choices as “Go Green, Save Money” and “A Holistic Approach to Engaging a Teen Audience.”

“Is it Good?” (a session from the “Aesthetics” track) produced a lively conversation about how we judge and talk about the art we make. Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the William Inge Center for the Artsin Kansas, chimed in from the audience: “Our work is like our children; we don’t seek out feedback on our parenting choices, except from trusted people. We do criticize how other people raise their children, but never to their faces!” Artistic director James Bundy mentioned that his company, Yale Repertory Theatre of New Haven, Conn., flies in outside directors to give its own directors feedback. The tactic, borrowed from the Sundance Institute of Utah, has met with mixed reaction. “I’ve been flown in,” volunteered Carey Perloff, leader of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, “and it felt awkward to be giving feedback to someone I didn’t know.” Michael Michetti, co–artistic director of L.A.’sTheatre @ Boston Court, described how mixed responses are an expected byproduct of his theatre’s mission to do challenging work: “I’d rather have an audience where 50 to 75 people were truly inspired by the play and 25 percent walked out, rather than having 100 percent of them thinking the play was just ‘good.'”

Semantics played a role in the session “What If…We Blurred the Lines Between Professional and Amateur?” While moderator Mark Cuddy, artistic director of Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theatre Center, seemed intent on drawing clear definitions between professional and amateur, some participants balked. Kevin Lawler, producing artistic director of Omaha’s Great Plains Theatre Conference, offered a more nuanced outlook. “The old divisions between, and definitions of, what is ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in American theatre are becoming obsolete, because much of today’s vital theatre is being made by deeply experienced, highly talented artists who have no affiliation with agents, unions, or professional theatres,” Lawler reasoned. “Additionally, many artists have stopped struggling to fit themselves and their work into professional hierarchies in order to attempt to have a career in a market that cannot sustain them. This change is occurring on a significant, national scale,” he observed.

Another thorny topic that popped up in both sessions was how to judge a piece of theatre that may not be performed by professional actors, yet aspires to engage a community in an important civic issue—a case in point being Los Angeles Poverty Department‘s State of Incarceration, part of RADAR L.A.’s provocative programming. Devised with Skid Row artists and recent prison parolees and directed by Henriëtte Brouwers and John Malpede, State of Incarceration aims to recreate the crowded conditions of a California prison, and does so to visceral effect. By the time the show ended the night I saw it, viewers were sweaty, their bodies contorted from perching on bunk beds for the show’s duration—yet lively conversations about issues that the show raised rippled through the room as performers and viewers munched on The Spread, a prison delicacy that is as unique–tasting as it is odorous. Though this show didn’t utilize trained actors, it achieved what all great theatre does—it powerfully provoked the audience to think and feel.

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While artists may tend to feel a higher calling in the service of their art, the realities of art-making are anything but divine.

Mark Shugoll, CEO of the D.C.–based company Shugoll Research, offered conferencegoers a fact-heavy presentation about the state of artists’ lives in America. Of the 1,600 artists who responded to the survey, Shugoll reported, 58 percent responded that they find it “extremely challenging” to support themselves as artists; only 16 percent say they are able to eke out a “reasonably comfortable lifestyle.”

Shugoll’s sometimes unsettling presentation was fodder for a follow-up panel moderated by Angel Ysaguirre, director of Global Community Investing at the Boeing Company, and featuring Alliance Theatre Company of Atlanta artistic director Susan Booth, L.A. sound designer Cricket Myers and Minneapolis–based actor Sonja Parks. Parks, for one, was curious about the fact that 86 percent of respondents to Shugoll’s study were white, which may have skewed the survey results; she went on to note that theatres often don’t reflect the communities they are in. “Are you talking about ethnically and racially?” queried Ysaguirre. “I’m talking about pretty much across the board,” Parks responded, adding sardonically that it doesn’t make much sense for a theatre to do Arsenic and Old Lace when it serves a community with Latino, black, Somali and GLBT populations.

In this and other conference exchanges (as well as in TCG’s recent Field Conversations, documented inAmerican Theatre, July/Aug. ’11), some have observed that individual artists are increasingly pitted against the institutions that employ them, not only in terms of adequate pay but with regard to decision-making, buy-in and career development. Booth suggested an antidote to that dynamic as she recounted working with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney on In the Red and Brown Water at the Alliance, where the writer became an ambassador of his own work to the larger Atlanta community, including donors and funders. The Alliance is now committed to working with artists as “community engagement catalysts,” Booth said.

Questions about the field’s mission and methods are nothing new, but sometimes looking at how our forbears tackled these issues gives a needed jolt of inspiration. New Dramatists artistic director Todd London, delivering a stirring speech, titled “Past as Prologue: Dreams of an Ideal Theatre,” offered resonant insights into the history of the regional theatre movement and observations on how this rich legacy can impact our present and future. Drawn from his forthcoming book An Ideal Theatre: Visions That Built an American Art, slated to be published by TCG Books next year, London’s ruminations were coupled with tough and pertinent questions: What does it mean to make theatre in so broad and diverse a country? What is the genius of the individual artist versus the genius of the group? How does theatre help build democracy? And where does idealism live? Rousing listeners with quotations from theatrical pioneers of the past—such as Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House and crusading Group Theatre leader Harold Clurman—London simultaneously kept an eye on the future: “What lessons will we carry with us?” he asked in earnest curiosity.

The assertion that individual artists and institutions must find better, more effective ways of working together gained further credence in “What If…the Future of the Field Were in the Hands of the Artists?”—a plenary session helmed by director and visual artist Nancy Keystone. Panelists Marcus Gardley(playwright, director, designer), Sage Lewis (composer), Mimi Lien (designer) and Tanya Selvaratnam(producer, writer, actor) took the “What If…?” theme to heart, proposing that artists should be included sooner in theatres’ production cycles, put onto boards of directors, and called upon to play roles in community engagement, advocacy and promotion efforts—especially when their own work is involved. “If only we treated artists like our athletes,” Selvaratnam remarked of the need for artists to claim their value in society. Gardley agreed: “If you’re an artist, you’re a leader.”

The “What If…?” refrain turned up regularly to sweeten the plenary sessions with a dash of personal fervor and opinion. Among the six “Whatifestos,” micromissives delivered by selected individuals from the field, were “What If…Being a Native American Female Playwright Was No Longer Exotic?” by Larissa FastHorse; “What If…Neuroscience in Theatre Became a Useful Tool Instead of a Novelty?” by Dell’Arte International‘s production stage manager Kristin Shumaker; and “What If…BFA Programs Were Done Away With?” by assistant professor Dan Schultz of Stephens College.

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The big kahuna at the 2011 conference was, of course, director Julie Taymor, whoseclosing-session interview with Oberlin College professor of theatre Roger Copeland was as much anticipated by the national press as it was by conference participants. Taymor’s choice as a keynote speaker was a provocative move for TCG—one would have to live under a rock to be unaware of the troubles and turmoil Taymor has faced this past year in her role (which she ultimately left in a flurry of publicity) as director of the multimillion-dollar Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

As Copeland and Taymor walked onto the stage a hush fell over the packed auditorium: Would Taymor be willing to talk about the web of Spidey intrigue? Would her tone be defensive or demure? As the two settled into red armchairs, Copeland began with a question that had the feel of a long set–up to a joke: “I’ve gotta ask…I’ve just gotta ask,” he vamped, “because people have been wondering…and want to know….” He adjusted himself in his seat. “Hakuna Matata—is it Swahili or Zulu?” Nervous peals of laughter rippled through the theatre. When Taymor went to respond, her mike was not on. After a minute of fiddling and futzing, she deadpanned, “Sorry. Technical difficulties.” This time the laughter was genuine.

Taymor and Copeland did, of course, speak about Spider-Man, and Taymor stuck to her guns, defending her aesthetic and directorial choices. At the same time, she betrayed little animosity about her ultimate departure from the show. “If we had test–scored The Lion King,” Taymor reasoned at one point in reference to Spider-Man focus groups, “there would be no death of Mufasa.” She chalked up much of the Spider–Man brouhaha to fans who’d seen previews and took to social media: “Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you,” Taymor declared. (From my perch in an upper back row of the auditorium, I had to smile over the rich irony of her words: The steep rake of the theatre provided a perfect lookout from which to see glowing devices heavily dotting the laps and hands of scores of listeners. Smartphones, not-so-smart-phones, iPads and laptops were everywhere. Their owners listened intently, but they simultaneously digested and discussed the live discussion with others via their screens. Overall, #tcg2011 had a whopping 3,662 Tweets and counting.)

Taymor’s distinguished career as a master puppeteer, designer and director, which originated in the not-for-profit theatre, was the other central topic of conversation, and impressive reels of her previous work punctuated the interview. The most illuminating moments of the tête-à-tête came when Taymor veered off Spider-Man and shared stories about such experiences as doing mask work at a mental hospital and how that informed her commedia approach to an early work, The Green Bird. Nevertheless, most post-conference press coverage focused on Taymor’s Spider-Man comments. (Whether due to Taymor’s presence or the confluence of so many arts events in L.A., the 2011 conference played host to a record number of journalists—more than 50. To date, some 43 press reports about the conference have been published nationwide.)

The last show I caught in the City of Angels was Moving Arts’s The Car Plays: L.A. Stories, a light-hearted series of 15 plays that unfold simultaneously in parked cars. Audiences were split into three groups and pairs of audience members moved from car to car so that each pair saw a total of five car plays each. Sitting in the back seat of one vehicle, as I watched a conversation between a drunken bridesmaid and wedding guest unfold in the seats before me, I couldn’t help but notice a different play happening in the row of cars next to me. A man and woman were shouting—and they had a gun! What might my reaction have been had I seen a different combination of plays? It drove home for me the fact that every one of the record number of attendees at this year’s TCG conference—with its hard-hitting plenary discussions, array of breakout sessions and countless conversations that happened outside of official programming—walked away with an experience that was theirs alone. Ulysses may, in fact, be impossible to contain on a small stage—but in scope and reach, the conference ran Ulysses a close second.

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Eliza Bent is an Associate Editor at American Theatre Magazine.

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