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TCG Conference Takeaways

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, July 8, 2014

By Dale Albright

A strong Bay Area contingent attended Theatre Communications Group (TCG)'s National Conference, "Crossing Borders," a few weeks ago in San Diego. Made up of representatives of local companies and individual artists (as well as myself and Theatre Bay Area executive director Brad Erickson), these Bay Area artists were instrumental in a number of national conversations, either through participating in a panel or in some cases, leading panels.

In an effort to share as much information as possible with members of our community who were not able to attend, we asked our local attendees to share brief reflections on the conference. Here is what they had to say:

Marissa Wolf, artistic director, Crowded Fire Theater:
"I went to a session called Radical Outreach, and I was really moved by this idea: Rather than just expecting people to show up at your house, what are the ways you can go out to their houses? I.e., don't just invite community groups into your theatre with no sense of where they're actually coming from, but take the time to attend their community events, rallies, et cetera, in order to actually get to know folks and build a meaningful relationship. Further, how can you learn from and listen to the communities you want to engage with? Really rich!"

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Mark Jackson, playwright/director:
"Diversity was the overwhelming theme of the entire weekend for me—naturally, given the 'Crossing Borders' title. The range of diversity topics up for discussion at TCG14 and the level of political engagement was striking. For example, I was very struck by how nervous many white people were to attend the 'White Allies' meeting, with its ambiguous title. 'White Allies'? Sounds like a White Supremacists group, though, of course, the intent was the opposite: white people who consider themselves to be or wish to be allies for the other races normally associated with the term 'diversity.' Three people asked me under their breath where it was taking place as I made my own way to the meeting. The room was packed and energized with many mixed emotions, and though an hour was far too short, it was an invigorating and useful hour that marked the start of several conversations over the weekend.

"One thing Taylor Mac said struck me in particular: 'Give me a date and I will make a play for you, and it will be amazing. And if it's not, oh well; half your shows aren't amazing anyway.' Got a huge laugh, of course. I would guess, though, that most people laughing won't follow through and adopt what Mac is suggesting in terms of hiring artists. Too bad. His suggestion is basically that if someone has a good track record, and you'd like to work with them, and you suspect they'll be interesting and do something 'good,' then hire them to do it. There really is nothing to suggest that the usual means of hiring artists—auditions, plays going through a development industry check list—guarantees a show is going to be good in the end.

"'I'd like to work with you, but my audience isn't ready for your work,' is another thing Mac says he's been told, to which his reply is, 'How are they ever going to be ready if you never hire me?' Again, if you're a producer, director, artistic director or anyone in the hiring position, if you like the artist's work and believe in it yourself, trust that and go forward. Most productions at most theatres are mediocre. We all know it. If the usual systems by which we hire each other aren't guaranteeing our success, why not abandon them? Or at least explore other means? Why not hire actors based on a chat over coffee, a look at their resume that shows what they've already been entrusted with doing, a Google search of their past reviews and a phone call or email to a couple of people who have worked with them before? Why not commission a playwright because, for whatever reason, you yourself feel intrigued by them and want to see their work on stage? 

"Loved the provocative question about how theatre might draw on aspects of gaming, not to 'pander' to young audiences, as we in theatre so often fear this would mean, but to find new ideas about engaging audiences of any age. My Biomechanics teacher, Gennadi Bogdanov, referred to everything we did as a game. An exercise is a game. Three Sisters is a game. Working out a scene is a game. This session on gaming was also a good general reminder to us in the theatre that the new digital era is something not to be feared but to be understood, that we simply must let go of the idea that the Internet is our enemy. We're at the dawn of an era without precedent. It's not going away and it doesn't need to go away. It needs to be understood and put to good use. And the theatre can do this as much or as little as any other sector."

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Suzanne Appel, managing director, Cutting Ball:
"My big takeaways were:

1. Gaming is about more than escaping reality and zoning out; it's about building resilience and often community—something our field should be learning from.
2. Arts funders are hearing about the big challenges we are having in San Francisco with income inequality and tough-to-solve social problems in the Tenderloin.
3. Steppenwolf has a really awesome financial dashboard that I am going to steal. 
4. All conferences should be held in San Diego. Sometimes you can learn as much from your colleagues sitting by the pool with a cocktail in your hand as you can in a conference breakout session." 


While I myself had some issues with Taylor Mac's interview, I was struck by his comment that if he sees an audience member that is disengaged from one of his performances, he will actually stop and say something like, "You are really hating this, aren't you?" and invite him "back" to the show by talking about it. It's a brave thing, and it could really backfire. But how can we translate that thought into the bigger picture—inviting those who aren't engaged with our work?

In addition to attending many great sessions, Brad Erickson and I were funded by grants to represent TBA in leading two breakout sessions. Brad led a panel with Tori Bailey from Theatre Development Fund, Diane Rodriquez from Center Theatre Group, Miriam Weisfeld from Woolly Mammoth and Marissa Wolf from Crowded Fire about the exploration of the relationship between theatres, audiences and generative artists (Theatre Bay Area's Triple Play program). I led a session with playwright Elizabeth Gjelten, playwright/director Mark Jackson and actor Reggie White about Theatre Bay Area's ATLAS program, sharing steps on how artists can define success for themselves and articulate steps to realize their goals. 

As is often the case, conferences are as much about the networking, casual interactions and being able to meet with colleagues in a new light as anything else. As Barbara Hodgen, executive director at New Conservatory Theatre Center said, "My favorite thing was seeing Brad Erickson in flip flops for the whole conference!"           

Want more reports from this year's TCG Conference? Click here for mini-blog posts, daily recaps, summaries and photos!

Dale Albright is Theatre Bay Area's director of field services. His dog, Gus, is one of the most adorable creatures on the planet. 


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