Annual Conference 2014 "State of the Art" Address
Thursday, April 17, 2014
By Brad Erickson, Executive Director
State of the Art: Towards an Aggressive Theatre
As I was preparing these remarks, it occurred to me that this was the 11th time I've presented this annual "state of the art" address. Wow. Time flies. And it would have been the 12th, but we skipped a year along the way. So there have been 10 previous speeches at these conferences, looking at where we are and we're going. That milestone seemed to offer an obvious opportunity this year to also look back and see where we've come over the past decade or more, and see what that look back might tell us about our current state of affairs and what it may suggest for the future.
Back in September of 2003—these conferences used to be in the fall, some of you will remember—as a field we were stinging from the recent draconian cuts to the California Arts Council, a 95% whack that seemed to come out of nowhere. And we were very worried about what might be next. San Francisco was engaged in a race for mayor, and we wanted to be sure that the arts were front and center in the candidates' plans. And so, in conjunction with this conference, we organized, with the help of many other arts groups of all disciplines, the first ever Arts Forum, attracting 11 candidates, including the future Mayor Gavin Newsom. We packed the Green Room of the War Memorial with 500 attendees, the most of any mayoral debate that fall! We began a tradition that has evolved into the San Francisco Town Hall, an annual forum of candidates for local San Francisco office held each August, hosted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and consistently attracting 500 or so attendees (still the most of any candidates' forum!) each electoral season. And during that decade, in large part because of persistent pressure from advocates, the arts in San Francisco have continued to be vigorously funded through Grants for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission.
These conferences have tackled the changing opportunities and challenges in the field, addressing local topics and national issues depending on the times. We've heard from national leaders like Ben Cameron, then head of TCG, who told us to swing boldly, like trapeze artists, fearlessly letting go of one ring and flying through the unknown before grabbing another. And from Ben's successor Teresa Eyring, who moderated a panel of representatives from national search firms, and uncovered for us the mysteries of how the executive leaders of our theatres are really chosen. Twice we've invited the director for theatre at the NEA to address this community. Who can forget the still-green Bill O'Brien taking his licks, first in the opening plenary, from John Killacky of the San Francisco Foundation, and then, at the close of the day, from Michael Gene Sullivan of the Mime Troupe? During Michael's provocative remarks, Bill turned to me and said, "I guess I've become The Man." I guess you have, buddy. Welcome to Theatre Bay Area.
We've heard Chip Heath from Stanford University speak from the draft manuscript of what would become a business best seller—Made to Stick—and propel him and his brother into the national limelight with monthly columns in Fast Company magazine. Those of you in our Trustee Forum that year heard him here first. And we've been spellbound as Alan Brown explained to us the principles of "intrinsic impact," the deeply felt personal response to an art event. We were so inspired as a community that we commissioned a series of intrinsic impact studies, nationally and here at home—studies that are still ongoing, that resulted in the book Counting New Beans and that are changing the way we, as a field, think about the meaning and lasting value of our work.
We invited Ralph Remington, Bill O'Brien's successor at the National Endowment for the Arts, to help us unravel the assertion of Rocco Landisman (then the chair of the NEA) that the country suffered from too many theatres. Too much theatre?? And we brought in a panel of local and national leaders—including John McGuirk from Hewlett, Ted Russell from the Irvine Foundation and Tory Bailey from Theatre Development Fund, our sister organization in New York—to help us parse through the issue of supply and demand.
We've been inspired, enlightened and very often entertained as nationally recognized thought leaders have expounded in keynote addresses. Remember the buoyant Eric Booth at the Herbst? Arlene Goldbard's debating characters, exploring through Aristotelian dramatic dialogue the intersection of art, community and social action? And, last year, right here on this stage, Richard Evans, challenging us to launch small experiments with radical intent?
We have addressed a series of critical issues, including the crisis of developing leadership for our field, through a national New Leaders Forum, held in tandem with this event and pulling in over 100 young leaders from around the country. We have polled panelists on the meaning of community engagement, hearing from innovators hailing from here and abroad. And we have tackled together the issues of gender parity along with ethnic and cultural diversity during two plenary panels just last year—sessions that still echo with the mantra, "Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall," pointing to our belief that these critical issues must be addressed in specific yet holistic ways.
And each year, I like to highlight our new programs, pointing to new efforts to address changes in our field. At our conferences, we've unveiled a host of new initiatives—like TMaX. Remember TMaX? The Theatre Materials Exchange, a predecessor to Craiglist was wildly popular and successful…for about a minute. And Free Night of Theatre, which had a terrific seven-year run, distributing some 35,000 free tickets, and pulling in literally thousands of new theatre-goers to our member theatres.
We unveiled a new look and name for the magazine. We've unveiled a new website—several times—this time waiting until it actually launched before we blew the trumpets (remembering the lesson of George Bush standing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier beneath the banner, "Mission Accomplished"). Better to wait until the reviews are in. And this time, I am very relieved and delighted to say, the reviews are in, and they're a strong thumbs up.
We addressed the Great Recession by collaborating with TCG and our regional service organization peers to monitor the health of the field through the Fiscal Pulse survey we administered and reported on, every six months, through the first two years of the economic crisis.
We have worked to keep the best artistic talent in our region by creating ATLAS, the career training program that is helping some of our most promising actors, directors and writers plan and manage their careers.
We have focused on artistic excellence, challenging us to nurture our work by holding ourselves and our peers to the highest standards through rigorous self-assessment and candid feedback. And we have announced a new program to highlight and honor artistic excellence: our Theatre Bay Awards, with adjudicating underway right now, and a Gala Award Ceremony scheduled for Monday night, November 10, at American Conservatory Theatre.
So over the past 11 years, what has changed? And hopefully for the better?
When I first came on as executive director back in 2003, members complained to me about three things:
1. There was a sense that theatre in the Bay Area was not appreciated at the local or national level.
2. Connected to that, there was a sense that our community was not part of the national conversation, and that artists were working here in isolation from the larger national theatre scene.
3. Connected, once again, was a sense that playwrights, directors, actors and other artists who were based here had to receive notice elsewhere—New York, Chicago, L.A., anywhere else—before they could be taken seriously here at home.
I have to say, that on all three fronts, things are different now than they were just 10 years ago. There is a changed awareness of the Bay Area's place in the national theatre scene. Where once we might have been considered charming, quirky and provincial, now we are seen as a hotbed of new play work, energy and forward thinking. We have a new awareness of our stature and our role in the national community.
And we are now an integral part of the larger dialogue. Our writers and artists are at the center of the national conversation. They are liked, followed and re-tweeted on an almost minute-by-minute basis. When I travel, theatre colleagues and funders alike are aware of the dynamism here and jealous of our sense of community.
And while it once might have seemed impossible to grow a career without leaving town, that paradigm is changing, if slowly. Just take a look at the rocketing trajectories of Lauren Gunderson, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Octavio Solis and Aaron Loeb as examples.
So, if much has changed over the past ten years or so, what has stayed constant? Several things to come mind. Some we wish like hell would have changed, but haven't; others we can celebrate:
We're still here. No mean feat given the booms and busts and busts and booms of the past decade.
We've retained our strong sense of community, our culture of collegiality, our tradition of collaboration and cooperation.
Unfortunately, we're still struggling. It's not easy to make theatre here. It's not easy to make a living, to sustain a career, to manage and grow a company. Maybe that's true everywhere—theatre isn't for the faint of heart—but we know it's really difficult here. There is so much unfulfilled potential for careers, for companies, for audiences.
At Theatre Bay Area we are right in the middle of new strategic planning process, one that works differently than any we've done before. The process, being led by the excellent Jeanne Bell of CompassPoint, starts by defining the problem. It's like a grant proposal, where you state a problem and then tell the funder what you'd like to do, given their support, to solve it. "So," Jeanne asked us, "what's the problem?"
We started with several responses:
1. Making theatre is just hard. Especially here.
2. Theatre is struggling for relevance. For multiple reasons.
3. People just don't go to the theatre here, not like in other cities. Theatre-going is not a cultural norm in the Bay Area.
All true, all serious, but none feeling like they really summed up the larger issue. Until we lighted on this: a very early draft version, but one I wanted to share with you today because for us it is already resonating strongly.
And that is this: Here in the Bay Area, for far too many, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized. What do we mean by "the particular power of theatre?" We mean the way that theatre can uniquely transform lives, and empower and enrich communities.
We know that for theatre-makers here, far too much potential is going unrealized. Talent is not being fully developed and expressed. Careers are held back. Whole classes of individuals—women, people of color—are being overlooked. Companies are being thwarted in their impact and growth.
For far too many, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized.
And we know that this is true for theatre-goers, or perhaps I should say non-theatre-goers, who form most of our larger community. This last fall, the NEA released a new study that showed that theatre attendance, as a percentage of the population, has declined by 30% in the past 10 years. And that, in 2012, only 15% of Americans attended a musical. Even less, eight percent, went to a play. That means fully 85% of Americans didn't darken our doors in all of 2012.
For far too many, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a half-day workshop on building new audiences, led by our colleague Matt Lehrman from Arizona. Matt pointed out that, as a field, we tend to go after the low-hanging fruit when it comes to attracting audiences. You go after those most likely to come: those who are already going some, and get them to go more often. And in marketing terms, this makes sense. You get the greatest bang for your buck, the most butts in seats, for the show that's up this weekend by doing just that. But in terms of building audiences, of reaching new people, we are largely ignoring the vast majority who never or almost never show up at all: the 85% of Americans who stayed at home in 2012.
If we are to thrive as a field, if we are going to solve the problem that for far too many the particular power of theatre is going unrealized, then we cannot continue to ignore the 85%. Matt says that we must not simply attract audiences, we must assert ourselves as a field. "Be aggressive!" Matt said. I like that. Maybe here in the Bay Area we can do that. Be aggressive!
An aggressive theatre. What would that look like?
Not writing off the 85%. Yes, let's market to the low-hanging fruit, but collectively, we must aggressively build new audiences—and artists—for the future.
Aggressively enhancing the relevance of our work. Let's stop overlooking whole swaths of our population: women, non-whites, youth, the working class and poor.
Aggressively honing the excellence of our work.
Aggressively professionalizing our operations, our finances, our governance.
Aggressively working to better understand the deep value of our work and fearlessly articulate our value to private philanthropy and civic leaders.
Our Bay Area theatre community is now acknowledged nationwide for its sheer size, its vitality, its embrace of experimentation, its new work, its forward thinking and its strong sense of community.
So, if we are aggressive in realizing the full potential of theatre in our region—our full potential as artists and makers and companies…
If we are aggressive about reaching new audiences—audiences that hail from and look like all of the Bay Area…
If we are aggressive about making the case for our value and the role we can play in the larger community…
…then I wonder what this "State of the Art" address will look like in another 10 years.
What accomplishments will we have achieved?
What new challenges will we face together?
Will we have made more real the particular power of theatre for ourselves? For our colleagues? For neighbors and our communities?
If we are aggressive—together—I believe we can. I believe we will.
Brad Erickson, Executive Director
2014 Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference
Berkeley, California, April 14, 2014