National Theater Conference Wrap-up | Bleader

National Theater Conference Wrap-up

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The organizers of last week's Theatre Communications Group national conference were excited, and understandably so. The annual gathering of representatives from America's nonprofit theater industry, held here June 17-19, was a sell-out with 886 registrants—the largest such event in TCG's history. That's what happens when you bring coals to Newcastle: the list of attendees indicates that there were at least as many Chicago theaters represented as there were companies from everywhere else combined. And despite the assertion by at least one speaker that the economic condition of nonprofit theater is "unsustainable," the mood was upbeat.

Established in 1961 as part of a national drive to foster the arts as an essential part of American culture and education, TCG is a networking and advocacy organization representing America's nonprofit theater movement, with an increasing presence among theaters overseas as well. Holding the conference at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton allowed TCG to attract many local groups and individuals that couldn't have afforded to travel for such an event. The city was represented by more than 50 companies, ranging from the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Victory Gardens to Teatro Vista, the Curious Theater Branch, and Dog & Pony. Most other cities—and even many states—had only one or two theaters on hand. A few New York City theaters sent delegates, including the Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic Theater Company (the formerly Chicago-based group founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy), and Lincoln Center Theater—whose executive producer, Bernard Gersten, received TCG's Theatre Practitioner Award.

Organized around the theme "Ideas Into Action," the conference had a four-pronged agenda: "Artists and Artistry," "Race and Gender," The Arts Learning Continuum," and "Creative Ecology." Between Thursday and Saturday, conference-goers could attend speeches and receptions, and a large exhibition hall featured displays by designers as well as booths operated by businesses peddling their wares and services. The Goodman Theatre hosted artistic workshops led by Adrian Danzig of Chicago's 500 Clown and playwright Jose Rivera. There were also special events including "Global Tapas"—a reading of works by writers from Chile, Colombia, Finland, Japan, Niger, and Russia, all in English translation—and a lunchtime conversation with "Chicago's leading theater critics," Tribune reviewer Chris Jones and his predecessor, Richard Christiansen, who retired in 2002. No one I asked could explain the apparent snub of the Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss, who told me she was never approached by the conference organizers. A planned presentation on Chicago theater history never materialized.

Obviously, the opportunity for informal networking was a major lure, and local artists were able to catch up with former colleagues now based elsewhere. While our theater community can brag about the Hollywood and Broadway stars it's groomed, it should be equally proud of its role as a breeding ground for leaders in the national nonprofit movement. Among the former Chicagoans attending were Ian Belknap, associate artistic director of the Acting Company; Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville; playwright Lydia Diamond, now teaching at Boston University; Michael Gennaro, executive director of Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island; Susan Booth, artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theater; and About Face Theater founder Eric Rosen, now artistic director of Kansas City Rep.

There was a huge array of breakout sessions—maybe too many. I heard complaints from several attendees that they found it impossible to attend everything that interested them. "Some of the breakouts were so general that they were actually unhelpful," one marketing pro told me. "There were so many ideas flying around that it was hard to process. And there wasn't enough time for followup. Still, I took a lot of notes so I can go back to my theater and share some of these ideas with my colleagues."

Though journalists were officially banned from covering the breakouts, I found my way into one titled "Taking Arms Against a Sea of Troubles," led by theater management consultant Arthur Nacht. Nacht's thesis was that "nonprofit theater financial results are worse than generally realized—or than is generally talked about." Theaters should confront their dire straits, he argued, by documenting them in a sort of report card to be given to artists, staff, funders, and board members. In theory, the report card would track the impact of a theater's financial situation on its artistic mission over a period of years. Items to be graded would include the number of new plays produced, total royalties and commissions paid, number of weeks employment for actors, average weekly wages per actor, and the average price per ticket.

The Hamlet-derived title of Nacht's presentation was a response to the 2009 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, by Ben Pesner and former Chicagoan Todd London, which argues that "in economic terms, it is virtually impossible to make a living or sustain a career as a professional playwright in America." Nacht emphasized that "playwrights are not alone" and, citing TCG figures that only 9.4 percent of Americans attend nonmusical theater, likened the situation to a slow-motion car crash. "The status quo," he declared, "is unsustainable."

But cutting back in the artistic area—freezing actors' salaries, reducing playwrights' commissions, lowering production values, firing artistic directors and relying instead on freelancers—is counterproductive, Nacht added. His solution: much more emphasis on fundraising. In order to attract "great [fundraising] people with great track records," he urged an "initial rate of pay at the highest end of the range" plus "substantial extra pay for excellent results."

It's hard to argue with Nacht's overall conclusion: "We need to run our contributed income more like a business so we may run our artistic activity less like a business." But some attendees were perplexed by his suggestion that development people should be more highly paid than even artistic and managing directors. And his recommendations were deemed impractical by representatives of theaters whose staff members wear multiple hats, handling administrative and even artistic duties as well as fundraising.

I asked Todd London what he thought of Nacht's proposals. "To say that you can pay the development staff more than everyone else and not upset the ecology of a theater is to ignore 30 years of history in which nonprofit theater has become increasingly corporate and the artists increasingly alienated," he replied. "To suggest otherwise is farkakte."

The arrival of Mayor Daley at Saturday morning's general session drew a spontaneous standing ovation. After delivering a short speech, Daley fielded softball questions from interviewer Ralph Remington, director of theater and musical theater for the NEA. Daley paid tribute to "the young people . . . who have the ideas," called artists "ambassadors of change," praised his Department of Cultural Affairs staff for their programming innovations, and spoke passionately about Millennium Park as a paradigm for how the arts can bring together people of all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. He also paid homage to theater's role in revitalizing cities by enticing suburbanites to "venture back" into downtown areas, broached the idea of arts programs in prisons as a rehabilitative tool, and stressed the importance of arts education in the public schools, saying he believed the school day should begin with artistic activity to engage kids and stimulate creativity. Remington failed to follow up with any questions about how that vital goal might actually be accomplished.

Also short on specifics was Thursday night's keynote speech by Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, who discussed the possible neurological foundation for what we call empathy and praised theater for encouraging people to come together in a shared space rather than staying home isolated with their hi-def TVs and computer games.

I wholeheartedly agree with Lehrer's championing of live theater and arts education as valuable "forms of mental exercise" that help "give our brain the workout it needs." But I was disappointed that he didn't provide some concrete strategic recommendations for a theater community swimming against the cultural tide in a society that values emotional gratification over critical thinking, simple-minded entertainment over complex art, celebrity over substance, and visceral response over rational problem-solving.

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