Theatre Communications Group is in town. The nonprofit theater movement’sÂ network and advocacy organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary by holding its 21st national conference in downtown LA. More than 1,100 delegates are prowling the streets between the Biltmore Hotel, LATC and REDCAT.
One of LA theater’s most acclaimed actors/directors/producers, Alan Mandell, assisted at TCG’s birth. He attended the first TCG Conference in 1961 as the representative of the Actors Workshop in San Francisco and recalls just how isolated it felt to be pursuing his craft at that time.
“The Actors Workshop was founded in 1952 by two professors from San Francisco State College, Herbert Blau and Julius Irving,” Mandell recalls. “I joined the company in 1954 and by 1961 I was serving as business manager. When the information came to us that the Ford Foundation was providing grant money to form a national network of theaters like ours and that there was to be a gathering of these theaters, Blau and Irving told me to check it out and see if it was anything we wanted to be involved with. We just didn’t believe our particular trials in running a professional theater would relate to anybody else’s.”
Headquartered in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Tech, the original TCG participants included 15 theaters and nine university drama departments. “The first meeting I attended kind of astounded me, because I met people like Peter Zeisler from Minneapolis and Bill Bushnell who was representing the Cleveland Play House and representatives from theaters from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisville. And I thought, who goes to theater in Louisville? Well, we all sat around a big table and learned about each other. It was remarkable how much we all were going through the same problems, from fixing the sinks and toilets to finding adequate rehearsal space to organizing subscription seasons.
“By the time that first TCG meeting was over, we did establish a process in which theaters could communicate with each other and we could visit other theaters to see what they were doing and how they were operating. There were also the beginnings of a more streamlined subscription processes we could all use, spearheaded by Danny Newman of the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Of course, for the Actors Workshop the best news was a grant from the Ford Foundation, under the auspices of the TCG, that allowed us to continue paying professional salaries to our actors. We were one of four theaters to receive such a grant.”
The current TCG membership has grown to nearly 700 member theaters and affiliate organizations and more than 12,000 individuals nationwide. The organization acknowledges, while many of the challenges facing live theater are the same today as they were 50 years ago, the challenges have also become more diverse and, in this age of digital technology and social media, they are rapidly evolving.
The agenda of the current meeting makes it clear the organization is looking to the future and has a wish list. During three days (June 16-18) of lectures, workshops and member interactions, attendees will be addressed by such visionaries as Mona Eltahawy, David Houle, Todd London, playwright Marcus Gardley, composer and producer Sage Lewis, designer Mimi Lien, actor/producer/activist Tanya Selvaratnam and others. The overall question TCG wants its attending members to address is, “What if…?”, followed by some tantalizing bullet points.
What if we imagined the theater field of the next 50 years, and began making visible progress today? What if theater weren’t seen as a luxury but as central to the fabric of our country? What if artists and other theater leaders talked regularly and openly about art and aesthetics? What if theater institutions and their boards committed to hiring more people of color in leadership positions? What if a group of billionaires created a “Giving Pledge” initiative for theater? What if the US became more embedded in wars around the globe ““ what would become the role of theater and artists? What if there were a new audience engagement model as powerful as the subscription model? What if theaters and artists could commit to each other for multiple years? What if we could solidify new business models that would truly lead to the sustainability of our theaters?
“It is a perfect time for us to be addressing these questions and concerns,” says Teresa Eyring, TCG executive director since 2007. “It is remarkable how much growth there’s been since the TCG was founded in 1961. And how Americans have so much more access to this art form than they did at the time. Over the years, theaters have become so much more reflective of the changes in our country as our society is becoming more diverse as well, so I think it is a very exciting time. This is reflected very much in Los Angeles, where there is a theater community that is becoming more and more vibrant every day.
“With the onset of the digital age, I think American theater is into another evolution. I believe theater is more relevant now than when I started out in 1983 as director of development for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C. Prior to working there, as a young person I felt that theater was extremely powerful and I thought it helped me understand the world better. But when I started to practice theater as a professional it seemed very marginal. I always felt a need to explain myself when people asked, “What do you do? Why in the world would you be in theater?” Today I think theater has become a more respected reflection of a community. But I know it has been a slow evolution to get to this point.”
“It has been a slow evolution,” interjects Mandell, upon hearing Eyring’s remark.Â “But the TCG quickly established itself as a stabilizing force for that evolution. By 1965, Blau and Irving had left Actors Workshop to take over artistic directorship of New York City’s Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. I came along a year later as managing director. By then, TCG had become a kind of clearinghouse for finding artists to work at the various member theaters around the nation. Every year various directors from these theaters would gather to hold the TCG auditions. I think we held them in Chicago. Acting talent from around the nation would come and we would audition 50 actors a day for three days. The selected actors would then be hired to work at the various regional theaters according to their needs. There was a decided emphasis at that time for finding work for actors. Of course, our hope and desire at the time was for TCG to become a more powerful force to actually elevate the whole status of live theater on a national level.”
“Today, TCG is a national lobbying force,” affirms Eyring. “A large portion of our agenda is pushing the powers that be to notice, support, endow, grant and take every other positive action that can be taken to enhance theater in this country. That is a big difference between our activity now and what it was 50 years ago. Since then, we have marshaled the power of the connection and unity of purpose TCG members have achieved to accomplish other things. We have become a publisher of theatrical work. We publish American Theatre Magazine and we publish Art Search. We have become the largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature in North America, which is pretty cool.
“We are very much into grant making and forming international collaborations. We advocate at the federal level. We have eight or nine federal policies that we are always monitoring and agitating on behalf of the field of theater and live performing arts, making sure there is some priority placed on guaranteeing that theaters continue to survive and thrive. There are so many levels on which theaters in their communities have a positive impact. That is one of objectives of this TCG Conference: to reinforce with the TCG membership what a powerful voice they have.”