What If We All Owned a Part of the Theater’s Future?

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This article is part of a content sharing relationship between LA Stage Alliance’s LA STAGE Times and Theatre Development Fund’s tdf Stages in which stories from each site deemed of interest or relevant to readers on the opposite coast will appear periodically.

Patrick Berger is TDF’s Education Associate and a millennial generation artist asked to present a “Whatifesto” at the recent TCG conference held in LA. Last week noted playwright Velina Hasu Houston, founder and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing at USC School of Theatre, wrote an essay for LA STAGE Times regarding the generational issues raised at both TCG and the National Asian American Theater Festival and Conference.

Patrick Berger

The future can be a scary thing. New technology, especially social media, is shifting the way people interact with each other and even with art. From June 16-18, I was able to join the mighty many of the U.S. theater elite for the Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) annual conference. The theme this year, which is also the 50th birthday of TCG, was inspired by the theater’s increasing interest in its future: What if?

As one of the younger employees of TDF, I am pretty lucky.  I am able to work with people who are living Broadway encyclopedias: Their knowledge of the NYC theater legacy is astounding, and even as I think about theater’s future, I get a strong sense of its past and present. It’s much less intimidating, however, to be exposed to theater experts in the small community of Theatre Development Fund than to be immersed in TCG’s thousand-person gathering of theater’s great thinkers and planners.

However, I wasn’t at the TCG conference just to absorb ideas. A colleague (Christina) and I had been invited to present a “Whatifesto” (What if + manifesto), a term TCG coined to describe a series of presentations to encourage conversation, debate, and new ideas. (I was beyond nervous.)

The heart of that Whatifesto””participation inspires ownership””was not a new idea for me. All of the arts education work I’ve engaged both in and outside TDF is grounded in this belief, so I knew it was a solid foundation. In fact, it even guided the development of our Whatifesto. Rather than write a document by ourselves, my colleague and I created a public Google document, meaning anyone who read it also had the power to edit it, from anywhere in the world. Guided by a few questions about the future of the theater, a community of artists created a massive, living text of over 15,000 words. Christina and I then edited that document to 500 words and submitted it as our official Whatifesto.

From that creative event, a main idea emerged: What if theater were a product not just of the artistic prowess of a small creative team, but of the efforts of the community at large, triggering a universal sense of ownership over the piece?

Much of the theater community’s conversation surrounding the conference was about the future of our precious art, especially its relationship with younger generations. I was not surprised to hear about millennials (current 20-somethings) and digital natives (teens), and how theater should and could better engage them. An invigorating session was held with the teen councils from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Steppenwolf: These students were not afraid to dispel myths and share how they encourage their friends to engage in theater. I was excited to hear from David Houle, a futurist, who vividly illustrated how fast our world is shifting towards socially-engaged media and art.

With distance, time, and place fading as barriers, the message of TCG was alarming and surprisingly hopeful. Theater has a great advantage because its core is about human connection. And connectivity is the core of social media technology. David Houle told the crowd to watch for those young ones, the millennials and digital natives, not because they are going to destroy the theater but because they are going to marry new technology with tradition.

As Christina and I (both millennials) took the stage and presented our Whatifesto, I could feel the energy of possibility. We were armed with a big idea, full of idealism and passion for this art. The TCG greats were armed with legacy, knowledge, and a nurturing instinct for the theater. And TCG’s message was clear: We need to come together (the new and the traditional), marry our strengths and move forward into a new era of theater.

Patrick Berger

Patrick Berger