TCG Conference… from LA to Boston and Back Again

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When LA STAGE Alliance asked me to write a wrap-up of the 2012 Theatre Communications Group conference in Boston, I replied that it seemed a bit awkward because I was one of two Angelenos to get a TCG Award in Boston, and I didn’t want it to seem as if I wanted to tout my own award.  But LA STAGE wasn’t the least bit concerned. The possibility that I might look conceited did not bother LA STAGE.  So, that said…this is simply my personal take on the TCG conference, June 21-23. There were 1,000 people there and there are 999 differing views of this year’s conference because a conference is about the experience you have.  These are my personal take-aways.

SETTING: Boston.  The beautiful Park Plaza Hotel, like LA’s Biltmore, in downtown Beantown, near Gothic Revival churches and those gorgeous brick row houses that you see on the East Coast.  People sit on their stoops and talk.  It’s great.

TONE:  This was a more relaxed conference for me than last year’s in LA.  But in LA I was running a show at my own theater, attending RADAR L.A. shows, attending TCG workshops and panels.  In Boston, there were fewer shows to see at night.  That made the conference feel a bit artless, but much more relaxed in terms of schedule.

Jay McAdams; Photo by Loli Castaños

The energy of the national theater community when we are together is electric.  Theater people are so animated.  And loud.  And eccentric.  And passionate.  And smart.  So it was fun to watch between sessions when people exploded from their panels and workshops to the hotel mezzanine with loud, enthusiastic conversations.  At the large plenary sessions, the spirit in the room was generous and energetic even when, on occasion, the speakers were not  (but most of the speakers were great.)  Tone is very important for a conference.  It helps set the rules of engagement, which affects how many new friends you’ll make.  So for collegial congeniality, TCG 2012 gets high marks.  Great tone was set by the TCG staff and executive director Teresa Eyring.  Brava.

CHARACTERS:  A huge mix of people was represented, from individual artists to major regional theaters.  Organizational budgets ranged from $0 – $tens of millions.  This is the great opportunity that conferences offer; to be able to interact and share info with theater people rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, experienced and newbies.  The conference offered affinity group meetings so that we could meet with our peer groups, or any groups that interest us.  I met some fellow TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) folks, and met with theater leaders with budgets between $500k-$1 million.  I got some great ideas for engaging my donors and audiences.  It was great to hear what similarly sized orgs are facing around the country.  Makes you feel so… not alone.  Great new ideas from Curious Theatre of Denver too, about ways to shake up organizational structure.   And there was much energy around ensemble-based theaters.

LA’s 24th Street Theatre Executive Director Jay McAdams accepts the 2012 Peter Zeisler Award for Outstanding Achievement In The American Theatre.; Photo by Loli Castaños

LA was firmly represented in Boston.  CTG had a crew there, LATC, California Repertory, Cornerstone, Ebony Rep, Watts Village Theatre, LA STAGE Alliance and others, some of whom I did not know.  There were also a few folks from Orange County.  The number of LA people wasn’t nearly as large as the number at last year’s LA conference, but two of the four national awards given at this year’s Boston conference recognized artists and theaters in LA.  Bart DeLorenzo won the 2012 Alan Schneider Director Award, given to exceptional directors whose talent has been demonstrated through work in specific regions.  And my 24th Street Theatre won the 2012 Peter Zeisler Award for outstanding achievement in the American theater.  It was a thrill to be cheered by the people who are the American theater.  Bart thanked Los Angeles for being a city in which he had the freedom to do what he wanted with his art.

CONTEXT:  We can’t imagine this here in LA, but what if you were the only theater in town?  If you had the monopoly on theater, where you lived.  Not all cities have hundreds of theaters.  Hearing the issues those theaters face is very different from our challenges in LA, where getting audience is the thing that keeps us up at night.  If you’re the only game in town, then most who are prone to go to the theater will come.  Dreamy, eh?  But back to LA reality.

I asked the leader of one of Chicago’s biggest theaters what the secret is to Chicago being such a great theater town.  He said that there were two generations of Chicagoans who were taught to go to the theater. And that has meant that in Chicago on your average Friday night, people actually consider going to the theater as a viable option.  Not just a handful of theater people and their roommates, but a large part of Chicago.  That, he said has allowed so many great theaters to be born and thrive there.  I thought this was very interesting, as most people credit Chicago’s theater scene to the theaters rather than the appetite of the public there. It makes me think about what I can do to start modeling that movement in LA.  (Model the Movement was the conference theme, which clearly was spot-on.)

Former 24th Street Theatre staffer Cynthia Flowers, now the development director at New York's Atlantic Theatre, and current 24th Street staffer Jennie McInnis at TCG conference; photo by Loli Castaños

SPEAKERS:  Most were great.  DJ Spooky and Seth Godin were my personal favorites.  Spooky is scary smart and eloquent.  Demonstrated his sound creations.  And Godin just rocks the house.  He spoke about marketing to a more focused group rather than to the masses.  He was a wonderfully engaging speaker.  It was good theater.

THEME:  Like last year’s What If… theme, this year’s Model the Movement theme was about the reconstituting of our field.    How do we keep theater relevant when in this digital age audiences are shrinking nationwide?  We are clearly seeing our field contract.  So all eyes are on how to make it relevant and strong.  Attracting audiences was the topic of much of the conference — how to do it with smart phones, with apps, with wine.  This seems to be the central question on the mind of theaters.  I know it is the main question I wrestle with.  It is the big recurring question in our field today.  Like any good conference, this one asked those big 60,000-ft questions.  And even if you don’t know the answer, it’s nice to look around and see that you’re not alone in seeking it out.

EPILOGUE:   As theater people, we always seem to feel isolated.  TCG conferences are a chance to break that loneliness and hold hands with your theater bruthas and sistahs.  As a small theater, I find these conferences invaluable.  I know it’s expensive to join a national membership organization and then pay to travel across the country and attend a conference, but it’s a small price to pay to get counsel from colleagues nationally and to feel supported.  To me, this is the best money I spend all year.  To me, feeling supported by my peers…now that’s priceless.

Jay McAdams

Jay McAdams