THE BLOG
08/09/2012 02:59 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2012

Changing Theatre: Turn and Face the Strain

While "Model the Movement" was the stated name for the Theatre Communication Group's 2012 national conference, it may as well have been "Changes: Turn and Face the Strain" from David Bowie's early hit song. "Change" was certainly the word on everyone's lips throughout the course of this gathering of the leadership and staff of many of America's not-for-profit theatres. Perhaps it is the theme of every professional conference these days, but as I've only attended theatre conferences, and few recent ones, the theme of alteration was startlingly prominent.

Held in late June in Boston, the conference itself was an enormous change from what I'd experienced in the past. I hadn't attended a TCG conference in more than ten years, and my most vivid memories go back more than two decades, when the event was held on a small-town New England college campus and perhaps 400 attendees explored the issues of the day. The 2012 conference brought together some 1,000 participants from theatres large and small in a hotel conference facility and one vast ballroom. While I encountered a number of leaders in the field who I had met over the course of my career, I was struck by how many people I didn't know at all, a result of some combination of my most recent jobs, the significant expansion of the conference, and the inevitable influx of new talent, both artistic and administrative.

The vastness of the attendance, while to my eyes strikingly inclusive, was apparently not perceived that way by all. During the conference, and in the weeks that followed, various topics of contention arose. In tweets and on blogs, there were charges of elitism, as the cost of the conference had proved prohibitive for some smaller companies; of censorship, as volunteers chafed against being told that they were observers, not participants, and should not ask questions in public forums; and of an artistic-institutional divide, as some took issue with the declaration by Michael Maso of Boston's Huntington Theatre, upon receiving an award, of his belief in institutional theatre. "Does that make us overstuffed bureaucracies?" asked Maso. "Bullshit!"

But those assorted debates seemed to take on larger life post-conference. In the moment, the event was an almost head-spinning array of non-confrontational challenges to orthodoxy, made essential by shifts in the field as well as the larger society. The opening keynote by Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, was a saga of self-exploration, of a producer who worried that his theatre had become so skilled in its producing model that it had become an assembly line, leaving too little room for innovation. "It's not just the stories we tell," Shalwitz decided, "but why and how we tell them that determines our success."

The pervasiveness of change was perhaps best demonstrated when, during a period of elective breakout sessions, I split my time between panels on "Hacking the Not-For-Profit Model with For-Profit Methodologies" and "Artistic Decision Making: Weighing the Balance in a Complicated World." Despite the former panel consisting of for-profit veterans who had just made the shift into not-for-profit at New York's Public Theater, and the latter comprised of not-for-profit artists including Kwame Kwei-Armah, just completing his first season at Baltimore's Centerstage, my move from one panel to the other seemed merely a change of location and personnel. I had left a room where new leaders at The Public spoke of the change they hoped to instill, only to enter a room where the necessity of change for survival was under discussion. Was this happening in every break out, I wondered. Were seemingly specific themes being subsumed by an overarching theme of change? I would have had to jog about quickly to attempt to find out: during three time slots with breakout sessions, there were 53 panels from which to choose.

Since transformation is change, the presence of monologist Mike Daisey reiterated the unofficial conference theme. Having experienced a highly public fall from grace after it was revealed that he had invented portions of his piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the conference offered the semi-fallen Daisey both an artistic platform (he previewed a work-in-progress) and an intellectual one (as a panelist discussing "Theatre's Role in Activism"). In the wake of director Julie Taymor's appearance at the 2011 TCG conference after she'd been removed from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Daisey's quasi-rehabilitative appearance suggested that the TCG conference may now be the place to go for artistic absolution.

Although I found the conference exhausting, there was something reassuring simply in being part of a vast gathering of professionals who all, ostensibly, are genuinely dedicated to the well-being of theatre outside of the Broadway realm. Given the variety of theatre companies around the country, with different artistic goals and economic means, perhaps it is inevitable that it could not be all things to all people, and if it did not yield a singular model for the regional theatre movement, it certainly reinforced the necessity and inevitability of evolution.