Have you ever taken a rental car to the car wash?

Posted by Chad Bauman, Jun 09, 2007 0 comments

Again I am writing from Minneapolis where Theatre Communications Group is holding their national conference.  Today was the last day of the conference, and I am starting to get a little tired (mostly because I had one day of rest between our Annual Convention and this conference).  Thankfully I convinced my body to get up and going after a couple of cups of coffee, and I headed off to the morning plenary session entitled "Visions of Tomorrow's Theatre: A Roundtable Discussion."  On the panel this morning were the following people: Kristin Marting (HERE Arts Center), Clove Galilee (Trick Saddle), Joseph Haj (Playmakers Rep), Ruben Polendo (Theatre Mitu), Dan Rothenberg (Pig Iron Theatre), and Sean San Jose' (Campo Santo).

Let me start out by saying that I found the plenary session amazing, but I was disappointed that whoever put together the panel, thought it was unnecessary to invite a managing director to participate.  That left me with the feeling that a managing director's thoughts on tomorrow's theater were unimportant and unwarranted.  With that said, I would like to bring you some of the thoughts and issues that were brought up in the session:

Lack of General Operating Support. The artists on the panel were lamenting the elimination of general operating support over the past decade.  In the past, funds were given to companies to support their operations, and that no longer seems to be the case.  Many funding entities like to support a specific project or production.  The argument was made that this has hindered creativity because artists no longer have the freedom to create on an unlimited time frame, without the pressure of delivering a substantial product. I understand this frustration, but general operating support grants seem to be a thing of the past, and instead of demanding their return, maybe we should focus our time and incredible talents on creating a new producing paradigm.

Audience Development.  When these panels are convened, inevitably audience development comes to the forefront at some point.  There seemed to be two completely distinct views on our responsibilities to our audiences, and on how they can be developed.  Mr. Polendo drew an analogy between his work and audience to that of his mother and her cooking.  He said that his mother loves to cook, and that what she creates in the kitchen is what excites her, it is what moves her.  She doesn't ask her dinner guests what they like and don't like before preparing a meal, she just serves it.  He says that sometimes her dishes are too salty or too spicy for her guests, but that doesn't bother her.  He continues by saying that if she adjusts her cooking and creative process to match the tastes of her guests, it would destroy it.  On the other hand, Mr. Haj  responds by saying that "no one in the history of the world has taken a rental car through a car wash."  He made his point--if we want people to support and take care of our institutions, then we have to make them feel part of the institution.  They need to feel like they own it.  It seems to me that if I invited several vegetarians over for dinner, and plopped a 16 oz steak on their plate, and told them to eat it because I was concerned they weren't getting enough protein, that it would be unlikely they would return to my dinner table.

Audience Engagement.  An idea was floated which really caught my attention.  Why are we not inviting the audience into the process of creating the work?  We currently only try to engage them after the work has been created mostly in the form of post-show performances.  I know that when I was working at Virginia Stage Company, this was a priority of mine.  From the first day of rehearsal to the opening night, as allowed by Actor's Equity, we posted videos of rehearsal on our blog and asked our readers to provide feedback.  We found this to be a great way to engage our audiences.  Still to this day I am amazed at the ways companies like Cornerstone Theater and Sojourn Theatre engage their communities in their creation process. 

On a complete side note, I didn't want to end this post without mentioning the session which immediately followed the morning plenary session.  It too was absolutely amazing.  The session was entitled "Creating and Producing the New American Musical" and the panel consisted on three producing teams which all had recently created new musicals. One of the creative teams featured was that of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, who lead the creation of the Broadway smash hit Spring Awakening.  They could not attend the session in person because they were preparing for the Tony Awards in New York, so TCG arranged for them to be video conferenced into the 1,100 plus seat thrust stage at the Guthrie.  They went on to describe their eight year process of making Spring Awakening. Truly amazing.  And if you really want to learn something about attracting new and younger audiences, pay attention to what is happening with this musical.  It has a fanatical following of 16-25 year olds (which I think is something incredible for a rock musical based on a 19th century German play).  If you want to attract new audiences, we can all take a leaf from their book.

My heartfelt congratulations to Teresa Eyring (new TCG Executive Director), Gigi Bolt (previous Interim TCG Executive Director), the staff of TCG, and Joe Dowling and the Guthrie Theater for an amazing conference.

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