Theatre in the USA

Impressions from the Theatre Communications Group (TCG)’s Annual Conference: THEATRE NATION 2016 Washington DC

In June 2016, Katie Keeler was selected by the Arts Council of England to be part of an English delegation to the TCG conference in Washington DC. 

Points of interest:
1. There was a huge confidence (and clear articulation) of the value of theatre in the world

The conviction with which people spoke about the power of theatre in the world right now was inspiring – particularly at the Global Pre Conference, at which we heard from people who face imprisonment and worse for making theatre. There was an urgency and excitement in the power of narrative – of empathy building, fighting fear and hate-filled expressions, resisting an isolationist world-view and story as a humanising force. 

The Pre Conference opened with a short speech from Dean Joel Hellman, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, who worked for the World Bank for 10 years. He told us that the UNHCR report that 65 million people are currently on the move because of conflict. He suggested that now was not the time to be building walls (this was a few days before Brexit).

TCG (Theatre Communications Group) is the overall organising body of the conference. Their tag line is ‘A Better World for theatre and a better world BECAUSE of Theatre’.

We heard from a number of interesting practitioners / saw extracts of their work from around the world censored by government: DAH Teatar, Serbia | Out of the Blue by Vladimir Zaytsev | Woolly Mamouth Theatre Company and the Russia Festival | Mbare Dreams, written and performed by Gideo Wabvuta | Timbuktu Renaissance, Mohamed Aly Ansar, Festival in the Desert. Mali | The Freedom Theatre and The Seige | Nabil alRaee, AD Freedom Theatre, Palestine | The Admission, Motti Lerner, Israel (couple on either side of 1972 uprising) | The Lab and Syria – The Trojan Women, Reem Alsayyah on skype (at Young Vic Autumn 2016)

Also shows:
Shelter by Marissa Chibas, directed by Martin Acosta, CalArts Center for New Performance/Duende CalArts [PHOTO BELOW]
Migrar  by Kamchàtka (Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain), led by Adrian Schvarzstein, a site-specific journey tackled the theme of immigration featuring DC participants.


2. Influencing politicians

The Global Pre conference was called Finding Home: Migration, Exile and Belonging and it was put together in partnership with TCG by an interesting organisation called The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. The Lab was founded by a Dean at the University, Deryck Goldman and Ambassador Cynthia Scheider. The Managing Director is a dynamic dramaturg/producer/director of new writing, Jojo Ruff. An arts organisation set up by a politician. They said that they had expected the driving force of their work to come from artists but in fact it has come from other sectors. Interesting that people outside of theatre TOTALLY see its value. Ambassador Scheider noted that extremism is a cultural problem that can’t be solved by drones and state department hashtags.

PANEL – Humanizing Exile: A Creative Response
Powerful contribution from Wendy Young, President of Kids in Need of Defence. She takes real life stories to politicians. Kids as young as 3 or 4 are being quizzed about their right to remain and they can’t do it. Real stories change policy better that stats and facts.

The Closing Plenary of the conference proper was called Theatre as Cultural DiplomacyThere was a certain excitement at this TCG conference because it was in Washington DC in an election year. Ambassador Power (session facilitated but Kwame Kwei-Armah who is currently AD of Center Stage in Chicago) talked about taking other UN Ambassadors from all over the world to the theatre. Many of these countries are not democracies and some are regressing (she gestured at Kwame because he’s British and the EU referendum result came in the night before). She took the Ambassadors to see a play about a gay Father and his daughter and although she does not believe that there is a straight line between that show and the fact that many of these countries denounced the Orlando shootings – violence on the basis of sexual orientation (which they would not have in years past), she thinks there could be a link. 

3. Race and racism

It was fascinating to be in a country with more overt divisions along race lines and also a more urgent and angry defiance of racism. Racism in the UK is perhaps more coded and the fight against racism more wrapped up in language of ‘diversity’. 

The Opening Plenary with Anna Deavere Smith (perhaps most famous as Nancy McNally in the West Wing) revisited a speech about Black Theatre and Performance by August Wilson called The Ground on Which I Stand and there was a special tribute to John O Neal of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions. Anna described a need for RADICAL HOSPITALITY. Yes. To diversify, let’s be radically hospitable.

Panel: Race, Colonization & Art: An Afro-Global Perspective
Panel included Josette Bushell-Mingo Director at Riksteatern in Sweden (UK born) – “tired of being a museum of my life. And I can’t get into the museum”. Talked about how nervous white people get when people of colour get together. Initiative called TRUI (Push) was changing the culture of her organisation. Referenced UN race equality laws (as in Sweden, you can only positively discriminate against gender and age).  Also Lloyd Nyikadzino, actor, director and coordinator of the Zimbabwe Center of ITI. When the discussion turned to making theatre OUTSIDE of theatre spaces, he said that in Zimbabwe it is important to be IN the theatres – “important to speak for ourselves and get used to white owned theatres”. Their strategy is training and grabbing spaces.

Session: A Space for White Folks Working Toward Racial Justice
People of colour were welcome as a means of accountability but no people of colour came.

This was a challenging session, making it clear to me that seeing myself as a decent person is not the same as not being a racist. To truly fight racism you have to work at it. We were presented with a ‘ladder of development’ – From White Racist to White Anti-Racist. I decided I was about two thirds up the ladder, having recognised the scale of the problem (to some extent – I have never been subjected to racism) and wanting to take action to fight it but that I keep slipping down into guilt and shame (and inaction).  Another stage on the ladder to overcome is thinking you are better than other white people. I fell into this trap when I complained that other white people in the session had not understood how important this work is.

You can read about this ladder of development and find other resources below. If you are white, I urge you to take a look

Download From White Racist to White Anti-Racist. The life long journey. By Tema Okun, dRworks

Download Resources for White People

4. Identity – celebration of difference

There was a prayer room, a breastfeeding room, unisex toilets (post North Carolina anti-transgender bathroom law). All facilitators introduced themselves with their preferred gender pronoun and people clicked their fingers in agreement with others to show support.

At every conference, there are sessions called At The Intersections (Affinity Groups) based on four areas of identity: gender, ability, sexual orientation and race/ethnicity. In 2016, they added national identity (exploring themes of citizenship, immigration, refugee status, sovereignty). 

We were told that while allyship is an important part of the At the Intersections work, not all groups will be open to allies, and should only be attended by people who identify as part of this particular group. And – if we were going to a group as an ally, we needed to be mindful of the space we take up. Don’t say “we want to know more about you folks”

There was some discussion about whether this policy is divisive but the decision to bring people that have been historically pushed to the edges into centre stage, felt urgent and necessary.

The ‘ability’ group seemed under-represented. The UK may have a lot to offer in terms of work, by, for and with disabled people.

5. Importance of networks

TCG is an interesting model for membership organisations and umbrella bodies in the UK. Their focus is 

  • Community and connection
  • Research and activism
  • Grantmaking and professional development
  • Publishing and resources

A flavour of the MASSIVE variety of learning and networking opportunities at the conference:

Achieving Fundraising Growth by Aligning Donor Messaging with Donor Motivations
Artistic Director Summit: Day One
ASL Pick-Up: A Primer for the HearingInstead of Red Face
Rising Star Project: How a Teen Takeover Can Set the Stage for Your Theatre Development
Enrich Chicago – A movement to address structural racism in the Chicago arts community
Artistic Director Summit: Day Two – Artistic Leaders of Theatres with Budgets between $500k-$1m
Dismantling Gender Based Violence in our Theatre Communities
Mobile Apps…Why Bother? (or Why Theatres Need Mobile Apps)
What Designers Want in a Theatre

6. Leadership
Morning Plenary, Creative Leadership: Change by Design. I enjoyed a talk by John Maeda about leadership. He is a former President of Rhode Island School of Design, “where as chief executive he brought technology, industry partnerships, lean operations management, and a relentless focus on diversity to help the institution regain its former leading position in the new economy.” Check out his TED talks if you are interested in the intersection of art and technology. 

7. Purpose

Session: Get Smart, Get Visual: Picture your Strategic Plan. Some tips from this session:

  • Don’t list what you are not doing well and then how to fix it. Ask ‘what do you love’
  • Have a big idea (different from a good idea)
  • Separate what do we tell people  – ask customers – what are we telling you?
  • Bridge gap between what you think and what your audience thinks
  • Theatre is about participation. Ban the word outreach
  • Aim for Artistry | Authenticity| Accuracy | Agency | Audacity

8. Opportunity of working with city developers

I took a tour of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s fantastic courtyard theatre, built on the ground floor of an apartment development – increasing the attractiveness of the apartments to buyers. Recently the developer went bust and therefore Woolly Mammoth were able to but the theatre for what I think they said, $250000! 

9. New new ways of producing

Session: Professional Affinity Group-Independent Producers This session could have been in the UK. We discussed the same issues of how best to support independent producers, how to diversify decision-makers, how to share risk, value of hubs, artist/producer relationships, salaried staff / independents.

On a walking tour of Washington DC, I also heard about a group called The Welders, A Playwright Collective. A group of mid career playwrights came together to tackle how difficult it is to make theatre, the disempowerment of writers, isolation, and the desire to have your work seen in your home town (Washington DC). Their aim was to create a new platform for new work, help other DC writers, and to close the distance between the artist and the audience. The model was inspired by 13P in New York, who produced one show by each of their 13 playwrights before disbanding the company. While the Welders also produce one show by each member playwright, instead of stopping when the work is made, they pass everything (bank account, mailing lists, branding etc) on to a new collective of artists. Those artists will produce one show by each member playwright (approximately one every six months) then pass the organization on to a new group. The model creates a sustainable organization that provides opportunities for a continually rotating group of DC-based playwrights. The first collective was 5 writers and 1 Creative Director. Each writer gets a 6 month slot, a healthy budget, and is the Artistic Director for that period. Under their leadership, the collective produces one new play by that writer using whatever development process the writer desires.