We asked several attendees of the Theatre Bay Area 2012 Annual Conference what the stand-out moment of the day was for them. Here’s what they said:
Mark Rucker wasn’t able to make it to the conference, and you could tell that Dale Albright was anticipating disaster as he opened a breakout session onstage by himself at the very end of a long day. As we’ve all come to expect from Dale, though, he bravely forged ahead, joking and smiling as he invited a room full of directors to brainstorm ideas for how Theatre Bay Area might create a director-focused version of the highly successful ATLAS program.
ATLAS has helped dozens of actors develop practical, individualized career maps based on honest assessment of their work. The kind of structure that has worked so well for an actor-focused program doesn’t have an obvious correlation for directors. Setting up an opportunity for actors to audition, and then giving them feedback, is fairly straightforward – but how does a director audition? Never mind Mark Rucker’s absence – now the topic itself started to look like a doomed enterprise.
But never underestimate the imagination and audacity of a room full of directors used to working with small budgets. Dale kept dauntlessly posing questions, and people began speaking up. As we commiserated over the lack of midsized theaters in the Bay Area, the difficulty of getting artistic directors to see our work, the utter implausibility of any of us being anywhere near as persistent and hardworking as Jon Tracy, some very interesting ideas started to emerge. Could the ATLAS program for directors include some kind of a showcase of short plays, even if it’s just for a handful of directors? Might a few artistic directors agree in advance to attend a showcase? Could enough resources be gathered (maybe by partnering with a theatre company?) to allow the directors to demonstrate their ability to work with designers? Perhaps one showcase for early-career directors and another for directors a little further along, with artistic directors from larger and smaller theaters attending one or the other?
It remains to be seen whether any of these ideas will survive the harsh realities of funding and logistics. I hope that at least some of them do. But being in a room full of directors talking passionately about being directors was thrilling. No matter what comes of it, there is intrinsic impact whenever artists get the chance to sit down with their peers and trade stories of challenges and successes, tips and warnings, ideas and inspirations. That’s what Dale was able to activate in that room – and that’s every bit as important as all the brilliant panelists in making the Annual Conference such a valuable part of our community.
Monday was my first time attending Theatre Bay Area's annual conference and I loved it. It was worth taking time off the day job to listen, talk and participate. My overall takeaway is that I'm deeply proud to be part of this vibrant, passionate theatre community in the Bay Area and not so proud to be living in a state where "pitiful" doesn't begin to describe the status of funding for the arts. One of the more sobering sessions was that given by Craig Watson, Director of the California Arts Council. Mr. Watson shared that, in our state with a population of ~38 million, the state budget for the arts is $5 million. This puts California in 49th place in per capita funding in the U.S. The home of Hollywood and the movie industry is in nearly dead last place behind only Kansas who has chosen to cut funding completely.
But I also learned there is a small, not insignificant thing we can do. Buy an arts license plate. At around $40-50 apiece, if one million Californians buy an arts license plate, we can raise $40 million in arts funding - eight times what we currently have. Imagine if we could get more than a million sold. And we're in good company. Folks like Debbie Allen, Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Alice Waters are all sporting their California arts plates.
But back to the conference.....a couple highlights for me included:
• Arlene Goldbard's keynote where we were nudged to ask ourselves, "How does my work in the theatre advance the public interest?" After answering this question for ourselves, we found partners to discuss with. I ended up with an enchanting artistic director of a theatre company outside my geographical radius who I never would have had the opportunity to have a 1:1 chat with outside this format. That was cool.
• Panel on Season Selection and the Local Acting Landscape - the bottom line appears to be yes, the local acting landscape does in many ways affect theatre companies' season selection although most acknowledged there is good selection in the Bay Area. When roles require actors of a combined age and ethnicity, they're often harder to cast. The roles no one ever worries about casting? Young white girls.
• Panel on gender parity - lively conversation in a room of mostly (but not all) women and yes, the gender parity discussion is far from over. As the shows in certain theatre companies' season selections and Valerie Weak's blog "Counting Actors" will show, we ain't there yet.
• Session on Activating your Career Vision - after a brief introduction by Amy Kweskin on developing career goals, we partnered up to outline steps for moving our goals into action. Again, I got to meet a cool, new person - an actress and mother like me trying to navigate work, art-making, and raising a family around the endless challenge of not enough hours in the day. We set some goals and agreed to hold each others' feet to the fire on them.
So what's next? Well, the conference theme was "Activate Your World." Each of us are tasked with what we can do to take action. Some obvious ones to me:
• Get everyone you know to get an arts license plate
• Stay in front of the politicians. We took down Bill AB2540 over the course of one weekend with our letters and calls to Mark Gatto's office. But this bill will be back.
• Go to live theatre
• Write, blog, tweet about theatre
• Be hopeful. As evidenced by yesterday's attendees, this is a community of people that are passionate and care deeply about what they do. This passion is currency. Let's use it.
Keynote speaker Arlene Goldbard kicked off the conference at 9:30 by declaring she was an alien; but the true aliens of the day were the five panelists who took the Roda Theatre stage at 3 o’clock for the Up-Ending the Audience: Case Studies in Audience Engagement breakout session. The premise was that the traditional theatre audience--increasingly white, ancient, affluent and dwindling--is being superseded by costume-attired armies--on the whole young, hip and, as one panelist implied, reluctant to pay--participating in flash mobs, Burning Man, happenings, pranks, trolley dances, private role-playing parties... anything you can imagine except sitting quietly in the dark and watching Ibsen. (There seemed to be some giggling at the mention of those role-playing parties, but I’ve led too sheltered a life to know what that was all about.)
Though I hadn’t planned to attend (I followed PianoFight’s Rob Ready into the auditorium hoping to score a beer), I found it to be the most thought-provoking session of the day. I began to wonder what I can do as a playwright to engage my audience more actively in the story. I began to wonder, What is an audience? Is it a house full of ticket-buyers who sit in the dark passively absorbing entertainment? Do they cease to be an audience when they leap to their feet and become part of the narrative? What happens to the narrative? What is Theatre? Does it include thousands of Santas congregating in a public space?
One of the panelists, John Law, remarked that traditional theatre engages the “critical mind”--something to be avoided--because we must pay money for a ticket. I disagree that buying a ticket brings out the critic in us--it’s the tribute we gladly pay to be entertained; but I agree engaging the audience’s critical mind should be avoided at all costs. As an audience member, though, whenever I am asked to participate in a play--vote for an outcome, interact with the actors, answer questions for beer--my critical mind momentarily kicks in and I’m taken out of the narrative.
The chasm between traditional theatre and non-traditional “audience engagement” events never got bridged during the Monday afternoon session. Still, I’m left pondering what that bridge might look like and whether it can ever be built. All power to anyone who succeeds. In the meantime (take note, Rob) I’m happy to answer questions for beer.
Marisela Trevino Orta
Hey, Bay Area theatre: Never Be Dark!
I wanted to shout that out at least twice this past Monday at Theatre Bay Area’s annual conference. What’s Never Be Dark? And, why was I anxious to share it as a possible solution to two separate issues that were discussed at the conference?
First, I think I’ll start with the conference sessions and the problem/question that inspired my Never Be Dark response.
The first session was the New Work Models panel. After hearing all the panelists describe their respective new work programs or experiences, moderator Marissa Wolf turned to the audience for questions. One of the final questions was about finding space/resources for producing shows. I can’t recall specifically how this question arose in relation to the panel discussion, but it seemed to come from a theatre company that doesn’t have a permanent space and therefore must find a venue for each show they produce.
The second session was the Diversity on Purpose panel where several representatives from various theatres all discussed how they were meeting the challenge to diversify their audiences, the work they produce, their staffs and their boards. At the very end Steven Anthony Jones suggested that we (local theatres) need to be sleeping together more. That is, collaborating, partnering as an effort to address the issue of diversity.
To both these issues I say: Never Be Dark.
What’s Never Be Dark?
For a full explanation of what Never Be Dark is and the theory for how to implement please take a look at this 2amTheatre blog post as it’s a concept developed and promoted by the 2amTheatre community.
Essentially it’s a symbiotic relationship between two theatres. And if you’re looking for a real-world example, take a look at Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep program.
But let’s walk through the scenario. So the theatre with a permanent space (Theatre A) invites a theatre without a permanent home (Theatre B) to come into their space almost like a residency. So that when Theatre A’s space has dark time, meaning they don’t have a show running, Theatre B uses the space to present their plays. So there is always a play running in Theatre A’s space; therefore, they are never dark. Hence, Never Be Dark.
So obviously you can see why I thought of Never Be Dark during the New Work Models panel as an answer to helping nomadic theatres find one place to present their season. So why did I think of it again during the Diversity on Purpose panel? And where the symbiosis or benefit for the theatre with a permanent space to partner like this?
Well, let’s think about it. Say you’re Theatre A and you’re interested in expanding and reaching new audiences. Bringing in a Theatre B who attracts a completely different audience from yours is a way to get those Theatre B patrons in your space. Once in your theatre space, Theatre B’s patrons become familiar with your space, your season. And vice versa. I imagine that Theatre A patrons would find it interesting to see what Theatre B is offering.
See where I’m going with this? As Steven said, we need to become bedfellows as a way to address the issue of diversity. And how better to diversify audiences, bring in new patrons and support a healthy theatre ecosystem than to intermingle where we do our work?
I’d say Never Be Dark is a pretty darn good place to start.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.