Theatre Communications Group's "What If..." Project

From June 16-18, in Los Angeles, the 21st TCG National Conference [kicks] off a year-long celebration of TCG's 50th anniversary. TCG was founded in 1961 when the Ford Foundation and a handful of resident theatre pioneers asked themselves, "What if there was a strong network of theatres throughout the country that could strengthen their work and help them learn from each other?" Now we're asking, what if we imagined the theatre field of the next 50 years, and began making visible progress today?  We're asking theatre leaders and big thinkers across the country to write posts, all inspired by the central question we'll be asking, "What if...?"


[FROM TC: Here's a sampling of the entries posted on the TCG website...]


What if... one extraordinary production a year found a truly national audience?

Tim Jennings, Managing Director, Seattle Children's Theatre

What if, on a regular basis, a single exceptional production could be chosen by artistic directors and producers from around the country to be seen all over the United States to demonstrate 'the best of what theatre can be'? And what if all of the regional theatres and presenting houses alike in these communities put their efforts behind advocating for this piece and its importance in a unified campaign to awaken people to this level of work?   In a world of institutions that produce significant, powerful art every season, we sometimes lose track of the 'transcendent work' that redefines us or elevates us beyond the level of own 'regular' masterpieces.  Every artist I know can point to one or two specific productions as being 'transformational' in their growth as artists and sometimes as people. These experiences, in my opinion, turn occasional attendees into dedicated audiences who crave the next transformational experience.  My own theatre recently hosted a conversation of several larger regional theatres who were interested in this idea of a 'shared' producing experience. We all wanted this experience for our audience -- for varying reasons. It felt like it had real power to find a combined future audience and to bring us all together in a new way. Whether it occurs or not, that door is now open and I want to keep a foot in it so it never closes.


What if...theatres sought out epic plays?

Susan Bernfield, founder and artistic director of New Georges

People do like to experience BIG!  There's just something gorgeous, instantaneously delightful, about a stageful of people.... yet we're sitting around letting plays get smaller.  So probably there'd be excitement all around: from artists, who get to see their BIG visions onstage; from staff, who get a transfusion of energy from having all those excited artists around; and most of all from audiences, who'll feel like they're part of a WAY more adventurous journey. The small cast thing, it's talked about a lot -- often followed by the words "unit set," which seems to be code for "easy and inexpensive to produce," which often ends up being, say, a living room of some sort.  The problem is they tend to encourage a certain kind of play.   Small groups of people fit well into living rooms, and what people do in living rooms is talk, and so these plays tend to explore the intricacies of human relationships instead of, well, the out-ricacies of the wider world.  Which is fine.  But it can't be all our theater is, not in a world that exists well beyond living rooms. 


What if...more theatres from the Black Arts Movement survived?

by Dominic Taylor, director/playwright/head of Penumbra's OKRA New Play Development Program

I can properly state without reservation that our art form would be light years ahead of where it is now. I say this not out cultural pride alone, but looking at the artists and the art the Black Arts Movement spawned, the original statement might be underplayed.  These artists individually and collectively have done for the American Theatre for the last 40 years what Black popular music has done for the music industry. The dearth or the death of these organizations has caused theatre in general and Black theatre in particular to be, as the late modern artist James Brown said, "Like a dull knife, it just ain't cutting. Talking loud and saying nothing."  What are the artists in the 21st century to do with this lack of resource? A few things are possible. For the organizations that exist, struggling Black artists should redouble their efforts to revive or enhance these organizations. So many contemporary pieces by African-American playwrights could have been abetted by the honest dramaturgy that a cultural specific institution can provide. Additionally the tension to reposition the work for a white gaze is mitigated. The work can be examined under its own rules. 


What if...disaster relief included an on-going arts component?

Nick Slie, Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director of New Orleans performance collective Mondo Bizarro

One of the most famous examples of outsider art in post-Katrina New Orleans is the now infamous [2007 production of] Waiting for Godot staged in the Lower Ninth Ward.  It has become the gold standard for post-storm, community-engaged performance. [However] people who still live here will tell you another story, as we continue to cope with the realities of life years after that production (and hundreds of others) packed up and moved on.  Remember. When you come and make a garden for us and feed us, there is a vacuum created when you leave and do not tend to the soil you laid down. Six years later, we're still nurturing our dysfunctional gardens, figuring out what our community needs.  We're also taking care of all the other gardens created by outsiders who left without explaining their long-term exit strategy. Tending to multiple gardens is daunting work at a time when we need someone to relieve our tired hands. Here, where we live with a perpetual state of disaster, we need less projects and more life-long commitment. We hope for more daring souls willing to do the hard work without the need to be seen doing it.  We'd love to have your help, or anyone else's for that matter. Be prepared, though, we'll need you to stay.


What if... there was a "Giving Pledge" for theatre?

by Jaan Whitehead, current or former board member at SITI Company, Arena Stage, Living Stage,

The Acting Company, National Cultural Alliance, TCG, National Council for the American Theatre

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet's "Giving Pledge" asks billionaires to pledge half their wealth to charity.  Fortune estimates this initiative alone will add up to $300 billion.  When you add the potential of other wealthy people to give, the transfer of wealth from aging Baby Boomers, and the just developing potential of Internet giving, there are startling possibilities for a new age of individual philanthropy.  Given the actual potential of such a new age, I am imagining that $10 billion might flow into the arts if the arts can put forth the kind of bold, forward-looking initiatives that might attract these investors.  Some ideas:

  1. International Institute for the Arts - one of the greatest needs the arts have is for an infrastructure for the coming global arts world.  Historically, funds have mainly been considered part of government diplomacy, have always been small and now have been cut to almost nothing.  What if three billionaires put forth a billion each to fund new global art from exchanges to festivals to labs for gathering artists from different countries to create art together.  Income from the $3 billion endowment could generate between $150 and $300 million a year, depending on how successfully it was invested, and could change the face of global art.
  2. Arts Education Web Project - with the technical abilities of the Web, it should now be possible to create interactive video or other programs that could bring the arts to students (and adults) all over the world at very little cost.  Imagine a wonderful production of Hamlet that could reach students in many countries in different languages where students could talk with the artists and with each other about the play online or even go on stage online.  This wouldn't mean that students wouldn't experience live art but live art and working with artists in real time would be one facet of a much greater world of arts education.
  3. Arts Trust of America - there has been talk for years of establishing the equivalent of a private NEA but it has never seemed feasible.  But again, what if three billionaires gave a billion each to endow a private arts trust not dependent on fundraising or politics?  My suggestion would be for an Arts Trust as direct investment in artists, in their work, in new ways for artists to work together (and across disciplines), and in new forms of organizations to present their work.
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