'Olympics' of American Theater Come to Boston
By Jared Bowen
BOSTON — For fifty years now, Theatre Communications Group has been a driver in drama—a national organization bringing theater professionals together for networking, brainstorming, funding and more. This year it convened its annual conference in Boston with roughly a thousand theater types descending on the city this past weekend. The focus of the conference was on theater’s next act, says Teresa Eyring, TCG’s Executive Director.
“It’s absolutely about looking to the future and finding solutions together for improving the art and the way we run our organization and function in the larger community, locally and nationally but it’s also a reflection that when TCG started 50 years ago, there were only a handful of theaters across the country outside of New York and we brought them together to communicate and learn from each other,” she said.
TCG titled this year’s conference Model The Movement. It was an acknowledgment that the leaders and players in theaters across the country must start sharing ideas for what works. At the conference’s base in the Park Plaza Hotel, there was buzz about a host of successes in all of the country’s corners. Portland Center Stage in Oregon received raves for its revival of Oklahoma! with an all-African American cast—inspired by the fact that 1 in 3 cowboys in the 19th century was black. In Texas, the Dallas Theater Center’s profits have ballooned since it immersed itself in an arts district there. They’re valuable lessons learned says conference co-chair, Kate Warner.
“There’s really nothing like the conference for theater professionals because we get to rub up against each other, share ideas, how are you pursuing this and doing this so we’ll constantly find new ideas and innovate with each other,” she said.
There’s no question, theater practitioners feel the crunch of the digital age and an era of elevated visual expectations. There’s also the impact of the economic downturn and audiences spending less. They are themes TCG worked into this year’s conference Eyring says.
“Some of the challenges theaters face today are the challenges they’ve always faced. Fund-raising, audiences, organizational structures, diversity. We live in a country becoming increasingly diverse. How do we welcome people into our theaters? How do we welcome artists?”
And how do they deal with aging audiences? Almost universally, Boston theater patrons skew older. A recent Broadway League report also revealed that the average age of the typical Broadway theater-goer has increased to 44, with patrons in the 18-34 age bracket accounting for less than a quarter of all audiences. What’s more, Broadway theater-goers are overwhelming white. It’s an issue of critical concern.
“There’s no magic pill for this. It’s truly depending on the company and their community. I think again it’s sharing different ideas and strategies. It’s not just programming and ticket prices. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. How are you engaging the community is where I think the question will be answered,” Warner says.
There was also much to celebrate at TCG—Boston seems to be in the midst of its own theater revolution with a proliferation of adventurous companies—from pointed fringe theater to the American Repertory Theater birthing the Tony-winning Porgy and Bess here. And this weekend it was all a national scene-stealer.
>> Watch more of Jared's interviews with attendees of the TCG Conference in Boston.
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