2015 TCG National Conference Day Two

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in National Conference

Post image for 2015 TCG National Conference Day Two

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni.)

Day Two of the Conference began bright and early at 8am with a number of events, including the the Theatres of Color Breakfast, which was facilitated by Randy Reinholz (Artistic Director, Native Voices and Professor, San Diego State University) and Alison De La Cruz (multi-disciplinary theatre artist, arts educator, and cultural organizer,) who joined by phone. Randy shared his notes on the breakfast, which included sharing the results from TCG’s recent Theatres of Color survey:

“The results from the Theatre of Color survey showed that:

    • We are assets to the American Theatre;
      • There is power in the sharing of our stories,
      • Our community is 370 Theatres of Color strong,
      • We have between us so many world premieres of work by and for artists of color, and have therefore had a large impact on the field.
      • We are equal and exceptional.

Next steps for Theatre of Color affinity group overall:

    • What are other creative industries doing and how can that support the work of Theatres of Color?
    • Reminders that Theatres of Color provided much needed outreach to our communities and provide an outreach market for predominantly white institutions.
    • Create our own movement for sustainability.
    • Coordinate a Theatres of Color convening.

Morning Plenary

TCG2015 Conference Photo By Roger Mastroianni

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Jane Chu, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts.)

Next, everyone gathered for the morning plenary session, which opened with remarks from NEA Chairman Jane Chu, who spoke candidly about her childhood and upbringing, and the challenges of juggling two opposing cultures. She learned to play the piano and found an avenue for expression beyond words. She challenged us to continue presenting work that is relevant to our communities and finding ways to break down the barriers between our communities. And she reminded us that while it’s deeply meaningful to see ourselves on stage, it’s equally powerful, if not more so, to see an experience that is different from our own, and we understand and recognize the power of the human experience.

TCG2015 Conference Photo By Roger Mastroianni

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Mark Zeisler, Lear deBessonet.)

Then, Mark Zeisler presented the Peter Zeisler Award to Lear deBessonet (Director of Public Works at the Public Theater). She spoke briefly but passionately about working to establish a radically inclusive view of theatre and about how everyone at the Public came together to make Public Works an enormous success. “Unless we say yes, nothing changes. And we know things have to change. And we want them to change. So that we can all move towards a future in which our theatre reflects and celebrates the cities that we live in.” I admire her vision and leadership so much.

Then, we were treated to conversation between Oskar Eustis (Artistic Director, The Public Theater) and award-winning playwright and performer Lisa Kron. Fresh off the Tony Award-winning success of Fun Home, Kron spoke about adapting the acclaimed graphic novel for the stage and the trajectory of her career. The entire conversation was inspiring, but here are a handful of comments that still resonate with me:

  • Theatre is a vocation. It chooses you.
  • Parity and diversity, people need to hear their own stories. But what we really want is for people of different experiences to tell the story of the world.
  • Over the course of her career, she had to learn how to be funny, and then how to not be funny. Ultimately, what she was learning was how to hold an audience’s attention and she was looking for was dramatic action. She had to learn the difference between a story of something that happens and the experience of it happening.
  • What makes theatre different from other art forms? Limitation of human consciousness is essential. The play has to know more than what any of the characters know; that’s what hooks us in. No one knows what happens next. Plays show us people moving forward. Everything for everybody can change in a second. Plays are made out of transformation and the collective mind/imagination. There’s the democracy of consciousness. All of us, every one of us, can only see the world through one single consciousness.

TCG2015 Conference Photo By Roger Mastroianni

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Lisa Kron, Oskar Eustis.)

Click here to watch the open plenary in its entirety.

TCG2015 Conference Photo By Roger Mastroianni

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Alison Carey, Mark Bly, Anna Troiano.)

Why the How Matters Now: The Production Notebooks and Cross-Departmental Story-Telling, Part One

The week before the conference I received an email from Mark Bly (Editor, The Production Notebooks), who I’ve known since 2006 when we were both at Arena Stage. He asked me to take part in the “Why the How Matters Now” skills-building session.  I was in the middle of working on rewrites of The Hampton Years, but knew that I had to say yes and I’m so glad that I did.

Part One of this session featured conversations about aesthetics and production practices. Mark asked each of us to share how we were breaking down “silos” at our theatre or organization and connecting to audiences though cross-departmental storytelling gestures:

Alison Carey (Director, American Revolutions, Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

There is a big effect from our 100-some member acting company on how we tell our story.  Basically, they do a lot of our storytelling in face-to-face encounters. There is a level of village-style intimacy in these relationships which takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain but is a central part of the company’s identity and function. It also means the storytelling around our art-making is diffuse, often personal, and not necessarily spring-boarding from the perspective of the writer or director. Our story is broadly owned, broadly told, and essentially uncontrollable. There is a difference between the way we tell our story to our patrons and the way we tell it to ourselves.  Our internal communication has, over the past few years, begun to look more like our patron communication– more face to face, weekly written updates from our AD and ED, bi-weekly, cross-company conversations about our art and its connection to or disconnection from our lives.

Melissa Cashion (Associate Production Manager, Denver Theater Company)

On October, 3, 2014 the DCPA launched a “cultural change “ campaign. By looking at employees as internal customers who need to be empowered as advocates, we have been able to start breaking down departmental barriers to better tell the story of the art we make. This transformational change, in balance with the company’s mission, is seeing practical results in all areas including production, artistic, marketing, and development in a company of over 300 employees.

John Eisner (Artistic Director, Lark Play Development Center)

The Lark’s work is predicated on a few basic convictions: (1) Theatre is a critical platform for civic dialogue and brings people from different backgrounds together in intimate circumstances to recognize one another’s humanity. (2) Society suffers each time a person is excluded from offering up an idea or prevented from developing it. (3) We benefit most when artists lead their own processes. (4) Valuable outcomes result from clear goals, shared planning and commitment to a vision. (5) Creativity thrives best in an environment of respect and trust.

Jane Jung (Managing Director, The Civilians)

The Civilians work is grounded in investigative theatre. Investigative theatre brings artists into dynamic engagement with the subject of their work. The ethos of the investigative theatre extends into production, inviting audiences to be active participants in the inquiry before, during, and after the performance.  We are exploring ways to do this through our online media programs, which include our ongoing podcast series and our newly launched online platform, Extended Play, which delves into the creative process of artists working in investigative storytelling.

Jacqueline Lawton (Playwright, Dramaturg at Playmakers Rep, TCG’s EDI Online Curator)

My work as a theatre activist and blogger focuses on how we can use theatre as a tool for social justice and change in order to foster dialogue, bridge communities, dismantle oppression, and amplify voices of all women and men of color. This might include curating a salon; responding to a performance; discussing and sharing resources; or working with artists, activists, scholars, historians, religious, and civic/community leaders to create theatre in response to current events.

We then talked about artistic choices, production processes, and efforts to engage audiences before and after the production. It was such an informative discussion. I had so many questions and was glad that we had a part two to learn more and break everything down.

Disability Advocates

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Beth Prevor, Claudia Alick, Talleri McRae.)

At the Intersections: Disability

Over lunch, I attended the conversation around Disability in the American Theatre, which was moderated by Claudia Alick (Artistic Associate, Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Christine Bruno (Disability Advocate, Inclusion in the Arts), Kate Landsdorf (Education Programs Manager, Ford’s Theatre), and Beth Prevor (Executive Director, Hands On). Claudia shared notes and reflections from the session:

  • The creation of the Disability Deep Dive Vocabulary Guide was a collaborative effort of artists with disabilities all over the country.  It’s an iterative document and we plan to keep gathering feedback to improve and add to it.
  • The biggest takeaways from this document were embracing the social model of disability vs the medical model, a discussion about crip-face or disability drag, and inspiration porn.
  • We also discussed that people should not pathologize the disability community.  Refer to the “non-disabled” not the “able-bodied”.  Do not privilege the non-disabled community in your language. The disability community is huge and everyone is or will be a part of it at some point in their life.
  • The room was filled with artists with disabilities and theatre makers who’d like to make their institutions and practices more accessible. Artists with disabilities shared stories of how they have made a way when the access wasn’t easy and how the theatre shouldn’t disable us.  Ask us what to do it and we’ll figure out how to do it.
  • Universal design should be thought about not only with large capital projects but small changes in buying new future, new carpets, or website design.
  • Job descriptions should be accessible.  Does an admin job really require lifting 50 pounds? Is there a way to make sure the job description doesn’t discourage disabled applicants?
  • We must learn from productive failure.  Acknowledge and improve! Our session was not sign interpreted and we hope the video will be captioned in the future.  Next time we will do better (Editor’s note: the video is now captioned.)

Click here to watch the session in its entirety.

Katie Christie

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Katie Christie at the “From Burnout to Babies” session.)

At the Intersection: Sexual Orientation

Facilitated by Lisa Mount (Director, Artistic Logistics) and Nijeul X. Porter (Teaching Artist, Center Theatre Group), the Queer Movement-Building session was open to queer identified theatre artists and allies. The meeting began with an identity mapping exercise to see who was in the room. In the first round, attendees divided up by sexual orientation: gays, queers, lesbians, trans*, and allies. In the next round, attendees divided up into two groups: marriage equality would impact their lives and marriage equality will not impact my life, and there attendees were allowed to locate themselves in between. Nijeul and Patrick Mullins (Interim Artistic Director, Virginia Stage Company) shared that their notes the session with me:

“From there, the attendees generated a list issues and concerns in response to these guiding questions:

  • What are the issues facing the larger Queer community?
  • What are the issues facing the theatre/arts Queer community?
  • Taking our hot topics, what are actions we can take while at the conference and once we get back to our home institutions?

This is the list Hot Topics that arose from the larger conversation:

  • Gender neutrality in theatres and the workplace.
  • White gay men leaving the movement and the impact this will have on communities of color.
  • How did we go from a Transgender movement to “Transracial,” and how did that term, which has been used by the adoption community to address cross-cultural adoptions, get co-opted?
  • How can more Trans people gain access and opportunities in larger institutions?
  • What happens after Marriage Equality?
  • What is the impact of White wealth privilege on others?
  • Theatres aren’t as liberal as they claim to be. How do we disrupt the negative impact of the conservative cultures and challenge theatres to be more inclusive. How do we create space to present LGBTQ Stories for all audiences?
  • How do we make space for next generations?
  • How do we negotiate the complexity of sexuality and religion?

From there, the attendees gathered in smaller groups to develop action items. Here are some that they want to move forward:

  • We need to build organizations of safety and inclusion.
  • In conversations, we need to make sure the privileged voice doesn’t dominate.
  • We must work toward having gender-neutral bathrooms.
  • We would like to incorporate preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) in organizational culture, so that we acknowledge how each individual would like to be identified.”

Rachel Grossman

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Rachel Grossman at the “Artistically-Driven Audience Engagement” session.)

Why the How Matters Now: The Production Notebooks and Cross-Departmental Story-Telling, Part 2

We returned from lunch and the participants were ready to work. Mark focused the skills-building session around best practices for internal communication within your organizations and external communication with your audience and community. Anna Troiano was our note taker and did an excellent job capturing our conversation.

Ideas for Communicating Your Message INTERNALLY:

  • Schedule a post-mortem after each production.
  • Livestreaming run-throughs and creating a dropbox for materials are excellent ways to engage out-of-town designers. However, don’t use Skype for every meeting. It is so important to have face-to-face interaction with the production teams.
  • Hold company-wide production meetings and host internal salons with departments to unify and share the vision of the production.
  • Don’t forget about everyone in the building. Don’t exclude your box office staff. Pay for their time to see shows, so they can have real conversations about the play.
  • Shadow members on “the other side” of the team.
  • Actively listen to the staff by retaining and absorbing their feedback. Don’t stifle voices.
  • Think about how to engage non-staff, hourly crew/artists, etc. Create a community and family, and also inspire loyalty. Publish an internal newsletter and post news on bulletin board for inclusivity. Host social events for staff and artists.
  • Treat your internal community as the greatest advocates, and everyone as a leader. Create a culture of confidence.

Ideas for Communicating Your Message EXTERNALLY:

  • Reserve seats for local neighborhood. Send invitations and make sure to personalize the communication.
  • When working with diverse communities, connect with “gate keepers” and “culture caretakers.” Clarify your mission and values with them.
  • Willingness to prioritize community over ticket sales.
  • Be patient and be prepared to do the work it takes to establish respect and build trust.
  • If you’re interested in producing a play that aims to heal a community or heal relationship between communities, speak with, listen to and be guided by that community.
  • Flatten out the power structure. Be a part of community as a whole and engage in cross-community storytelling. Be open to shifts in your initial plan. Be prepare to learn from mistakes and course-correct as needed.
  • Be clear about the role of the artist when doing community engagement work.
  • Demonstrate “magic” behind the theatre and allow community to tell their stories.

During this time frame, there were two particular conversations that I wanted to take part in: Michael Rohd’s Devising Civic Practice and EMC Arts’ Shift Your Assumptions.

Michael Rohd

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Michael Rohd.)

Devising Civic Practice: Theatre, Engagement and Listening to Community

Facilitated by Michael Rohd (Sojourn Theatre and Center for Performance and Civic Practice), this workshop, through a mixture of presentation, facilitation, participation and play, let attendees explore three practices that can help artists and organizations develop productive and ethical relationships with non-arts focused community/municipal organizations: the practices of partnership, cross sector translation, and co-design. Generously, Michael shared goals, best practices, and reflections of the session:

The workshop room was filled with a diverse range of participants–from leaders of some of the nation’s largest regional theatres to just out of undergrad artists starting their own companies, from education directors at established theatres with clear missions of public engagement to a marketing director new to her job and to the field of theatre itself. And the common desire, the need for collective figuring, was all about intention and process. Why engage publics, and how might one go about it in ways that adhere to your own organizational or individual answer to the why?

Core Questions:

  • How do artists and arts organizations develop cross-sector partnerships and for what reasons?
  • How do artists translate our role, our work, and our assets in non-arts contexts?
  • What process tools do artists possess that can allow us to broaden the way we and our non-arts partners conceptualize arts-based activity, interventions, and collaborations?

Articulating a spectrum of art-making in relation to an engaged practice:

  • Studio Practice: Artists make their own work and engage with publics as audience.
  • Social Practice: Artists work with publics on an artist-led vision in ways that may include research, process, and/or content with an intention of social impact outside traditional audience experience.
  • Civic Practice: Artists co-design project with publics; the spoken intention is to serve a public partner’s self-defined needs.

Capacity-building goals include:

  • Expand the expected, understood, and accepted conceptual palette of arts-based interventions and activities.
  • Build tools for cross field translation and co-design mentor partnership practice.
  • Advocate for the value of this work to community and municipal entities/leaders and funders via convenings, clinics, workshops, case studies, online resources & a bold cross-sector, multi-platform communication strategy.

Through civic practice, we’ve listened to partners, and learned that community partner needs often land in these areas:

  • Advocacy: help increase visibility and propel mission/message;
  • Dialogue: bring diverse groups into meaningful exchange with each other;
  • Story-Sharing: gather and share narratives from a particular population or around a particular topic;
  • Civic Application: engage the public and decision-makers together in acts of problem-solving and crafting vision;
  • Cross-Sector Innovation: leverage skills and experience from different fields or disciplines to create and manifest new knowledge; and
  • Capacity Building: develop needed skills within the existing human resources of an organization to accomplish goals through current or new strategies.

In Civic Practice, artist assets tend to translate usefully in cross sector partnerships as:

  • Collaboration: turning constituents with varied self-interests into coalitions of stakeholders.
  • Design: problem-solving through highly imaginative and collaborative action.
  • Expression: synthesizing complex data and articulating it in ways that can be comprehended and interrogated.

Michael has written extensively about his work over on HowlRound. Click here to learn more.

Paula Vogel

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Paula Vogel leading her session, “The Crash Course in Playwriting with Paula Vogel.”)

Shift Your Assumptions & Change the Game: New Practices for a New Era in the Arts

In this time of disruptive change – in the arts, in our theatre organizations, in our communities- we sense there is a convergence of critical questions across the country: How are the roles of artists changing? How can we strengthen our impacts in the community and collaborate with other sectors to achieve this? How ready are we for change?

Facilitated by Melissa Dibble (Managing Director, EmcArts) and Jaime Martinez-Rivera (Operations Manager, TCG), this workshop engaged participants around complex challenges shared across the theatre field, rather than merely giving a theoretical overview of change. Working in small groups, participants will focus on the following topics, bringing their own perspectives to bear:

  • Describing shared challenges, using criteria to identify complex challenges, and determining one high priority challenge to focus on.
  • Questioning existing organizational assumptions associated with the selected challenge, and identifying evidence that contradicts those assumptions.
  • Developing new directions for future success, on which new strategies can be built.

Ultimately, this workshop was oriented toward organizational change, which requires as much introspection and transparency as it does intentionality and clarity of purpose. Here are Melissa’s notes from the session:

  • Examine the underlying assumptions and see if they are similar (or not!) than other stakeholders and then see if these underlying assumptions are still reliable predictors of success – or if they are past their sell by date.
  • All challenges are not created equal – and therefore require different responses or solutions. If you have a simple or complicated challenge, then there’s a known (best practice) or knowable (expert) solution out there.
  • But if your challenge is complex (it’s hard to even describe, it’s impossible to conjecture linear cause & effect & likely it has many layers), you need an adaptive process that brings “the people with the problem” together to learn together and uncover the emergent path(s) forward.
  • Innovation and adaptive change in social organizations have three qualities: arises from shifts in underlying assumptions; is discontinuous from previous practice; and delivers public value. It’s not Eureka! in the bathtub, but a set of competencies that can be learned & embedded into your culture over time.

Click here to learn more EMC Arts and read a recent case study about Alternate ROOTS, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and The Theater Offensive, as they examine the contours, possibilities and limitations of adaptive change that these arts and social justice organizations experienced through the EMC Arts Labs.

Dave Isay

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Dave Isay.)

Afternoon Plenary

The afternoon plenary featured Dave Isay, who spoke about the History of StoryCorps and the Power of Storytelling.  StoryCorps’ mission is “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

For an hour, we listened to story after story and bore witness as people shared moments of great love and loss, surprising acceptance and forgiveness, and the complexity of race and identity. There was not a dry tear in the house.

These are the stories that we heard:

Danny and Annie Perasa 

When Danny Perasa, a horse-betting clerk, and his wife Annie, a nurse, recorded their love story in 2004, they instantly became part of the StoryCorps family. Seven years after Danny’s death, Annie returned to a StoryCorps booth for an update. Click here to listen.

“My father was everything to me…”

Lynn Weaver talks with his daughter, Kimberly, about his father, Ted Weaver, who worked as a janitor and chauffeur in Nashville, Tennessee. Click here to listen.

“I was just another black face in the streets.”

Alex Landau, who is African American, and his adoptive mother, Patsy Hathaway, who is white, talk about how Alex’s race has influenced his life and what happened in 2009 when he was beaten by Denver Police after a traffic stop. Click here to listen.

“Hello, my name is Yusor Abu-Salha.”

In May 2014, Yusor Abu-Salha–one of the victims of Tuesday’s shooting in Chapel Hill–recorded a StoryCorps interview with Mussarut Jabeen, who was her 3rd grade teacher. Mussarut Jabeen returned recently to talk about Yusor’s death. Click here to listen.

“I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”

While most StoryCorps interviews are between family and friends, this conversation comes from two people who easily could have been enemies. In 1993, Oshea Israel got into a fight, which ended when he shot and killed Laramiun Byrd. At StoryCorps he spoke with Mary Johnson, the mother of the man he killed. Click here to listen.

“I got bussed to a high school in my sophomore year…”

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley tells his son Jonathan about a year that shaped his life. Click here to listen.

“When I saw him coming, I ducked around the hall and hid from him.”

As a teenager, during the 1950s, Patrick Haggerty began to understand he was gay–something he thought he was hiding well. But as he told his daughter Robin, one day, his father Charles Edward Haggerty, decided to have a serious talk with him. Click here to listen.

“We make a very odd couple.”

Rebecca Greenberg came to StoryCorps with her mother, Laura, to hear about the characters Laura grew up with in Queens during the 1950s. She also heard Laura’s version of her parents’ courtship. It seemed fair to invite the family back so Rebecca’s father, Carl, could tell his side of the story. Click here to listen.

“Eyes on the Stars”

On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. On board was physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to enter space. But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina. Click here to listen.

Click here to learn more about StoryCorps and here to watch the entire session!

Isay Signing

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Dave Isay book signing.)

One Drop Love Performance and Post Show Discussion

I was an emotional wreck after the plenary session, but in a good way and so was everyone around me! It was such a beautiful and poignant experience to sit in deep listening and honor these lives. I went back to the hotel to prep for the post show discussion of Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni’s One Drop of  Love that I was leading later that evening.

As a dramaturg, I consider it a deep honor to lead a post-show… to help navigate the audience experience in such a way that is useful and informative to the artist. One Drop of Love is a solo performance that offers a captivating and intimate exploration of fathers and daughters, the complexity of love and family, and also the challenges of racism and racial identity. The discussion was as rich and full as the performance, and we all headed to the roof top party with our hearts and minds expanded even further.


Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com