TCG conference

Theater at the intersection

Two themes at TCG's national conference in Portland – diversity and "maker" creativity – suggest a future for the art form

The Theatre Communications Group annual national conference, which landed in downtown Portland for four days last week, had two stated themes which I initially found, if not exactly contradictory, at least not particularly relevant to one another. One of the main programmatic strands was called “At the Intersections,” a series of structured workshops centered on diversity and allyship. The other was a stated interest in celebrating Portland’s “maker” culture, and exploring ways to apply this concept to theatrical work. Both interesting and worthy and, laid side-by-side, at first seeming sort of random.

But as I actually attended the conference, I found unexpected resonance between the two strands. The question of diversity and the question of how to redefine theater’s cultural role in relation to new movements and technology seemed to me to intersect in a broader question about how the theatre industry can find new ways to define its value.

I mean that in two senses, and they both feel particularly pressing here in Portland. The first is, of course, financial. As Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez pointed out during a live taping of the American Theatre magazine podcast, in most cities, the most well-established companies pay a symbolic fee on an incredibly long lease, while the smaller and less financially stable companies pay exorbitant monthly or weekly rents. This is true in Portland, too, where the brunt of the financial burden of steeply climbing real estate prices is borne by the small companies least able to absorb any additional costs, much less costs growing at the rate of Portland’s rents.

Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TAG annual conference.

Pair this with theater’s increasing—or at least ongoing—cultural irrelevance. As exciting as Hamilton was, it does not seem to have heralded theater’s return to the mainstream. We know well, and it remains true, that audiences are small, white, and old. How can theaters prove their value to new and current audiences in order to remain alive in both the short and long term? How can they prove their value to a city that seems happy to fill its trendiest areas with condos and storefronts instead of arts venues?

Continues…