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?

The extremely upbeat and friendly representatives of Agile Lens and Fisher Dachs Associates, a virtual reality company that set up a demo room (or, as they called it, the “Virtual Reality Petting Zoo”) during the conference, provided an example of one prong of attack. Their very cool VR program puts you inside a rendering of a theater: you can look around, walk around, and automatically place yourself in any seat in the house or on the stage. Fisher Dachs is a theatrical design agency, and developed the program with Agile Lens in order to better communicate with architects and other shareholders. But, as they explained, they quickly realized the broader applicability: on the one hand, artists like designers could create an immersive set rendering to share with their cast and crew, or directors could see how a design will look from any audience member’s point of view. And on the other, donors could be given a full walk-through of a proposed new space or expansion in order to see just what their money would be going towards.

Theater is definitely increasingly interested in finding ways to go digital. Every theater company and website seems to have a podcast now, like the recording I attended (“Here come all the millennials,” someone joked as we headed into the room where the live taping would take place). The conference itself was live-streamed and live-tweeted, officially by American Theatre and Howlround, and additionally by many participants. The phrase “digital dramaturgy” is spreading.

But the VR demonstrations suggested a different kind of engagement with new technology, perhaps leveraging it to provide something tangible (or at least the illusion of tangibility) where previously renderings and imagination would have to do.

Conventioneers toured the Michael Curry Studio in Scappoose, where Curry and his company design large-scale visual theatrical works that are seen around the world. Their puppetry and stage designs enhanced the Oregon Symphony’s recent performance of ‘Persephone.’ Photo: Brud Giles

The conference’s central metaphor taps into this idea: that of “maker theater,” inspired by the “maker movement” of artisanal, small-batch craftsmanship for which Portland has become famous. It sounds a bit like the premise for a Portlandia sketch, but it also provides an insightful example of the type of careful, local work that theater might look to as a model for how an industry can define itself against the prevailing mass-market, digital cultural trends.

And speaking of defining oneself against things: How about that political situation? In the same live podcast recording, Third Rail managing artistic director Maureen Porter confessed that the question of whether or not theater is even capable of doing the social and political work that needs to be done is one she can’t quite shake. And it’s a good question: Portland’s own history of white supremacy (and not-so-historical history thereof) provides a particularly urgent background for the questions that are troubling arts groups across the country, and formed a major strand of inquiry throughout the conference. How can we be more inclusive? How can we be more equitable? How can we demonstrate both within and without that the theater—with its white, elitist reputation and its white, male past—has value in combating injustices it is also guilty of?

Panels and plenaries throughout the conference demonstrated TCG’s commitment to actively addressing these concerns, especially on the topic of diversity. The concern is urgent and sincere, though everyone is keenly aware that these problems are not new, and these conversations have been happening for quite some time now.

For the TCG attendees, the question is not, of course, whether or not theater has value or power. The conference as a whole seemed to echo the lament by an artistic director I dined with on Friday night: “We have to stop telling people who ask about our work, just come and see it!” We have to find new ways to articulate our art form’s worth—in terms of money, in terms of experience, in terms of an ability to speak to and represent a diverse, troubled world.


  • The ArtsWatch story Theater notes: TCG and the Tonys, by Bob Hicks,  discusses other aspects of this year’s TCG conference.
  • Watch for more on ArtsWatch about what happened at TCG from Portland writer and producer Dmae Roberts.

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