Scaling TCG's Press Summit
So here's the thing about Theatre Communications Group's Press Summit: how do you present the entire press/theater dynamic, framed by the implosion of the newspaper industry and giftwrapped in our current economic crisis, open it up at a conference table, and assemble a new paradigm (batteries not included) in just two hours? You don't.
If you're wondering how many minds it took to reach that particular conclusion, well, TCG sat down with Peter Marks, Lou Bellamy, Mark Cosson, Neil Pepe, Olga Sanchez, Chris Rawson, Judy Rousuck, Phil Stephenson, Raelle Myrick Hodges, Jim O'Quinn, Susan Booth, Steve Cosson, Emily Mann, John O'Neal, Elizabeth Blair, Neil Pressley, Jason Zinoman, Richard Zoglin and me. (I know I said Bartlett Sher would attend, but he was a no-show. I'm sure he had a good excuse.) The earth didn't rumble and subscribers didn't fall from the heavens, but we did start an exchange that felt kind of like a first date. Not one of those hot, crazy first dates where you start out at dinner and end up pressing the emergency stop button in the nearest elevator (No I haven't, but it sounds fun, right?), but more like one of those first dates where the conversation moves along nicely, you get a chance to really check your companion out across the table, and you think, "You know what? I could maybe do this again."
[Above: Pepe, Hodges and Stephenson get to know each other a little better.]
"This" was the act of feeling out the dead zone between critics and artistic directors. However, as it turns out, we're all pretty much on the same side. Time Magazine's Zoglin explained his goal these days is just to maintain a place for theater in the national press--no easy feat. Meanwhile, Civilians' artistic director Cosson worries that as goes newspaper criticism, so goes public discourse about theater. Without that discourse, he believes, the work is incomplete.
How do two professions that are often at odds, but somehow have the exact same goal, find a way to cooperate? Miracle Theatre Group's Sanchez hosts cultural celebrations in conjunction with her productions; thus, even if the show is ignored due to tight space in the A&E section of the paper, a Day of the Dead celebration with local children might--and did--receive coverage in the Local or Family section. When Hodges took the reins at Brava after its founder and 22-year artistic director's departure, she thawed the icy heart of a San Francisco journalist with persistent personal invitations to get to know her via special events at the theater. Now? Hodges understands and appreciates that the journalist/a.d. relationship will never result in a new BFF, but she does feel he now gets her mission and is willing to allow her some room to settle in. Atlantic Theater Company's Pepe, on the other hand, hasn't circumvented the media entirely, but says getting the word out on social media sites such as Facebook increased his audiences at a time when he expected the butts-in-seats count to take a major hit.
The journalists were less optimistic, with plenty of expected hand-wringing over lost space, readers, jobs and dollars. Sure, when you're reminiscing about the power of words on a printed page, things are grim. And yet. Maybe I'm just relentlessly, blindly upbeat, but I can't help thinking we're headed into a robber baron era for entrepreneurial-minded writers. I'm also of the firm belief that readers' ability to comment on or question reviews and get a response from critics is a superb development for theaters, criticism, and incidentally, individual critics, often freelancers, who can use that personal interaction to help build a loyal audience. Its absence is one of print's biggest drawbacks, yet when it's available online, it's almost always under- or never-used by critics. When Ms. Rousuck asked what we'd like to see happening in five years, my vision included getting critics to dig in with both hands and help craft criticism into the kind of ever-evolving organism that is a true reflection of theater's living art.
But hey, what do I know? TCG may reconvene this group again, and if they do, I hope we return triumphant, with every house still producing and every critic still employed, because for right now, that's enough to ask. But wouldn't it also be great if next time we let loose a little and ended up in that elevator, groping together to uncover some new and previously unexplored synergy?
Yeah, me too. Hey TCG, thanks for a good time. ;-)