Sunday, August 10, 2008

Stagesource Conference - Meeting the New Leaders

I attended the Boston Theatre Conference in Watertown yesterday. This is the big, day-long conference which brings together Boston area actors, writers, administrators, designers, directors, etc.

They had about 250 people there, and Jeff Poulos, the head of Stagesource, (which is the alliance of theatre artists in Boston,) was pleasantly overwhelmed with the successful turnout.

I hope to have more to say in the coming days, but first off I have to congratulate Stagesource, the organizer of the conference, in keeping the day full and keeping everybody engaged.

The centerpiece of the conference was the hour and half panel discussion with the new Artistic Directors of the Huntington Theatre Company, American Repertory Theatre and Trinity Rep.

Peter Dubois, Diane Paulus, and Curt Columbus, sitting on that stage, collectively generated a very distinct message before they even spoke: This is a new generation, one that doesn't look like the subscriber base of most regional theatres

Scott Edmiston and Kate Snodgrass moderated the discussion, which avoided many hard ball questions, but gave us a nice introduction to who these new leaders are.

After amusing anecdotes about their first theatre experiences and then discussions of how they worked into the new jobs and how their aesthetics play out in choosing their seasons, the moderator gradually worked the discussion around to how the leaders saw their theaters in relation to the Boston theatre community, and their relation to the Boston Community in general.

Curt Columbus, Artistic Director of Trinity Rep admitted that the Boston theatre community has been "opaque" to him for his first two years at Trinity Rep, confessing that he just now being able to get his head above water. (He also explained that he has been deeply involved in his new Antigone project, which goes up at Trinity Rep.) He talked about how he does see it as his responsibility, as an Artistic Director of a company with many resources, to see as many shows in the local scene as possible. He told of how he and Martha Lavey would see three or four shows a week in Chicago, and that would really give them a handle on who was doing excellent or interesting work locally. He hoped to do more of that here.

Peter Dubois, the incoming director of the Huntington, said that one of his projected visions regarding the theatre community is to use facilities, such as the Calderwood Pavillion, to host more events in which the theatre community can come toghether. He also spoke of incorporating smaller events into the Huntington mix; stand-up comedy and cabaret were mentioned.

Diane Paulus is very interested in intriguing projects that may be simmering in the minds of local artists.

Curt Columbus stepped in to tell the audience that they should give a little space to Mr. Dubois and Ms. Paulus for their first year or two. He explained that that is about how long it takes to get out from under the learning curve at that level.

With regards to the community at large, Mr. Columbus contributed his recent intitiative to have talk backs after EVERY performance. "This is a very labor-intensive project," he warned, but explained that it pays great dividends. How do they accomplish it? The talk-backs are actually run by members of the audience, voluteers and the community.

Columbus said that he believes that the "ticket/transactional" relationship that regional theatre has had with the audience is becoming very precarious and is probably breathing its last gasps.

Peter Dubois agreed, and added that all three of them on that stage were getting into theatre during a time when the NEA as source of major funding was collapsing. In fact, he pointed out, they were a generation that didn't even have "memories" of large NEA support.

All three seemed to agree that corporate underwriting for tickets could be one solution.

Pleasant, funny and energetic, they handled questions from the audience with poise, and gave a good first impression. I wish them well.

I hope to have more to say about other aspects of the conference in the coming days.


Patrick Gabridge said...

Terrific summary of the panel, Art. I'm very curious to see how all this turns out.

Nice seeing you yesterday and glad we had a chance to chat.

Charles G. Baldwin said...

I enjoyed the conference a great deal, and that really had to do with Scott and Kate's chat with the new big 3: Curt, Peter, and Diane. They all seemed accessible and grounded and spoke of theatre as a part of a community, an integral part - and not an elite, nor esoteric, pantheon of ideas. I come from a back ground of street theatre and now I work with kids over here at Wheelock, and theatre that is erudite and provocative needs to be woven into the fabric of a community to really effect change.
I also appreciated the reminders about theatre being art. Perhaps it is because I administer and support - but to be reminded of the passion and chaos that art can be, more than price points and revenue, was like a breath of fresh air.
The conference gave me a huge boost and that should make the ol' boss happy.