'Great Divides' Helps Unify Nonprofits

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Three years ago, when August Wilson created a sensation by condemning colorblind casting, he did it within a speech to the national conference of the Theatre Communications Group, the primary service and advocacy organization for nonprofit theaters.

So theater observers wondered if the organization's next conference, held here in late June, might stir up a similar storm.

It didn't. Still, more than three days of meetings, attended by 540 nonprofit theater leaders and artists from throughout the country, proved to be an ideal way to tune in the current concerns of the noncommercial theater world.

Nonprofit theaters produce most of America's professional productions. But they seldom get the national attention that's paid to the commercial theater, perhaps because the nonprofits are so spread out, compared to Broadway. The TCG conference is that rare occasion when they're just a bit more centralized.

"Conversations Across the Great Divides" was the designated theme of the TCG gathering. On its most literal level, this referred to the Continental Divide. For the first time ever, TCG met outside easy driving distance from its headquarters in New York.

The group's new executive director, Ben Cameron, called the West Coast site a signal of the national scope of TCG. The organization's future meetings will continue to venture outside the Northeast, he said. (The future also will bring a name change for the group, primarily to make it easier to find on the Internet. As he asked for suggestions, Cameron said the current name "sounds like an ad agency.")

Yet the "Great Divides" discussed at the conference were not all geographical.

The first full day of the conference was devoted to the divisions--and the ties--that exist between theater companies and the communities they serve. Those communities are based on aesthetics, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and other criteria, as well as geography.

William Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made it clear in a luncheon session that civic service is essential for any theater that wants a piece of the federal pie. "The arts scene is moving toward community service, away from entitlement," he said. In many areas, including the arts, "pure research is increasingly coming under scrutiny." Artists themselves "are expressing an increasing desire to engage in the community."

The remarks drew some mild retorts. "We're being used to clean up after the governments that removed the arts from the schools," complained one artist.

On an earlier panel, Tim Dang, producing artistic director of L.A.'s East West Players, noted that his company is "a gathering place for the Asian Pacific community"--so much so that "it makes me think: Why are we spending so much money producing plays? East West was started as an artists-driven organization. We have to ask what the community wants, but also what our artists want, because they may not be the same."

The importance of increasing compensation for artists was a theme that resounded throughout the conference, culminating in a series of hostile remarks--during a closing session--from those who felt that a proposed "white paper" either didn't emphasize the subject enough or cloaked it in language that struck the protesting artists as too corporate.

No one defended low compensation, however. Even Ivey was quick to point out that he wants the endowment to return to the business of giving grants to individual artists as well as to companies--a practice that ended amid the political turmoil that afflicted the endowment earlier in the decade.

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Another hot-button issue, and the focus of the conference's second day, was the importance of attracting younger audiences and artists.

The most incendiary remarks on this subject were delivered by panelist Han Ong, the formerly L.A.-based writer who won one of the celebrated MacArthur Foundation grants in 1997 but whose plays have been almost completely unproduced in his hometown. "It's symptomatic of how Mesozoic this industry is that my tired 31-year-old ass can be put up here as a voice of the next generation," began Ong.

He then described theater as an old person's art: "When I write plays, I access the old man part of me." No one need worry about theater dying, he said, because "old people need to go out, too. The hip-hoppers will become grandfathers. Theater accesses those things that are the recompense for growing old." As for Ong himself, he stopped writing plays, turning instead to movies and novels. What would it take to induce him to return, he was asked. "Produce me," he replied.

Ong challenged the common sentiment to "hook [theatergoers] while they're young," which he said is often expressed in "tones that comically echo pederasty." Theater practitioners "want more members in their club," he said. "Trust your passion. But do not pretend that the culture of the future is at stake."

Most of the conference delegates weren't so cynical about theater's attempts to recruit the young. There was talk--and a few signs of action--about subsidizing lower ticket prices for young people. However, as director Peter Hall noted in the opening session, theatergoers are likelier to enjoy the experience in smaller spaces--yet the smaller the space, the greater the per-ticket subsidy required to cover production costs.

A small seminar on the conference's final day discussed a divide that's diminishing--the line that separates commercial theater from the nonprofit world. The discussion included two Broadway heavyweights: Jujamcyn Theatres President Rocco Landesman and Jeb Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, which is the counterpart of TCG in the commercial arena.

Much of the conversation centered not on ways to erase this divide but on ways to preserve it. With "enhancement" money increasingly provided by potential Broadway producers to productions that originate in nonprofit theaters, representatives of both sides of the divide expressed concern that the individual identity of the nonprofits could be in danger.

Thomas Hall, the departing managing director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, said his theater contractually retains artistic control of Broadway-enhanced productions as long as they're at the Old Globe, and "we have not been in the running for some projects because the commercial producers wanted more front-end control."

Landesman agreed that nonprofits should not cede control over such productions, or else they'll become "farm teams or way stations. And that would be the end of nonprofit theater as we know it. Your nonprofit status gives you the license to have your own individuality. It's fine to be a shop window [for Broadway producers], but it's dangerous when they say, 'Can I use your theater?' "

Hall cited problems with one production that arrived at the Old Globe with $2 million in enhancement money, the musical "Time and Again" in 1996. Its Broadway backers treated it as a Broadway tryout instead of a chapter in the development of the show, he contended, which led to unnecessary extravagance. Monks' robes were created at the cost of $1,200 apiece, even though the Old Globe had "reasonable facsimiles" in its wardrobe shop that could have been used for free. Yet in the meantime, the book and score weren't ready for Broadway.

"Our audience has been developed not to need 10 sets that fly. But when you move into a commercial situation, this [lack of lavish sets] wouldn't be acceptable." Hall further cautioned that "if your local audiences become confused about who you are, you're not going to survive."

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Charles Dillingham, Center Theatre Group's managing director, provided counterpoint with the observation that "no one got confused" by the Mark Taper Forum's Broadway-enhanced and Broadway-bound production of "Putting It Together" last fall. "If [theatergoers] were concerned, they got straightened out by the next production, which was the [more severe] 'Tongue of a Bird.' I don't think anyone is selling out and doing nine shows a year in commercial partnerships." In fact, he added, if more than one commercial partnership were offered for a single season, "we'd say, 'We've got one, and that's enough.' "

Nevertheless, replied Hall, citing the Old Globe's experience with the Broadway-bound "Damn Yankees," a few of the theater's board members do occasionally ask "Why don't you just do another one of those?" A theater's leaders should educate board members not to expect frequent doses of Broadway backing, he said.

Later, closing the conference, Cameron cited the contradictions between theaters' mandates to diversify and to focus, to rely on gifts and also to compensate artists and staff within the marketplace. Yet he contended that "the value of feeling the most private of feelings in the most public of settings"--a primary mission of theater--is worth the hassles. Disregarding Ong's warnings, he concluded that "it is God's work we do."

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