National conference discusses expanding audiences for local stages
There was an unintended logic to the choice of John Waters as the keynote speaker for the Theatre Communications Group 2009 national conference, held in Baltimore this past weekend. In the brief question-and-answer session that followed his "My Filthy Life" vaudeville act, an out-of-town audience member asked Waters to recommend a Baltimore theater. For the first time, the man who was busy riffing on subjects as varied as talking assholes or scratch-and-sniff movies for 70 minutes looked genuinely stumped. Given his heavy out-of-town schedule, well, he actually hadn't been to much Baltimore theater recently. "Of course, there's Center Stage," he mused. And then, digging a little helplessly into the 1980s, he offered the names of several long-closed experimental theaters.
Yes, there's a problem here. The percentage of under-30-years-old Baltimoreans who have watched Divine eat shit in Pink Flamingos is probably much larger than the percentage of under-30s who have a favorite theater. In a nutshell, the 800 theater managers, developers, directors, and actors from around the country had convened at the conference's Hippodrome Theater base camp to trade ideas and find ways out of this situation. As they adjust to a new world, how do theaters draw young and new audiences?
Entitled "Roots, Renaissance, and Revolution: Defining the New Landscape," TCG 2009 set about trying to come up with ideas for establishing a bond with new audiences in a time of economic uncertainty. And in one headlining presentation, entitled "If I Ran the . . . TCG Member Theatre," four theater personalities--Kate Davis (marketing and communications officer, Olney Theatre Center), Andrea Dymond (resident director, Illinois' Victory Gardens Theatre), Joe Salvatore (director/playwright/teacher, Program in Educational Theatre, New York University), Meiyin Wang (associate producer, New York's Under the Radar), all in their 30s or younger--offered their own visions of what the theaters are going to have to do to reclaim the elusive demographic of youthful, creative types who are not necessarily habitual theatergoers.
And that's where Baltimore came in. Preparatory to her presentation, Wang spent a few days exploring Baltimore's theater community, talking to directors, actors, and even theater journalists. Her hypothetical project was to move to Baltimore and assume ownership of the Theatre Project, the small Baltimore theater on Preston Street that holds 150 people and has a full-time staff of three. What would she do to vitalize the theater scene and take advantage of Baltimore's own creative energies? She came up with a few suggestions to throw into the ring.
She would revive the TNT--The New Theater--festivals. These festivals, which the Theater Project had helped run from 1976-'79, offered several weeks of cutting-edge international and national acts, which put Baltimore on the map of international theater. According to Wang, more of these festivals would energize the theater community. "A festival gives you a chance to do extraordinary things," she said during her presentation. "You're creating an event. You're creating a relationship between the audience and actors." She says that her vision of festivals would be more curated, experimental, and narrower in scope than the broader Fringe Festivals, which are held during the summer in Washington, New York, and other cities.
Secondly, Wang said she'd focus on developing more creative networks and strategic partnerships among the local theater community. "If there's one thing we learn from the theater, it's that we can't be in-breeders," she said
Baltimore's active music community should offer the theater a little inspiration in that department. "[Create] an environment where people might not like everything they're going to see, but they know that the artists are challenging them," Wang said. "They come to be shocked, challenged, to be uncomfortable. And they will like it."
Wang talks about the theater as a showcase for new material, and an active network of artists across disciplines. She refers to closer creative relationships between theaters and universities--such as MICA, among others--and considers a hypothetical partnership between theater and art schools. "The theater, for instance, might offer students exhibits," she said. "The college, for instance, may pay for an entire freshman class to visit Theatre Project."
Wang also suggests more flexible performance spaces--although she admits that such may be a while coming in the Theatre Project, given the amount of reconstruction required. But "the arts needs to be a place of civic discourse," she said. "The theater should be an intersection between a circus tent, a debate hall, and a beer hall."
In that spirit, the theater space could conceivably be transformed into a sort of bar after the show. "The theater should be a center of cultural and intellectual conversation in Baltimore," she said. "You can engage the public. Arts and curators need to be cross-breeding with other thinkers."
Wang admits that these are just ideas brainstormed after a couple of days in Baltimore. She hasn't had to deal with Baltimore's liquor board, or a cash-strapped board of directors. And some of the ideas are already being considered--Center Stage, for instance, is going to be transforming its own theater into a cabaret-style space next season, and the Annex Theatre in Station North Arts District has been steadily attracting younger audiences with its fresh approaches to plays and playwrights. But Wang's essential message may be worth keeping in mind. To survive, theaters in cities such as Baltimore need to be less reactive, less inbred, and more ready to challenge the audience to respond to the world around them. And then, maybe, it'll compete with John Waters or even Dan Deacon for that younger generation.
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