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THEATER | Theater Notes

'Great Divides' Helps Unify Nonprofits

July 04, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

*

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."

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