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Theatre Communications Group's Los Angeles conference to ask big (and small) questions

February 3, 2011 |  2:07 pm


Hollywood Fringe No one will be able to accuse Theatre Communications Group of not posing the big questions at its 50th anniversary national conference in June in Los Angeles (the L.A. Times broke the story last September).

What, TCG plans to ask the expected 1,000 attendees, will theater look like in the next half-century? How best to engage audiences and cultivate cultural variety? What are the most promising new business models for theaters? And what's a strategy for making theater "central to the fabric of our country," as TCG ambitiously puts it?

In a phone interview Wednesday, Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director, said her organization hopes to inspire its members to envision the future of the American theater by addressing the theme: "What if...?" The essential challenge, she said, is how to build on "a miraculous and wonderful theater ecosystem" that was nurtured by the development of the not-for-profit regional theater movement beginning in the early 1960s.

But, Eyring added with a laugh, "we are encouraging not just the big, comprehensive uber-questions. There could be what-if's even about small, practical matters."

In terms of scale, there'll be nothing small about the June 16-18 conference of the nation's premier research, advocacy and organizing entity for the American theater. The event will overlap not only with the inaugural launch of the "RADAR L.A." festival (June 14-26) -- which aims to become the West Coast's answer to the Public Theatre of New York's "Under the Radar" festival -- but with the Hollywood Fringe, a festival of emerging alternative arts, and the third annual National Asian Pacific American Theater Conference and Festival, both of which will take place June 16-26.

"We are working very closely with them to see where there may be some intersection in programming," Eyring said of the National Asian Pacific American Theater Conference.

Such a concentration of national, and even international, attention is rare for L.A. despite the breadth and depth of the region's theatrical offerings. A cross section of local theaters, many of whose representatives are serving on the conference's host committee  -- including East West Players, Latino Theatre Company, the Antaeus Company, Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory -- are gearing up to make the most of the exposure. 

"There is so much talent in Los Angeles that I believe the country needs to recognize this," said Tim Dang, East West Players' longtime artistic director. "I think what we're trying to show in terms of Asian American theater is how much Asian American theater has grown."

About 930 people attended last summer's TCG conference in Chicago, the event's largest ever. This will be the first time that Los Angeles has hosted the conference, and only the third time a West Coast city has done so (Seattle and San Francisco were previous host cities).

"What I'm most excited about is sharing the national spotlight," said Terence McFarland, executive director of LA Stage Alliance, greater Los Angeles' largest performing arts service organization, which won a competitive bid to hold the convention.

McFarland said that having the conference in Los Angeles will particularly benefit the city's large number of small-budget theater companies that haven't been able to send representatives to previous TCG gatherings.

Based in New York City,TCG is the country's largest independent publisher of dramatic literature and a major arts grant-maker. It has 700 organizational members and affiliates and an individual membership of about 12,000. It also monitors federal, state and municipal legislation affecting the arts.

TCG says that, for practical logistical reasons, conference events will be focused on facilities located in downtown L.A., extending along the Grand Avenue corridor and from the Millennium Biltmore Hotel to the Visual and Performing Arts High School.

However, Eyring emphasized, "We're trying to see if there are any creative ways to get people out of the downtown area to see some of the other theaters in the area."

Among the conference's funders will be Boeing Co., the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the L.A.-based Edgerton Foundation, which has fostered world premieres by more than 100 playwrights at nonprofit theatres since the inception of its New American Plays program in 2006.

Another major partner in the conference, the city of Los Angeles Department of Cultural
Affairs, has committed a minimum of $50,000 toward the activities.

McFarland, who attended last year's Chicago convocation, predicted that L.A.'s version of the get-together would be "a movable feast" encompassing performances, formal discussions and private conversations.

"It's a continuing, evolving conversation about how we as colleagues work together and learn from each others' models," he said.

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Fringe Freak's Dave McKeever, in red, and Nick Hill put on their freak costumes to promote the Hollywood Fringe Festival last June. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times

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