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Friday, June 29, 2012


This weekend he's presenting an excerpt from the new draft of his play Turtles at The Inkwell Theater's First Contact Showcase at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but John Greiner-Ferris graciously took time during this busy week to reflect on his experience at the 2012 Theatre Communications Group National Conference, held last week in Boston:

A week ago today almost to the minute as I write this, I was preparing myself for the first day of the Theater Communications Group annual conference in Boston, better known on Twitter as #TCG12. My thoughts are still swirling from the event, and this post will reflect that randomness.

As I had tweeted that day, I was feeling as if it was the first day of school, and I was dealing with the type of anxieties that might consume a high school freshman. As I picked out my cleanest jeans, I wondered, Who would I hang out with for the three days? Would my inherent shyness relegate me to being a wallflower, or worse, a social outcast? Would I like my classes? And would the hefty sum of time and money spent ultimately be worth it? I spritzed a shirt and threw it in the dryer to iron out the wrinkles, grabbed the Red Line, and headed over to the Park Plaza Hotel.

It turns out that, like many social situations, I wasn’t alone with my feelings, and MJ Halberstadt and I even joked that we put more thought than usual into what we were going to wear that day. (See above about spritzing a shirt.) It turns out there were tons of friendly people to strike up a conversation with who came to #TCG12 with the same desire for connecting that I did. It was no trouble starting up a conversation, and I’m curious to see how some of these connections pan out in the upcoming year. (Yes, definitely call me when you’re in New York.) Plus, Boston is my home, so I already knew plenty of local artists, and friendly faces abounded. I think hands down the best part of the conference was being able to hang out with local artists, even if it was simply to stop in the hall and check in with what they were doing.

For the most part, I enjoyed the sessions I attended. Like professors and teachers and instructors everywhere, some facilitators were better than others at leading discussions, but there was always something – an idea, a suggestion, a contact – to take away from a session. It was a shame that the sessions were only offered one time. Every time slot offered multiple sessions that I would have liked to attend. I think this is a testament to the amazing list of topics the conference organizers developed. A lot of the theater companies came as a group, so they could divide and conquer the conference, but I had to make really hard decisions about what I cared to hear about, and for the hefty price of the conference I would have liked to have had a second chance at some sessions.

Most of the speeches, I thought, were too long, but you have to remember I used to be a speechwriter. I know the drill. Someone is asked to give a twenty-minute speech, and they have thirteen minutes of really good material. I mean, really good material. But then those extra seven minutes can be deadly. This is the reason I always carry a book.

Like everything in the world right now, it seems the general feeling among the speakers and attendees was that current model for the theater is broken. But there were so many good ideas about how to fix things. Check this out: Some European theater companies work together for years – playwrights, directors, designers, actors all collaborating, bringing their unique talents into the room. The results are supposed to be amazing. Compare that to the American model where we bring in actors three weeks before opening. In a sense, we’re still rehearsing when the show is running. Of course, no one mentioned it and the only reason I bring it up is because it wasn’t mentioned, but this is the old Soviet bloc model for the arts.

In one session it was questioned whether theaters can get too big, growing to the point where new play development isn’t financially viable. Good question. I think anything can grow to be “too big.”

I heard one person say while it’s great that the LORT theaters are no longer the gatekeepers of playwrights, but it’s also true that places like The Lark, the Eugene O’Neill Center, etc. are now the gatekeepers. When they get 900 applicants and only take five, you can’t not assume that those five are blessed. Playwrights have to fight that idea. Playwrights have to keep doing their art and believe in themselves to survive.

The greatest and most dangerous booth for me in the exhibitor’s hall was the TCG bookstore. All books were 40 percent off. I spent almost the price of admission to the conference at that booth.

Every January Lynn Nottage wonders what she’ll be working on for the next two years. It’s a real concern for her, because what she’s wondering is, how will she make money for the next two years. I think, Lynn Nottage and I have the same worries, only I pretty much worry about that on a monthly basis. She said she has two kids and who’s going to pay for her day care if she’s asked to travel to a theater in another city? It’s a real-life concern for playwrights. Writers are the same everywhere, even Pulitzer Prize-winning writers.

An artist from a small ensemble theater in southeastern Kentucky kept talking about the stories her theater told were about their culture. I loved that she referred to her world as having a culture because it does. I come from that world, and I loved hearing there was a group of dedicated artists keeping that Appalachian culture alive. I am so tired of plays about white people with white, middle-class problems.

Someone said he’s tired of hearing theater artists calling theaters their home. I couldn’t have disagreed more.

I saw The Hotel Nepenthe during the run of the conference as part of the Emerging America Festival. I loved, loved, loved the performance, but even more so I was proud that there were plenty of productions like it where Boston was showing the national theater crowd something to sit up and notice.

For a theater conference, though, there was an unbelievable lack of theater at the conference. Someone pointed that out, and I have to agree.

At one point I needed a quiet room to Skype. A volunteer scrambled and found a room from me deep in the bowels of the hotel. (It was like a bunker down there.) The staff was amazingly helpful, and it was obvious how hard they were working.

In the end, #TCG12 was definitely worth it, but like so many things, the value came from unexpected places.

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