Some in the professional theater community view critics as their natural enemy out to destroy or trivialize the efforts of all theatrical companies. Over time, a tradition of sorts began – something akin to the bridegroom not seeing his bride before the ceremony; in other words, bad luck or a doomed marriage. Bull. I’ve never met a fellow critic who walked into a theater hoping the production would be bad, boring or worse in order to write a clever, witty review that denigrates the production as a way of elevating their own importance.

As a member of the American Theater Critics Association (ATCA), I thought it would be interesting to see what and how theater professionals, both administrative and creative types, discuss and approach their work. How they grapple day to day with such thorny issues as work ethics, problem solving (marketing and finance issues) the creative process in general, and how they plan for the growth of a necessary industry during difficult times in a challenged American economy.

When seeking news of what’s happening in American not-for-profit theater, you can track those happenings via the Theater Communications Group (TCG). (If you are not familiar with TCG, it is the national organization whose mission is to strengthen, nurture, and promote the professional not-for-profit American theater.) Once a year the organization convenes its National Conference in a different city, allowing members and interested parties to come together, press the flesh, attend workshops and panels, and exchange ideas on the state and future of American theater.

Started over 50 years ago by the efforts of a handful of theaters, TCG has grown to represent nearly 700 member theaters and more than 12,000 individuals nationwide. In addition to offering its members networking and knowledge-building opportunities, it also publishes the award-winning American Theater magazine, considered an essential source for those seeking a career in the arts.

So when TCG selected the city of San Diego to host its 2014 National Conference, this presented me with a perfect opportunity to satisfy my critic’s curiosity to observe the current state of the art. More than 900 theater professionals from all over the United States attended the conference in June, and the energy level at the Welcome for Newbies and First Timers session was intense on day one, rising even higher on days two and three. I would estimate that about 75 percent of the attendees were under 40 years of age. That’s good news for those of us older folks who are happy to see the legacy of American theater is secure.

Due to my being on a “No Fly” list of sorts (critics are not permitted to attend certain workshops and panels), I had to glean bits of information and breaking news from the four plenary sessions that everyone could attend, mostly in the form of insights shared during liquid-fueled epiphanies in the hotel bar post-sessions. The three-day experience led me to conclude that America’s theater professionals are mostly upbeat about the prospects for the country’s not-for-profit theaters.

As the saying goes, “it’s not your father (or grandfathers’s) theater any more”. That’s not to say today’s makers and shakers are stuck in a time warp. Quite the contrary. But the landscape is beginning to take on a new look when it comes to confronting the reality of creating and producing plays as we know it today.

Theater is an evolving art form and always has been. Sometimes, it’s just not easy to recognize change when it arrives. I think when theaters begin their season selection process, a blending of the familiar with the bolder choices that are being made by new and emerging theatrical companies is a prudent way to go. Both sides of a critical component need to have their day in the court of paying patrons – the ultimate arbiter of which way is better in the theater – to prove their case.

The dialogues remind me of the heated and passionate discussions of fifty years ago when many theaters, actors, directors and boards of directors wrestled with a critical decision when it came to making an immutable theatrical choice: do we build a proscenium stage or a stage in the round? Thus the thrust stage was born, and the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont and the Mark Taper Forum’s thrust stages have led the way in producing plays and musicals without compromising audience enjoyment.

While “compromise” as a position is not in favor in our current, highly partisan environment, I also believe that the arts communities in America are smarter and wiser when it comes to working together than the folks in Washington D.C. Overall, I came away from the TCG Conference with the conviction that torches have been passed to younger professionals who are smart, creative and eager to embrace the challenges of ideas and concepts that not only nourish one’s soul but please their audiences in the bargain. Despite having to accomplish their goals on limited budgets the new generation is eager and capable of thinking “outside the creative box” when it comes to protecting and keeping the American theater dream.

Key Subjects: 
Theater Communications Group, TCG,
Jack Lyons
Writer Bio: 
As a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Writers Guild of America West, Screen Actors Guild, and the American Theater Critics Association, Jack Lyons is interested in all things "show biz." He’s an entertainment journalist, TV, radio and theater reviewer/critic on Channel KPSE-TV and on Time Warner Channel 111 on "Desert Entertainment This Week."
August 2014
Thoughts on the 2014 Theater Communications Group Conference