Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Theatre Miscommunications Group?

Graphic by Jai Sen, for the Clyde Fitch Report

In my The Clyde Fitch Report column "Nothing But Trouble" I follow up my commentary on the volunteer situation at last month's Theatre Communications Group conference in Boston. The piece summarizes parts 1 and 2 of my #OccupyTCG series that ran earlier this month before moving on TCG's official (and unofficial) reactions.

Nothing But Trouble: Theatre Miscommunications Group?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Somerville Scout: An American Poet in Kosovo

Dave Brinks, Lediana Stillo, and yours truly at the League of Prizren Museum, in Prizren, Kosovo. Photograph by Abdyl Kadolli.

Sometimes, when not engaged in provocative reporting from the Theatre Communications Group, or analyzing efforts to disrupt a Shakespeare festival for political purposes and otherwise writing the story, I'm the subject of the story.

Eli Jace of the Somerville Scout interviews me regarding my recent trip to Kosovo as a guest of the Writers Union of Kosova at their Drini Poetik International Festival of Poetry to commemorate the publication of Tingujt e erës: Lirikë e re Amerikane (Sounds of Wind: New American Lyrics.

Ian Thal: An American Poet in Kosovo

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Philistinism in the UK, Part II

Over at the Clyde Fitch Report, part II of my post-mortem on the on the attempt of British anti-Israeli activists to prevent the Israeli State Theatre, Habima, from performing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London as part of the 37 play Globe to Globe Festival:

Given the Globe’s steadfastness that that it would not bow to any cultural boycott, the March 29th letter was doomed to have little effect; only gaining headlines due to the celebrity status of many of the signatories: film star Emma Thompson’s name appeared in much of the subsequent news coverage, as did that of Mark Rylance, who was former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. It was little surprise to see the name of playwright Caryl Churchill, whose Seven Jewish Children has been widely criticized as anti-Semitic by such figures as Booker Award winning novelist, Howard Jacobson, attorney and literary scholar Anthony Julius and others due to its invocation of the blood libel, gross distortion of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crude ethnic stereotypes of Jews. (Notably, The Guardian, which makes Seven Jewish Children available on its website has published numerous apologiae effectively making the paper the play’s corporate sponsor.)

With the March 29th letter, the story had gone from activists attempting to silence artists not because of the content of the work but for their identity, to that of artists attempting to silence other artists due to their identity: a particularly dangerous position for artists to take. Once an artist advocates the boycotting of another artist’s work because of their nation of origin or for taking a gig in a specific theatre, they have both given sanction to hooliganism seen on May 28th and 29th and sanction similar retaliation towards their own work.

Read more at the Clyde Fitch Report!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Philistinism in the UK, Part I

Photograph by Richard Millet. Used with permission.

I have a new column at the newly relaunched Clyde Fitch Report entitled "Nothing But Trouble". The CFR bills itself as "the nexus of arts and politics" and "Nothing But Trouble" will be focussing on just that nexus.

My column will open with a two-part series entitled "Philistinism in the UK" which is a follow-up and expansion upon an earlier piece, "Artistic Boycotts in the UK" and focusses on the attempt of British anti-Israeli activists to prevent the Israeli State Theatre, Habima, from performing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London as part of the 37 play Globe to Globe Festival:
Outside the theatre, one anti-Israel protestor was photographed wearing what any commedia dell’arte enthusiast might see as a Pantalone mask but to most would be seen as the stereotype of the grotesquely long-nosed Jew; somehow it seems unlikely that he was making commentary on Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the Italian comedy.

Though the most vocal protestors were kept out, Habima’s performances were repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israeli activists, who were photographed waving Palestinian flags, and unfurling banners with anti-Israeli slogans, only to be escorted out by security. Reports describe a group standing silently with their mouths covered by either tape or adhesive bandages apparently in protest of the “censorship” of the more disruptive activists. Several sources that during the trial scene in Act IV, a protester shouted “hath not a Palestinian eyes?” echoing signs seen outside the theatre as well as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the original text (Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech is from Act III, Scene 3.)

Read more at the The Clyde Fitch Report!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

#OccupyTCG or How I Finally Discovered the Utility of Twitter, Part 2

[Part of a short series that will likely be expanded upon in The Clyde Fitch Report]

Read Part 1.

On Friday, June 22nd, I had dinner with John Geoffrion, president of the Small Theatre Alliance and member of the Boston Host Committee for the TCG conference before we caught a workshop presentation of a new work by Mike Daisey. He had been drafting a letter to the TCG staff to voice his displeasure at the treatment of volunteers at the conference and the embarrassing position it had placed him in as a member of the Volunteer Sub-Committee.

All throughout the conference, TCG staff had been bragging during the plenary sessions that the #tcg12 hashtag was one of the trending topics on twitter. So on the morning of June 23rd, despite my frequently stated distaste for the medium, I too, turned to twitter, first tweeting:

Last night the volunteers were allowed to approach the bar like real adults; Maybe today they will be allowed to speak. #tcg12 #nethtr

I followed with a new hashtag #OccupyTCG. Note that the following is not a complete transcript:

#tcg12 volunteers promised full participation in return for work-hours then ordered not to speak or ask questions. #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

#tcg12 Are volunteers also barred from tweeting about theatre? #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

#tcg12 Model the Movement: if you don't pony up $300 you can't possibly have anything relevant to say about theatre. #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

Model the Movement: Low income theatre artists should be seen (volunteering) and not heard at #tcg12 #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

Ironically, I began tweeting #OccupyTCG during a plenary session entitled "Ensuring the Sustainability of Our Field" that largely addressed topics of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender in American theatre with only lip service to issues of class.

Eventually, after others began to retweeted my initial posts and started asking questions, I received a series of tweets from August Shulenburg playwright, actor, and Associate Director of Communications for TCG:

@IanThal Worried there's been a miscommunication re: volunteer participation at #TCG12. Email me at w/what happened

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (1/3) I've looked more into this & I'm hearing there was some confusion during volunteer meeting... #TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (2/3) ...but the volunteer packet should state "If you're not assigned a role, you're welcome..." _#TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (3/3) attend another session." It asks volunteers 2 prioritize care of attendees,but no barr. #TCG12

To which I responded:

@GusSchulenburg I have volunteer recruitment emails going back to April from the host committee for #tcg12 #OccupyTCG

@GusSchulenburg @madbusch @JohnGeoffrion That's not in the packet and email that #tcg12 volunteers received. #OccupyTCG


@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @IanThal Now I'm being told something different about the packets. REALLY sorry about this. Will have answers soon

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion Again, my apologies. I now have my hands on full packet & @IanThal is right Clearly, this is an issue &... _#TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal ...I'll look more into the cause of comm. breakdown. Very sorry not in time to make a difference #TCG12

There appeared to be multiple layers of miscommunication: not only had TCG not communicated to the Host Committee the status of volunteers until a day or two before the conference, but Schulenburg, as the tweets reveal, had somehow been issued a completely different volunteer policy than what was presented in the volunteer guide and had been defended by TCG staff at the June 20th orientation..

As of this writing August Schulenburg, to his credit, is the only TCG staff member to either respond to the concerns raised in my tweets or reply to my emails.

[To Be Continued...]

Monday, July 2, 2012

#OccupyTCG or How I Finally Discovered the Utility of Twitter, Part 1

[Part of a short series that will likely be expanded upon in The Clyde Fitch Report]

There was much excitement last year when it was announced that the annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group, New York-based publisher of American Theatre magazine, theatrical books, as well as an industry-wide association for American theatre, announced that the 2012 TCG National Conference would take place in Boston. Locally it was seen as a national acknowledgement that Boston had "arrived" as a theatrical community. Much was afoot in the Boston area: There had been recent leadership changes at both American Repertory Theater and The Huntington Theatre, ArtsEmerson had opened shop under the leadership of Bob Orchard and had quickly established itself as a major presenting institution for international work. Just as importantly, the "fringe" scene (much of which represented by the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston) has blossomed in recent years, becoming so essential that SourceStage, the older, more established Boston theatre-service organization had been coordinating activities with the Small Theatre Alliance. Both organizations have in turn been discussing a possible merger.

The host committee, made up of a wide swath of people from Boston's theatre community was charged with laying the groundwork for the conference. One initiative the host committee took was to rebrand the conference as a New England conference, sponsoring town meetings in the months prior to the conference not just in Boston and Cambridge, but in Worchester, Pittsfield, Portland, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island and so the #BOSthtr hashtag that StageSource had previously promoted for use in twitter was joined by #NEthtr. The host committee, in short, saw its mission not just as welcoming the out-of-town guests were treated with hospitality but to ensure that New England's theatrical communities were also well represented.

The host committee was also responsible for recruiting volunteers to help run the conference. Due to the steepness of the registration fees (the "early bird rate" for independent artists nominated by member organizations was $280 but some attendees or their sponsoring institutions were paying as much as $725 to attend) volunteering several hours to help run the conference seemed like a reasonable way for a low-to-moderate income artist to get into an important industry conference.

For the record I worked six hours as a volunteer for the conference—which not including the receptions, amounts to roughly a third of my time at the conference. It was simple work: manning tables, moving chairs, being on hand to act as a gopher but absolutely necessary for a conference with roughly a thousand attendees.

There had already been some concern about how well the interests of small and fringe theatre companies would be represented at TCG. TCG groups its member theatres by budget group and theatre companies with annual budgets of under half-a-million dollars are all classified together. Consequently, one question that was part of the scuttlebutt amongst artists affiliated with the Small Theatre Alliance was "how aware or interested was TCG in the challenges faced by theatre companies who operate on shoe-string budgets?" In fact, the only presentation I caught (in part because I was assigned to work on it as part of my volunteer hours) that addressed small theatres was a "breakout session" that addressed Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep in which small companies from Chicago's storefront theatre scene are sponsored by the larger company.

However, the real disconnect came when on June 19th, volunteers were sent an email with guidelines that included one directive that would prove to be controversial:

In all sessions, be they breakouts or plenary, workshops or roundtables, you are there to observe and help, not to participate. TCG staff and volunteers must refrain from participating [TCG's emphasis] in conversations or Q&A rounds in all conference sessions.

The following day, during a volunteer orientation, a volunteer asked for a clarification: was this only for sessions where the volunteer was working in a support capacity or was this an across the board rule for all sessions. Devon Berkshire (Conference Manager) and Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications), who were representing TCG at the orientation meeting clarified that it was be an across the board policy, as volunteers are present as an extension of TCG staff and thus are not to participate.

At the end of the meeting members of the Host Committee's volunteer sub-committee voiced muted displeasure at the policy as they had been of the understanding that volunteers would be full participants. One volunteer confided in me that he was going to reconsider his participation in light of this policy.

Consequently, at Wednesday night's welcome party, which had initially been promoted to local theatre people as "your party" left the volunteers in attendance uncertain as to whether they were really invited (the volunteer packet also stipulated that volunteers were not to partake in any of the catering which that evening amounted to chips and salsa.) The volunteers present were also not issued drink tickets. About halfway through the party, representatives from MailChimp an email newsletter design and consulting firm that was present for the conference decided to donate drink tickets to the volunteers.

At the following evening's reception at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, volunteers were again not allowed to partake in the catering and were denied drink tickets. If there had been some concern for volunteers over indulging in alcohol and not being capable of fulfilling volunteer duties the following day, this same concern was not held for the paying attendees who were issued bracelets with five drink tickets each. Nobody attending an industry conference whose first plenary session is at 9:00a.m. needs to imbibe five drinks over the course of three hours the night before. The bartenders had also apparently been given instructions not to allow attendees to transfer their drink tickets to volunteers. In addition the buffet was only half-eaten by the end of the party which speaks to the lack of scarcity—at least if the volunteers had been permitted to approach the food tables, less food would have gone to waste.

Friday, June 22nd was the busiest day of the conference. Because I had only a week before returned from the Republic of Kosovo where I had been a guest of the Writers Union at the Drini Poetik International Festival of Poetry, I was interested in attending the lunchtime roundtable discussion on international theatre exchanges, yet was neither permitted to share my experiences nor ask if other attendees about their experiences. I was also not permitted to ask a question or speak at the breakout session on "models for supporting and engaging playwrights," despite being a playwright and a member of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Events Committee.

The interns and other TCG staff, who seemed to be present at every discussion or presentation I attended created an atmosphere of panopticonism where I was conscious of the fact that my behavior and that of other volunteers might be under surveillance and understandably, the interns had motivation to strictly adhere to and enforce the rules laid down by TCG— perhaps more so than regular staff—after all, they were young, ambitious theatre students hoping to parlay their internship into a career as opposed to staff who already had a career.

Read Part 2.