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.

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