I’m sure that there are few things that would bother the movers and shakers of American Theater at the recent Theater Communications Group conference more than being compared to the big corporations that are the target of the Occupy movement. And yet in Ian Thal’s fascinating blog posts from last week, that is exactly what happened. The disgraceful treatment of the volunteers at the conference brought home all of the deep hypocrisies that lie beneath the surface of our nation’s theater industry. Do read the blog posts, but to summarize, the volunteers, many of whom are theater makers were essentially told not to speak. Told they were there to serve and observe the important people. There has of course been a good deal of chatter about the situation on the net. But I fear that much of it has missed the point, the essential fact is that TCG is a special interest group, a lobbying group and a trade organization. They exist to help their member organizations thrive, to help them corner as much of the theater going marketplace as possible. This of course puts them in direct competition with theater makers who don’t want to be part of their elite little guild.
Now TCG will of course tell you that they advocate for theater in general, not only for their wealthy dues paying companies. Their legislative issues page covers everything from protecting tax exemptions to the 1st amendment right to smoke on stage. However, their eligibility page limits membership in TCG to 501(c)3 companies with budgets over 50,000 a year, which rehearse at least 30 hours per production and pay actors at the local equity scale (among other requirements). These requirements are the key to understanding what TCG really does, and why they would have an interest in silencing the voices of theater artists who do not meet those requirements and refuse to strive for them.
TCG membership requirements are not aesthetically neutral. This is key to understand. The required infrastructure, in terms of money, space and corporate structure of TCG companies has a huge impact on the art that is created on their stages. There are many vibrant forms of theater who are not welcome at TCG, Tony and Tina’s Wedding, The Urban Theater Circuit and Sketch Comedy clubs to name a few. With small theater creators all over the country struggling to find cheaper, quicker and more efficient ways to bring theater to new audiences, TCG is essentially saying: “that’s not real theater, real theater comes with a Playbill. And a donation envelope.”
Culturebot’s Andrew Horowitz (whose work I enjoy very much) said in a recent impassioned Facebook post “stop being mad at TCG for being what it is”. His advice is to do your work and not worry about it. To me this is like an anti gun violence advocate saying “stop being mad at the NRA for being what it is.” Just as the NRA says that gun ownership rights are essential to freedom, TCG says that an American Theater dominated by big Non Profit operations is essential to the vitality of our culture. Neither of these are universally held beliefs. To the extent that TCG and its member theaters offers assistance to smaller, less traditional theater companies, it is within a context that keeps the TCG theaters on top. A model, I might add, which has had very mixed results for the popularity of the artform.
Everyone seems to agree that theater is not doing very well these days, the word crisis pops up with some regularity, even from those enamored of TCG and its big houses. Under TCG’s auspices American Theater is doomed to remain the stale loaf of bread on the bare shelves of a coercive market. Maybe we should not be mad at TCG, but those of us who see a broader future for theater in this country should oppose it. Perhaps more than any other arts advocacy group TCG promotes art as the property of moneyed elites, always arguing that lesser artists should heed the wisdom of their betters.
It’s funny, thinking about the shabby treatment of the volunteers at the TCG conference, I’m sure that at Mitt Romney fundraisers the people serving food are not asked their opinions on policy matters, but then again, those people are at least getting paid.