In a breakout session facilitated by members of Full Circle Theater Company, Full Circle staff member Quinci Bachman observed, “Theatre brings together psychology and sociology. But in our society we’re moving toward the individual. We don’t get to be a group.” But for the weekend of October 6-8 at Hamline University, theatre-makers were very much a group as they gathered for the second annual Minnesota Theater Alliance Statewide Theater Conference (MTASTC). In addition to gathering for meals, keynotes, and plenaries, attendees reveled in the number of options for breakout sessions in topics such as using fake blood, maximizing one’s board, assuring theatre safety, and improving inclusivity/accessibility, to name just a few.
In fact, the whole weekend had a focus on inclusivity/accessibility as well as self-care, from keynotes down to the array of breakout sessions and conversations around LGBTQIA+ issues, challenges facing artists of color, and intentional diversity at all levels of theatre-making. My fellow Playlist contributor Derek Lee Miller has provided an excellent big-picture summary of MTASTC, so my recap will focus on the keynotes and sessions I attended, noting tools and practical applications for the topics covered.
The Church of Theater
All-around artist Shá Cage’s keynote felt like a collage, combining singing, poetry, and conversations among attendees. She focused on theatre as church: “It’s a place where we can show up, look around, and know that we belong here. Not only because the music is right, but because the energy, the spirit, the vibe is right—turn to your neighbor and say vibe—where I can walk in and know, ‘Yes I can play here.’”
Adapting, Not Adopting, a Nonprofit Business Model
Kate Barr of the newly minted Propel Nonprofits called for a rethinking of nonprofit financial models and asked all of us assembled to envision what sustainability looked like for our various organizations. What were the barriers to that vision? She described sustainability as an orientation, not a destination. Long-term planning paired with short-term goal-setting was her recipe for success.
The Evolution of Health and Safety in Our Theaters
Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol got everyone onboard with theatre safety after describing her early life in vaudeville and the dangers she encountered backstage: “I saw people die when I was a child. I’ve seen them die over and over.” While William Reynolds of Yale School of Drama began the keynote noting the advances made over the years in theatre safety with rigorous standards set by several organizations, Rossol was having none of it. “We’re wiping out our advances with progress,” she said. She posited two assertions: 1) every theatre technology innovation has been embraced without safety testing so we usually just replace old hazards with new ones, 2) for every better law or safety standard based on solid research and reason, an equal amount of ignorance gets out there.
Inclusive Practices and the Art of Caring
HowlRound founder and director of ArtsEmerson P. Carl offered an erudite and heartfelt keynote focused on care and curation: “At its best, art is a form of care for the souls who experience it.” The importance of care—for the self and others—is important now more than ever. Carl asked each of us to consider the question: who am I not caring for today? And he also encouraged us to think about why community engagement is suddenly so popular. Who has theatre historically left out, and why are those folks so important now? He urged theatre-makers to really listen and “to be more present tense.”
“But how’d you learn all those lines?”: Getting Authentic and Useful Feedback from Audiences (and Artists!)
Led by the folks who run devising group Savage Umbrella (SU), this session got participants on their feet and creating three-minute versions of The Wizard of Oz. What does this have to do with audience feedback? After the two groups each performed their version, SU artistic director Laura Leffler modeled a guided talkback. She asked us about what elements of a given Wizard of Oz stuck out, what we would like to see more of (in the imaginary universe where we continue developing these works), and what elements were less successful. Because SU offers workshop presentations of works in progress, they know what they’re doing.
Beyond That One Day in November When Everyone Sends an Email: Realistic Individual Fundraising and CRM for the Small Nonprofit Theater Company
MTA executive director Joanna Schnedler offered practical (and practicable) advice on how to create a realistic fundraising plan for your small arts organization. Devote at least five to 10 hours a week to fundraising, whether that’s identifying prospects, setting goals, entering gifts and notes into a CRM, segmenting mailing lists, or holding in-person meetings with board members or other constituents. After identifying your audience, it’s important to reach them in several channels. In-person meetings make the most sense for major gift prospects, while letters or email might work best with other constituents. Social media may not be a huge cash cow, but it’s an easy way to reach out and raise awareness.
Connecting Conversations: Queer Movement Building
For this session, moderator Laura Leffler asked participants to write down five questions or concerns regarding the queer community in theatre. As a group, we discussed possible paths forward to address these issues, landing on the following bullet points:
- Create a one-sheet primer for appropriate language to use in casting calls, audition notices, and in and out of audition room (i.e., life).
- Include space on casting forms for people to indicate their pronouns and to self-identify outside of binary.
- In small towns and rural areas, build relationships with folks that are also doing work focused on queer issues.
- When season planning, use the filters in National New Play Network’s database to find works by and/or about members of the queer community.
- For bigger theatres wary of programming lesser-known or supposedly “edgier” material, offer a two-show package deal that pairs a well-known work with the lesser-known.
- For organizations doing work by the same author or covering similar themes, cross-promote and share audiences!
Changing the Funding Paradigm: Real Organizational Sustainability
Theater Mu artistic director Randy Reyes moderated a discussion about nonprofit financial models with a panel that included: Arleta Little, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation; Glyn Northington, special initiatives director at Propel Nonprofits; and Laura Zabel, executive director at Springboard for the Arts. Reyes and Zabel spoke candidly about funding challenges both of their organizations have faced and how they built their way out of them. Theater Mu had utilized a program with Propel Nonprofits that enabled them to take out an interest-free loan. While they were not expected to repay the loan in full, they were expected to meet stringent financial goals and to create a model that worked for Mu. All four panelists highlighted the need for arts organizations to create a relevant and actionable financial model and plan for sustainability (echoing Kate Barr’s earlier keynote). Little advised those working in arts organizations to cement their relationships with their funders and to have big conversations about funding even when things are going well. She noted the changes many funders have made in their priorities and added, “As funders, we need to practice critical self-examination.”
Coming Full Circle: Diversity in the Decision-Making Process
Members of Full Circle Theater Company Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, Quinci Bachman, and James Williams discussed the formation of Full Circle and their intentionality regarding diversity. When they were creating Full Circle, they knew diversity would be at the core of the company, but they had a lot of conversations about what the word even means. Bachman noted, “When people say diversity, they usually mean race, but there’s so much more than that. I struggle to make intersectionality work.” The group decided to begin with just one production a year, giving everyone space to create the work and be deliberate in the practice of diversity at all levels. The panel discussed the creation of their first work, the successes and challenges and conversations as well as the organizational partners they’ve cultivated to reach a broad and diverse audience.
Democratizing the Review: Writing about the Arts in the Age of Blogging
Twin Cities Theatre Blogger Becki Iverson advised session attendees on promoting their work with bloggers and social media and also offered a summary of the state of arts criticism today (spoiler: it’s in flux). As newspapers fall by the wayside and full-time theatre critics become a thing of the past, arts criticism has been opened up to questioning. Who gets to critique art formally and why? Why can’t everyday people (hi) write about art and share their reactions? This was Iverson’s argument. In harnessing bloggers to promote your work, you open up the conversation and create a dialogue that incorporates many voices. Iverson talked about her own philosophy around writing reviews and reactions, noting that she ends each with a discussion on the best audience for a given work. She also urged session attendees to not only attend the Continuing the Conversation series organized by the Twin Cities Theatre Bloggers but to consider hosting some of their own similar conversations around pressing issues affecting theatre both in the Twin Cities and nationally.