Sunday, May 30, 2010

Theatre Bay Area Conference

On a Monday earlier this month, people were walking in and out of the Veterans Building at Van Ness and McAllister with odd looking nametags around their necks. It turned out they were part of an all-day conference for theatre administrators put on by an umbrella group called Theatre Bay Area, with keynote speeches and breakout sessions all over the building.

This year's conference was entitled "LIGHTS UP: Sparking Conversations on Excellence." According to Executive Director Brad Erickson's program note, "...we've been wrestling with this word [excellence], which has surprised us with its obviousness and its novelty. It's a word that came up unexpectedly during the past few months and a word that elicits strong reactions -- personal, immediate and often emotional. Love it, revile it, the word is compelling."

About the only way for most artists to make a living in the arts in the Bay Area is to work on the admistrative and "development" side of things. Beth Spotswood, above, is a brilliant comic writer who should probably be in New York being nicely paid for her mad skills, but instead she works as Associate Producer & Development Director of the Mountain Play operation, an annual outdoor Broadway musical extravaganza on top of Marin County's Mount Tamalpais.

We snuck into the back of a room for a breakout session called "You've Seen Me Online: Advancing Your Career Through New Media," which struck us both as pretty lame, but Beth told me the whole point of the day was to meet up with old colleagues and friends which helps to recharge batteries. Beth introduced her boss, Mountain Play Executive Director Sara Pearson (above left), who was charming and feeling frazzled by the upcoming opening of "Guys and Dolls."

Another breakout session was called "Adapt or Die: Challenging Core Assumptions in the Field" with a panel that included Ron Ragin (above right) from the Hewlett Foundation and Adam Fong (above left), the Associate Director of Other Minds, a contemporary music group. Adam is a composer and one of the smartest people I've ever met, an attribute he demonstrated with his "core assumptions" remarks at the panel.

When asked for his take on the conference, he emailed:

"I realized just how difficult it must be to moderate a panel -- many of the ones I saw had great potential, but the moderators didn't seem to build the group towards anything in particular, ask insightful questions, or nimbly respond to something that was said. In one instance, Deborah Cullinan from Intersection for the Arts was on a panel with Jonathan Moscone from California Shakespeare Theater and they mostly talked about their collaborative program, even though the panel was supposed to be about "new models." So maybe the programmers of the day were very ambitious, and only parts of that rubbed off on the panelists and presenters.

About the "networking" though... I got more of a "re-uniting" vibe than a "dealmaking" vibe. By contrast, yesterday's SF Music Tech conference was full of entrepreneurs eager to do business and find leads. This might simply be reflective of the non-profit arts sector as a whole, though: there seems to be less ambition, less moving around between jobs, less "dealing" and "competition" so events like the conference at the War Memorial are more about bringing people together for their own sake, than for creating something new or inciting progress."

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