Theatre Miscommuncations Group?


Last month, Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization dedicated to professional nonprofit theatre across the nation, held its annual conference in Boston. The selection of Boston for the conference had the theatre scene here viewing itself as having “arrived.” 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 quickly established itself as a major presenting institution for international work and is now being joined at Emerson College by the Theater Commons. And, just as important, the “fringe” scene (much of which is 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 and the two organizations were discussing a possible merger.

Because attendance at the TCG conference was steep (the “early bird” rate for independent artists nominated by member organizations was $280, though 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 low-to-moderate income artists to get into an important industry event and to interact with theatre makers from other parts of the country.

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This was certainly how Boston’s host committee promoted volunteering for TCG to the Boston theatre community. I have described my own volunteer experience in detail on my blog, where I have thus far posted part 1 and part 2-a version of part 3 has been written but it is pending a discussion of permission to reproduce certain materials that were shared with me. This post contains some material which was originally slated for part 3.

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In summary: volunteers were informed, first in a June 19 email and then at an orientation meeting the following day, just hours before the opening reception, that volunteers had been classified as staff and that:

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.

Volunteers were informed that they were not to partake of catered food at receptions. This became a rather theatrical display of privilege on the evening of June 21 at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, when roughly half the food at the buffet table was discarded by the catering staff, uneaten. It emphasized the class hierarchy that should be obvious to anyone in the field of theatre: “overabundance for me, but none for you.”

While most volunteers accepted the notion that they were to remain silent in sessions where they were assigned to assist, the notion that they could not participate when they were off-the-clock seemed unreasonable to all but one volunteer with whom I had spoken. Most volunteers were in one way or another active participants in the local theatre scene with something to contribute, surely, to a discussion about theatre; this is why the host committee recruited them. Members of the host committee had attempted to persuade TCG staff to revise its volunteer policy to no avail. These members were often heard off the record when speaking to volunteers, making statements to the effect of “this is not the way we would run things.”

TCG staff, meanwhile, repeatedly bragged that #tcg12 was one of Twitter’s top trending topics that weekend. The hashtag had mostly been used by participants to live-blog favorite quotes from various presentations. Though I cannot remember from whom I got the idea, on the morning of June 23, I created #OccupyTCG and started tweeting about the volunteer policy:

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

After several such tweets I got the attention of several attendees as well as those reading the #tcg12 feed remotely. Most importantly, I caught the attention of TCG’s Associate Director of Communications, August Schulenburg:

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@IanThal Worried there’s been a miscommunication re: volunteer participation at #TCG12. Email me at [email address] 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…” ‚Ä™#TCG12

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

After I pointed out the stated policy, Schulenburg responded with:

@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 &… ‚Ä™#TCG12

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

Schulenburg would later meet with John Geoffrion, a member of the Boston host committee, as well as president of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, and me, at the closing reception. Schulenburg would explain that the status of volunteers had been a longstanding policy and that as most of the staff at the conference were new at their jobs, they had just adopted the past years’ policies without a full review, but were quick to see how the policy had been alienating, divisive, and problematic. He promised to bring these issues up in any post-conference debriefing. We shook hands and though I had no reason to doubt Schulenburg’s sincerity, I explained that I felt obligated to write a follow-up to my tweets.

On Sunday, July 1, Schulenburg forwarded me an email from Dafina McMillan, TCG’s Director of Communications, that was addressed to John Geoffrion (and by extension, the Boston host committee):

Hi John,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Please know that your comments are being heard. And we have already begun reevaluating our volunteer policies for next year.

I want to apologize for not being clear about what the volunteer roles and responsibilities were from the start. It wasn’t fair to you and this particular policy is something we surely could have discussed and batted around early on. It was never TCG’s intent to put you in a position where you would be embarrassed due to lack of information. We have learned a lot from planning this conference-and appreciate you sharing your feedback. While we can’t change the experience for volunteers in Boston, your feedback will definitely help us make the process smoother for our future convenings.

I hope you’ll share TCG’s apology with the volunteers. We can’t thank them enough for all they did this year.

As you know, we are moving forward with our online community, Conference 2.0. Though the community is a central hub for TCG Member Theatres, I encourage any volunteers who are interested in becoming a part of the community to email Gus at [email address].

Thank you, John.

Clearly, McMillan’s apology was aimed more at the host committee, and it’s embarrassment at discovering that the conference was not as inclusive as they assumed it would be when they first set about recruiting volunteers. It was not an apology for any insensitive or exclusionary treatment of the volunteers.

As I hold the belief that a policy doesn’t change unless there is pressure to change it, I decided to go ahead and, as promised, write about my volunteer experience, posting it my blog with the understanding that it might be followed up on The Clyde Fitch Report. Following the appearance of parts 1 and 2, the story was retweeted and discussed, such as in this discussion between George Hunka (who blogs at Superfluities Redux) and Rob Weinert-Kendt who blogs at The Wicked Stage and is associate editor of American Theatre, TCG’s publication. Note that the conversation is not reproduced in full:

George Hunka @GeorgeHunka
@RobKendt The question is whether TCG as an institution (not its individual members) is deliberately neglecting those smaller theatres.

George Hunka @GeorgeHunka
@RobKendt … or at least exploiting individuals from those theatres who hoped to participate in a major, “inclusionary” conference.

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@GeorgeHunka Exploiting? This was a misunderstanding over percs accorded volunteers. I don’t quite think the 1% rhetoric applies.

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@GeorgeHunka Wouldn’t dispute it was an “issue.” Why you’re calling that “exploitation” and invoking the 1% is honestly beyond me.

George Hunka @GeorgeHunka
@RobKendt My dictionary says, “to make use of meanly or unjustly for one’s own advantage.” Yours?

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@GeorgeHunka Is Ian wrong that there was a misunderstanding about volunteers’ participation? No…

…and if you insist on calling that exploitation, you have a very low bar for exploitation. Good to know for future reference.

And what do you assume TCG had to gain from “exploiting” its volunteers?

George Hunka @GeorgeHunka
@RobKendt A well-run and highly-regarded conference impossible to do without that volunteer contingent.

When I joined in, Weinert-Kendt was rather hostile, immediately making suppositions about my emotional state:

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@IanThal You’re upset you couldn’t be one of few to get mic in a 90-min. session, when whole weekend was conversational freeforall?

Ian Thal @IanThal
@RobKendt You’re unclear on the concept of “the principle of the thing.” Irrelevant if I could not get the mic, relevant if I am forbidden.

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@IanThal This is why TCG has copped to a misunderstanding. No ill intent, little ill effect. The “principle” you stand on is pretty thin.

Ian Thal @IanThal
@RobKendt There would have been no “copping” from TCG had I and others not stood on principle. Your apologiae are sophistic.

Rob Weinert-Kendt @RobKendt
@IanThal TCG got called out on a conflicting/unclear policy & apologized. Glad it was clarified. So what are you still going on about?

Ian Thal @IanThal
@RobKendt Why are you still defending a policy to @GeorgeHunka for which @TCG is supposedly apologizing? Policy was very clear.

Despite Schulenburg’s view that the volunteer policy created an unnecessary schism, despite McMillan’s interest in at least rethinking TCG’s policy for the future, Weinert-Kendt-speaking either for himself, for American Theatre, or for some TCG faction that hadn’t already weighed in, was still just apologizing for the “miscommunication.” He wasn’t apologizing for the fact that TCG’s actions and behavior symbolized and, indeed, embodied ongoing issues of classism in the American theatre. He wasn’t apologizing for TCG’s willful neglect of what the local host community, and the volunteers it recruited, had to offer to the larger conversation.

Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas began referring to the constant use of “miscommunication” in communiques from TCG staff as a trope. Thomas Garvey of the Hub Review suggested that TCG change its name to “Theatre Miscommunication Group.” Indeed Walters and Garvey were correct: miscommunication has become the operative trope, describing both everything and nothing, used by all TCG employees when discussing a “kerfuffle” (to use a term Mike Daisey introduced to the conference at his June 22nd workshop presentation). When Jeremy M. Barker discussed this particular”kerfuffle” in his “Thoughts on Why We Must Talk About Art And Class” on Culturebot, Schulenburg and Weinert-Kendt, both TCG employees, posted comments and took almost opposing positions, with Schulenburg making efforts to be conciliatory towards TCG’s critics, while Kendt was openly hostile to me and to those who share my concerns, indulging in personal attacks and trotting out the line that TCG staff performs enough “self-examination” that criticism from outside TCG is unnecessary, unwelcome and illegitimate.

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No one higher in the TCG chain of command has weighed in on this good-cop/bad-cop routine, certainly not Executive Director Teresa Eyring. Unfortunately, Weinert-Kendt’s bad cop routine not only fails to intimidate, it makes TCG look bad, and advancing the “miscommunication” trope doesn’t help either.

Though the Weinert-Kendts of the world might consider me arrogant and presumptuous, I will offer some suggestions for policies that TCG might adopt in the future to minimize conflict at future conferences:

1) Volunteers, of course, should be helpful, courteous, and fulfill their volunteer commitments. They should also be allowed to participate in all discussions when they are off-the-clock. No one will confuse the opinions of volunteers with that of TCG.

2) Volunteers, remember, are generally enthusiastic theatre professionals who simply would not be able to afford to attend otherwise. They might also be your future colleagues.

3) TCG dictates that a member company must have an annual budget of at least $50K. (Of course some of my favorite companies do excellent work on lower budgets than that.) In addition, there are several points in the conference when staff is caucused based on their theatre’s budgets. It’s absurd to caucus $50K theatres with $500K theatres (well, $499,999), so a separate caucus for theatres operating at under $100K might demonstrate that TCG really does have an interest in small to midsized companies.

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4) The local theatrical community is what makes each annual conference possible. TCG therefore needs to look at local host committees as partners, not facilitators, not serfs. When members of a host committee tell TCG staff that certain policies will create friction with the local theatre community, this should be taken under advisement.

5) TCG should avoid setting policies that force local host committees and their constituent groups to disassociate themselves from TCG when communicating with those constituent groups.

6.) TCG staff should exercise decorum when speaking on behalf of the organization-especially on contentious issues.

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