VNPAC: Ten Things I Took Away from the TCG Conference

I’ve been to a lot of conferences, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the Theatre Communications Group conference in Chicago last weekend. Thousands of theater people in the same place at the same time is a sight to behold. At the coffee breaks and networking sessions, I talked to several people and asked if I could record the conversations on my handheld video recorder. I was expecting most people to turn me down and was very surprised when everyone readily agreed.

Then I remembered. They’re theater people! They love being on camera!

At any rate, here are ten things that I took away from the conference, in descending order.

10. The great recession is affecting theater groups as much as it is music ensembles. This is no great surprise, of course, but it was kind of comforting to think that we’re all in the same boat. Several people thought that the current state of the economy was very conducive to cross-genre collaborations, and this is something I’d like to pursue personally. Perhaps a composer or ensemble could co-produce a show with a small theater company. Both groups are exposed to new audiences, both groups share the expense and the promotional duties, and it could be a chance to produce really interesting new work in which the music is not relegated to “background,” “underscoring,” or “scene” music—terms which I heard a lot at the conference.

9. I asked a lot of people what they thought the role of music in theater was. Most said that it was great for scene changes or mood setting. Probably half of the directors and producers I spoke with had not commissioned new music for their productions. Most cited the expense of doing so. Most hire a sound designer who uses found music for the productions.

The people I spoke with who had commissioned music expressly for their productions, however, were extremely glad that they had. They all agreed that the production was greatly enhanced by having music composed especially for it. However, in nearly every case the composer writes the music after the play is scripted and rehearsed and has no creative input. He or she merely writes music to underscore the action.

The theaters in which composers or improvisers have the most creative input are improv troupes and companies who write their own material as opposed to staging scripted works. So if you’re a composer looking to break into theater and you want to do more than underscore, these are the people to look for.

8. Many directors said that they are commissioning more composed music for their productions. Everyone agreed that there are more opportunities for composers in theater now than ever before.

7. Everyone also agreed that there’s no money in it…


6. It probably goes without saying that when I talked about composers, most people thought I was talking about musical theater. I realized that musical theater composers are much more visible than composers of music for a theatrical production. This is because they go to the rehearsals, they work with the performers, and the music is just so darn noticeable.

Good composers of “background” music, however, can seamlessly integrate their music into a production, and the music is often pre-recorded in a studio to be played back during the performance. Hence, they’re basically invisible.

So, although there are nearly as many composers and sound designers working in theater as songwriters, to most directors, actors, and producers, the term composer means a person who writes musicals. I can’t decide if that’s a problem or not.

5. There were not many composers or sound designers actually at the conference, but I did manage to find two to speak with. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, the sound quality of these videos is so bad as to make them unusable.

However, both agreed that if they’re doing their job well it is invisible, but neither of them loses any sleep over it. “You don’t want the music to upstage the production.” This is definitely true for traditional theater, for 95% of everything being produced, I told them. But wouldn’t it be interesting to create a piece of theater in which the music is an integral part of the production. Perhaps the writer and director could start with a piece of music and stage a production around it. I’m sure this has been done before, but it should be done again—and again, and again.

4. I was impressed at the level of interaction between companies of different sizes. Large companies and small storefront companies all talked amongst each other and were remarkably open and sharing. And it wasn’t just size, the conference included people from every conceivable genre of theater. There were puppeteers, improvisers, comedians, set builders, everyone you can imagine who is connected to theater. It made me wonder if getting so many different people together within the classical music community could be productive or not.

3. I’ve always been impressed by how many actors there are in the world willing to perform night after night in small productions for little or, more frequently, no pay. It’s hard work to learn the part, find the time to rehearse, presumably follow the director’s directions, and then perform x number of times in the production. And the vast majority of them do it for free!

I can only assume that there are two things going on here. One, they are shooting for the stars and hoping to be famous actors one day or two, they just really enjoy acting. I saw a production of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata two weekends ago by a very small company here in Chicago, and I was hugely impressed by the talented actors. When I talked to them I found out that they were working for free. Most of them had day jobs and were interested in acting as a hobby.

It’s interesting to me that there aren’t highly trained classical musicians who just want to play for fun. We know how many people are cranked out of conservatories across the country each year and how few of them get orchestra jobs. Many of them freelance or teach, but some of them must go into other fields. Even so, it seems unlikely that after such rigorous training they would just stop playing their instruments.

It would be wonderful to find a body of talented musicians who just wanted to play, (preferably contemporary music) for the joy of it.

2. Another parallel between classical music and theater: The more established groups want younger audience members and the younger groups are dying for older ticket buyers with more disposable income. There must be some way to offer incentives for audiences to diversify. Or perhaps we could try an “audience swap.”

1. Speaking of which, my favorite quote of the conference was, “If you want younger audiences, don’t f**king do Music Man!”

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