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The Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference: a Retreat for the Whole City

August 11, 2010 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, projects

Hey there! I’m back. And boy are my arms tired.

In just a couple weeks, Theater Wit opens its (new, shiny) doors for the first annual Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference, a three-day series of discussions and mixers in the style of the TCG conference. The event aims to take a community crack at some of the common challenges that theater companies, artists, and administrators face. As Jeremy Wechsler, host for the conference, says, it’s sort of a retreat for all of Chicago theater right at the start of the season, when we need it the most.

Like so many of you, we miss the days of the League retreats. While our community has grown so much that a drunken weekend together in the mountains may not be so feasible, we do want to provide a home so that theaters of every size can come together to share knowledge, make connections and renew ourselves for the upcoming production season. A ton of Chicago Theaters got to participate in the TCG conference; it was fantastic to feel like we were a part of a national theater movement, but a lot of us there felt that Chicago’s theaters still had a ton to learn from each other.

The conference is $32 (tickets are available here) which ALMOST pays for all the catering, snacks, and refreshments that you get while attending the conference, and doesn’t at all pay for three days of Theater Wit rent. (Jeremy ain’t makin’ any money on this deal, I promise you.) The admission is almost certainly worth the knowledge that can be gleaned from the speakers, who appear to have all somehow landed on an accidental theme of “We’re giving you our blueprints.”

All conferences are tricky to navigate, so here’s some can’t-miss discussions and events to whet your appetite. There’s much more still on the schedule that I haven’t mentioned and more to be announced, so be sure to dig deeper than this overview.

Friday, August 20

8:00 pm – Conference Kick Off Party

Saturday, August 21

11 am – Second City Complex – Chris Piatt & the Paper Machete (Theatre 1)

If you missed Chris Piatt’s earth-shaking performance of “The Second City Complex” at World Theatre Day this year – the story of Chicago theater and Chicago theater criticism’s unshakeable sense of hubristic insecurity – now’s your chance to get the cliff notes. Chris’ take on the recent evolution of the critic-artist relationship in Chicago is about as mind-blowing as reading Richard Christiansen’s “A Theater of Our Own” and then having a chapter come to life and scream, “What are YOU gonna do about it, bitch?”

1 pm – Living your Mission – Martha Lavey (Theatre 1)

I love living my mission. I love even more hearing how other people do it.

1 pm – Theatre Advocacy 101 (Theatre 2)

Scarlett Swerdlow and Ra Joy of Arts Alliance Illinois talk about their ongoing arts advocacy efforts, and how to effectively engage government and decision makers and make the case for the value of your arts programs. This is the discussion I probably need to hear the most out of the whole conference. In a state where all social service money is drying up, we need to understand and believe in why we are valuable to this society.

2 pm – How about some Meat in the Well-Funded Stomach (Theatre 2)

Looking for a rumble? Look no further than Don Hall. If you’ve never seen Don live and in person and only know him from his acerbic online persona, I wouldn’t miss this chance to have a real heart to heart. He’ll be discussing one of his favorite radical visions of how it’s time to completely restructure how the arts are administrated. His chaotic glee, passion for creating excellent work, and provocative ability to question our community’s priorities are pure entertainment. There will be blood.

3pm – The Working Comedy Artist (Theatre 2)

Byron Hatfield has helped build The Pub Theater, one of many DIY operations that have found business models to support an ensemble of actual, factual full-time creative staff (The pub boasts a staff of 6 full time actors and 30+ part-time actors). If you’re looking to be pro in Chicago, find out here what level of community building it takes.

5:30 – Meetups for Artistic Directors, Managing Directors and Freelance Performers

So many awesome people, but which one should I go to? I’m just a designer, ho hum. No seriously, I’m crashing.

Sunday, August 22

10am – Embracing New Work (Theater 2)

PJ Paparelli, Artistic director of ATC, discusses his methods of bringing new work to production, from submission to commission to audience. It’s a subject that breeds a surprising amount of alliance (We Love New Work!) at the same time that it generates controversy (The New Work isn’t the right kind of New Work!), so it’s sure to be interesting.

11 am – Empowering Ensembles (Theater 3)

The question of the fate of ensemble-based theatres is one that has been very interesting to watch – and participate in – in the last few years in Chicago. Gwendolyn Whiteside of American Blues and Luther Goins of Actors Equity lead this discussion about what operational issues face ensemble-based theatres in the years to come. Not to stir up any undue controversy, but it’ll be very interesting to walk from the New Work discussion into this discussion – where you can see how the way we prioritize different aspects of the theatrical process (the development of careers and livelihoods for playwrights, actors, administrators, and designers) can – through the fault of no one – introduce stress, conflict, and compromise in our actual professional lives.

11 am – Cermak Creative Industries District (Theater 2)

Consider this discussion an opportunity to explore the ongoing “Burnham Plan” for Chicago Theatre. The Department of Cultural Affairs recently received one of several large new grants ($250,000) from the NEA to push forward with planning for the creation of a district entirely devoted to workspaces for the arts in all disciplines at Cermak Road and the Chicago River just west of Chinatown. Julie Burros, Director of Cultural Planning, City of Chicago (and League of Chicago Theatres board member) lays out the plan for future arts usage of this complex of four historic warehouse buildings.

The question of venues – Build Your Own, or Find and Adapt

The question of the long-term health of theater facilities in Chicago is one that is near and dear to my heart. At 1 pm, two critical perspectives are explored – building new venues and theater complexes, and how to use non-traditional spaces (which can be less expensive) effectively.

1 pm – So You Want a Space? (Theater 2)

Conference host and Theater Wit Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler has just been through the wringer. Specifically, the “thrilling bureaucracy” of inspectors, funders, vendors, and the government hurdles that all need to be jumped through to open your own refurbished storefront theatre. Participants will have access to Theater Wit’s entire project board, which includes budget figures, blueprints, problems met, and the operating costs now that the space is open.

1 pm – I Live Here Too – Place and Space in Chicago (Theater 1)

Sarah Mikayla Brown – in the midst of organizing venues in Pilsen for the Chicago Fringe Festival – and Madrid St. Angelo of UrbanTheater Company lead a discussion about how and why theaters come to choose artistic homes in non-black box spaces and in neighborhoods off the beaten path.

2 pm – Help Me Help You: DIY Press Relations (Theater 1)

Kris Vire, theatre editor for TimeOut Chicago, tells you how best to work with the press and prepare your materials in an age where journalists have rapidly shrinking salaries and rapidly approaching deadlines. All that even if you don’t have a dedicated publicist. The best advice always comes right from the source.

3pm – 2amt Theatre (Theater 1)

Just a personal little plug. I’ll be here, talking with my #2amt collaborator, David Loehr: WHO I WILL MEET IN PERSON FOR THE FIRST TIME LESS THAN 24 HOURS BEFORE THE DISCUSSION. How is this possible? In the internet age, anything is possible. We know: we’re bringing the blueprints for structuring all-inclusive community discussions like the national #2amt discussion and the local Storefront Summit, and how we can all reap their benefits.

5:30 – The Fool on the Hill: My top ten opinions on the American Theatre.

If your only experience with Roche Schulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman, has been pie charts comparing his salary with your company’s operating budget, take my advice: Listen to the man with wide open ears. He’s steered that particular ship through several economic crises, restored the theatre from near bankruptcy, helped found the League of Chicago Theatres, is an ongoing mentor and supporter of dozens of theatre companies beyond the Goodman — and all this after starting in the scene in the subscription sales call center. The real reason, though? Roche knows how to tell great stories about those moments of Chicago Theater History that you wish you were there for.

6:30 – Closing Party at Cooper’s

What better way to start our seasons, than together?

UPDATE: For those who want to follow the conference from home or their secret underground lair, many of us will be tweeting updates from the conference using the hashtag #ctac. Everyone here knows how to read and write hashtags by now, right?

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3 Comments to “The Chicago Theater (anti-) Conference: a Retreat for the Whole City”

  1. Rob Kozlowski says:

    It’s going to break my heart to miss this but we’re closing on a house the following week and will be frantically packing. Hope it’s a success so it can happen again next year.

  2. Thanks for sharing this detail about the conference, it is nice to know. 

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