The big news at the second annual SRO Theatre Conference, held June 2-3 on the USC campus, was that the conference sponsor, Theatre LA (Theatre League Alliance), will soon be extinct--well, not exactly extinct, but that corporate moniker is a goner. In opening remarks kicking off the intensive series of seminars and roundtables, Theatre LA president/CEO Lee Wochner revealed that on July 1 the name of his venerable nonprofit organization will change to LA Stage Alliance. The purpose is twofold: to more closely identify the group with its flagship magazine, LA Stage, and to expand its aesthetic charter, adding dance and music. The organization was launched in 1976 to foster success for the Southern California theatre scene. Wochner explained that this change coincides with the conference theme "Rethink, Rebuild, Revive," as he encouraged theatre companies to re-examine their organizational goals and strategies to face growth challenges in turbulent times.
Themes of retrenchment and survival were also suggested in keynote luncheon addresses by actors William H. Macy and French Stewart and introductory remarks by Back Stage West editor in chief Rob Kendt. The thoughtful, if controversial, opinions on the L.A. theatre scene expressed by the dignified Macy were nicely contrasted with the jovial yet equally edifying remarks of Angeleno-bred stage actor Stewart, a veteran of the Justin Tanner era at the Cast. Generating further food-for-debate were Kendt's strongly stated opinions on the scene from a journalist's perspective. Macy's bold assertions that the 99-Seat Plan and membership companies were dead-end streets for actors was more extreme than Kendt's plea for a tempering of the "white noise" emanating from too many small theatre companies of varying quality causing confusion for actors, audiences, and observers. The provocative comments from Macy and Kendt engendered "yeas" and "nays" in conversations among attendees.
There was less controversy about the value of the seminars, panels, roundtables, and the new Leadership Institute sessions (in-depth workshops for top-level managers, board members, etc.). The events imparted a wealth of advice for actors and companies seeking success in local theatre, and everyone we spoke to reported gaining valuable insights during the two-day event. The time-proven virtues of networking were also evident, as well as an invigorating sense of communal camaraderie. Those who disagreed on points did so with intelligence and mutual respect. The event shaped up as somewhat of a who's-who in local theatre, thanks to the participation of many key individuals.
The most intriguing event we sampled was a lively panel discussion, "The Passion to Play," including the Colony's Barbara Beckley, Evidence Room's Bart DeLorenzo, The Odyssey's Ron Sossi, and LA Weekly theatre editor Steven Leigh Morris. The anecdotes about passion preceding fiscal concerns ranged from Beckley's story about a unique Neil Simon moment to Sossi's inspiration to pursue his theatrical dreams during the 1960s, driven by subversive counter-culture fare such as Hair and Futz.
Group A (for novices) and Group B (for more experienced theatre folks) sessions occurred simultaneously, resulting in some hard choices as to which sessions to attend. An informative crash course in courting donors was helmed by William Harris, campaign director of the California Science Center, and Tom Jacobson, noted playwright and vp of development for the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. "Putting Butts in Seats," presented by theatre critic Julio Martinez and East West Players publicist Stefanie Wong and moderated by Marci Hill of the Road Theatre Company, provided invaluable advice on such oft-asked questions as: "How do I get press coverage?" Martinez's subsequent roundtables on the same subject also netted appreciative reactions. The age-old problem of time management was humorously and instructively covered in a session chaired by Wochner, featuring producer and former Disney Studio chair Peter Schneider and veteran actor/producer Eileen T'Kaye of the new Boston Court Theatre.
LA Stage Alliance's newly appointed associate vice president of operations, Rick Comeaux, estimated the paid attendance at about 125, down a little from last year's conference. He indicated this could be symptomatic of the current economic state--though the $270 registration fee seems quite reasonable--the large attendance last year by many theatre people, or perhaps other factors. With the addition of music and dance to the mix, the next event will probably see increased attendance. Nonetheless, Comeaux indicated that the group is considering offering the event on a bi-annual basis in the future, with group meetings or panel discussions in between.
Perhaps epitomizing the wealth of useful but daunting information shared, Playwrights 6 scribe Larry Dean Harris said his co-member Amy Heidish was intimidated after hearing about so many things their group should be doing but isn't. Yet, Harris expressed amazement that so many groups confessed they don't operate with an annual business plan, proudly stating that his 4-year-old group has done so from the outset. Considering the pitfalls that can ensnare startup theatre companies, Harris' remarks provide encouragement that there's light at the end of the tunnel.