I am not a keynote speaker for TCG this year, but if I were, this is what I would say.
The Theatre Communication Group national conference this year is called Game Change. As both an avid participant in that movement and an enthusiastic game player, I offer some thoughts on changing the game of the American Theatre movement.
First, we need to get over the speed bump of calling an endeavor that is beloved and valuable a game. The term Game Change is used here primarily to challenge us to employ ways of thinking that improve performance in games to improve the performance of our movement and our individual institutions. It is an invitation to look at your theatrical practice as though it were a game. What game are you playing? What are your victory conditions; that is how do you win this game? Is it a competitive or a cooperative game? What rules are you playing by? Are there moves that could improve your position on the board that are allowed in the rules, but that habit or something else has blinded you to? Looking at your practice through the lens of a game may offer perspectives to create positive change that your current point of view isn’t offering. A more playful approach to playmaking can also help keep you connected to the joy of our endeavor which for many of us is a major source if not our only source of compensation.
Let us contemplate some general tactics for improving outcomes in a game and how they apply to our movement.
ENRICH YOUR LINEUP. Last year’s Crossing Borders conference focused mainly on this issue, and increasing the diversity of people involved in playmaking has been a major theme in every TCG gathering I’ve attended. Two useful themes have emerged during those events that relate to changing the game. First, whether you believe greater diversity is a self-evident good or not, it is useful. Combining and empowering truly different people offers an organization a wider range of perspectives – different people see the board from different angles, notice things others would miss, and perceive sequences of moves that other people don’t recognize. Seeing the game from multiple perspectives reveals winning moves you wouldn’t see from your own chair. Second, even when you thoroughly embrace the concept of diversity as a good, incorporating true diversity in your team will add dissent and friction. To derive full benefit from a rich roster, you need to build an environment of tolerance and trust that lets people disagree without the team falling apart. A more diverse team supported by a strong culture will lead to better performance in the game.
DO WHAT THE OTHER PLAYERS AREN’T DOING. Ryan Sturm podcasts about board games – how to play them and how to win them. This is his Swiss army knife strategy. In almost any game, competitive or cooperative, if everyone is trying to play in the same way bad things happen to the whole game. They all consume the same resources, leading to shortages of things they all need. They all build the same capabilities, so no one enjoys a unique advantage. If players instead pursue different paths to victory, then a variety of different resources are consumed and a variety of different capabilities are created. This leads to a more interesting overall game experience for everyone and permits everyone to learn which tactics triumph or contribute most in this particular situation. This tactic should encourage you to look around your particular playmaking ecosystem and discern what you and your team could bring into the mix that is fundamentally different from other offerings. If we, as a movement, are to draw into our audience people who are not responding to currently available programming, it is essential that individual companies come into being or change their current programming to offer novel bait to attract new playgoers into our worlds.
PLAY A COOPERATIVE GAME RATHER THAN A COMPETITIVE ONE. Monopoly is the top of mind competitive board game in America. It was originally designed to teach the evils of property. Played by the box rules, the quantity of money entering the game is always a little bit less than the quantity leaving and wealth slowly concentrates bankrupting all but one player who, in the end, is left with 100% of a smaller pie than existed at the height of the game. Running a not-for-profit theatre in America shouldn’t feel like that, but sometimes does. Cooperative games form a relatively new category of board games in which all of the players are working together to win while some feature of the game presents challenges and creates the possibility of all players losing. You could do worse than to try one of these with some friends to really get into your bones what this means. Matt Leacock’s Pandemic is a good, approachable, and widely available example of this category. In Pandemic, each player has a particular specialty within the Centers for Disease Control. Together they work as a team to try to contain, treat, and eliminate diseases spreading around the world. If you see your job as the leader of an art theatre as keeping your organization afloat in a resource deprived competitive landscape of other theatre companies, then you are essentially playing a competitive game. The gains enjoyed by other companies are losses to you. However, in most communities in America only a small fraction of the population are high frequency playgoers. Instead of playing a multipoint game of tug of war over that small population, we could invent a cooperative game in which we all work together to create more high frequency playgoers. The cooperative approach would lead to more resources for playmaking, would allow more of our community to experience the joy of playgoing, and would remove some of the institutional awkwardness between artists and administrators from different organizations that currently tends to block deeper collaboration. The cooperative game of enriching the whole theatre biosphere might be more fun and rewarding than whatever you’re doing now.
MOVE THE GOALPOSTS. Change your victory conditions, or just the way you think about them. Because we’re not really playing a game, this isn’t cheating. Many theatre leaders I work with see the thing they create as “a set of opportunities to experience a well produced theatrical performance-” a good show in front of a bunch of available seats. That describes the economic product of most theatre companies – tickets available for purchase in the marketplace. Such an attitude leads to a stark discontinuity within the organization. Once the play is produced and tickets are available, it becomes the job of another part of the organization to sell those tickets. They are essentially playing two different games. Too often, this leads to a deep division in the organization between playmakers and play sellers. If tickets don’t move, each side blames the other either for poor product quality or poor sales tactics. The full creative power of the organization isn’t focused on the same end goal and motivation suffers in both parts of the organization. As members of artistic endeavors though, we don’t need to let the marketplace drive how we see ourselves or how our organizations function. If everyone within the organization sees winning the game as producing “people who have attended the play,” then there is no discontinuity. Further, if you extend the victory condition to be producing “people who have [derived some particular benefit related to your mission] from attending the play,” then you are connecting more deeply with the social good responsibilities we take on when we operate not-for-profit organizations. I will grant that in some ways this is a small conceptual step, but it is a step which, when sincerely taken, will transform relationships within the organization and your organization’s relationships with its public sufficiently to change your game. While people still play their positions, they are all playing the same game and will be able to unlock perspectives and synergies that are not currently available.
I hope these four playful suggestions prove useful to some and provocative to many. The ideas that propel the American Theatre Movement to its next radiant moment will not come from a middle aged volunteer, but neither will they come from brilliant theatre professionals if those professionals feel so mired in the world as it is that they cannot apply their creativity anywhere beyond the stage. Whether or not you’ll be joining us in Cleveland, please play along on the quest to find ever better ways to make and share the art form of theatre. Do something to challenge your own expectations about what is possible and share what that inspires. Write the rules for your new game. Play it with gusto.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.