Storefront Summit of theater leaders
Sunday night, a group of leaders from Chicago's small theaters gathered for a "Storefront Summit," a meeting to discuss strategies for better communication and collaboration among theater companies. It was born of conversations on Twitter and in the comments on the New Colony's blog, where TNC artistic director Andrew Hobgood has been laying out a series of "Goals for the Future of Chicago Theater." I asked summit participant Benno Nelson for a report; read his account after the jump.
"Over the weekend I took part in the Storefront Summit, a gathering of about 25 leaders in the small-theater scene in Chicago. The meeting was sparked to life by a blog posting on the New Colony website by Artistic Director Andrew Hobgood, who in a series titled Goals for the Future of Chicago Theater called for more collaboration among this city’s disparate companies. Internet response was fiery, oscillating between optimism and skepticism, but with help from a small consortium of leaders of other small companies (such as Nick Keenan and Jessica Hutchinson of New Leaf Theatre, Dan Granata of the side project, James Palmer and Myah Shein of Red Tape, and Jeremy Wechsler of Theater Wit), the summit came together.
The attendance list brought together companies barely a year old, storefront vets like the Neo-Futurists, and organizations like the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and the League of Chicago Theaters (whose Deb Clapp even brought the beer). With interests and experiences this diverse, it might seem difficult to have been able to find any common ground. But the discussions—centering on the how, what and why of intercompany collaboration—were mostly civil.
Talking to people after the event, I found responses were positive. Lindsay Muscato and Oriana Fowler, both of the Neo-Futurists, traded off assertions of optimism. "I thought it was interesting to hear what other people’s challenges were and how we can help each other out," said Muscato. Fowler agreed, “There is a value to just talking." "We’ll see what happens," added Jennifer Shook of Caffeine Theatre. "I’m hopeful."
Others were quick to point out lessons learned from similar previous attempts. Don Hall, founding director of WNEP and "Angry White Guy" blogger, was uniquely unimpressed: "I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve gone to 20 of these things, and this was absolutely no goddamn different."
Bob Fisher, artistic director of the Mammals, found a flaw in the corporate-conference style of the gathering. "In a corporate mentality when you want to find a solution, the answer is always money," he asserted. "I want us to try to find solutions to problems without just throwing money at everything."
So, what is the number one reason there isn’t more collaboration among Chicago’s small theater companies? "I’m trying to put on a show!" shouts Hall. And that was certainly the consensus of the meeting. "There’s a problem with insulation," Hobgood agrees. "We’re all working our asses off to get our own stuff off the ground. One thing about organizing ourselves better is we can start to help audiences find more within our community to enjoy and help ourselves improve the quality of the art."
But even the most outspoken pessimists don’t argue against the importance of keeping this gathering's momentum moving. "What really rests on our shoulders as the people who organized it," says Hobgood, "is to not let this conversation die or this momentum die. We’re happy the conversation is started. We’re willing to organize, but I hope the entire theater community is willing to come in and make these initiatives a reality."