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Attending the TCG Conference in Washington DC
Over the past few days, I've been lucky enough to attend the TCG conference in Washington DC, as part of a group of 11 UK delegates supported by Arts Council England. TCG is the Theatre Communications Group, a national infrastructure organisation which exists to 'foster communication among professional, community and university theatres'. They have more than 700 affiliated organisations and 12,000 individual members - around 1,000 of these were at the annual conference.
I was keen to attend for three reasons: to find out more about US theatre and how it operates; to use this new knowledge to reflect on how we do things at ARC; and to meet some of the US theatres that had expressed an interest in our Pay What You Decide pricing model.
Over the three days, I attended sessions that considered leadership, audience development, board engagement and collaborative working - all topics that occupy the UK theatre sector too. Diversity was very high on the agenda for the whole conference, with a major focus on race, but there was very little evidence of work around disability, which was disappointing.
The conference was incredibly well run, and I particularly liked the pace and structure. I get easily bored listening to presentations, but it felt like most sessions were delivered at twice the average speed of a UK conference - and I loved it! Every session was also very well structured, and most were focussed on sharing learning in a very tangible way, introducing new models or tools rather than just self-publicising their organisation.
Although the content of the sessions was, for the most part, pretty familiar, it was great to see these areas of work discussed in a different cultural context. I didn't come away with a whole load of groundbreaking new ideas, but it did spark lots of thoughts about if and how we are doing similar things at ARC. I always approach conferences and other development visits as exploratory, as opportunities to find out what questions you should be asking of your organisation, rather than opportunities to find the answers.
Some of the questions I'll be asking over the next few weeks include: Are we talking and listening to our audiences enough? Are we carrying out enough research on what prevents people visiting ARC? How can I encourage our board members to focus more on outcomes and less on processes?
On the final day of the conference, I used the electronic bulletin board to invite any delegates interested in Pay What You Decide pricing to meet up for an informal discussion. Following national and international press coverage of our PWYD success at ARC, I have received lots of enquiries from companies, venues and festivals from around the world. Representatives from Theatre Azuka in Philadelphia had already visited ARC, on a research trip ahead of the introduction of PWYD pricing at their venue this autumn. I knew others were interested and was delighted to meet up with representatives from the Bloomsberg Theatre Ensemble, Theatre Horizon (also in Philadelphia), Delaware Theatre Company, Single Carrot Theatre and Lantern Theater Company. Most wanted to ask for advice on introducing it at their venues - both the Bloomsberg Theatre Ensemble and Theatre Horizon have trials planned in the next few months.
It was great to feel that we had something to offer, if a little overwhelming to realise that a pricing model pioneered at ARC and Slung Low's HUB was influencing the way theatres were reaching out to new audiences all over America!
One of my favourite sessions was a talk by John Maeda on creative leadership. John is, among other things, a designer, engineer and artist and one of the most thoughtful people I've listened to for a while. Leadership is often described as walking uphill whilst taking others with you but John describes it differently. He says 'leadership isn't walking up the hill, it's jumping off the hill with everyone watching to see if you survive'. That's definitely how introducing PWYD felt, but I'm a firm believer in taking risks if you want to change things. He did go on to talk about self-renewal - just in case you don't survive.
It's been a thought provoking few days and I am definitely still processing quite a lot of what I heard, but it did remind me how important it is to step outside your organisation sometimes, and look back on it from the outside - that way you are more likely to see it in the way other people do.
by Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive