The Process of Evolving Our National Conference

By Devon Berkshire posted 03-16-2023 13:03


While the response from the theatre field about the TCG National Conference going biennial has been largely supportive, we know that this is a hard year to miss the chance to come together. TCG’s Conference has been a reliable, annual touchpoint for theatre people to join in community and solidarity, for collaboration and inspiration, and now is a time when that absence of togetherness will be deeply felt. We TCGers would gather much more often in person if circumstances made that realistic – but after producing our first hybrid Conference in 2022 (in partnership with the amazing Pittsburgh theatre community) we learned much more about what creating a meaningful and impactful national conference requires in this moment.

Over the last three years, the fieldwide programming team has been analyzing the distinct advantages and drawbacks of our options for convening – whether hybrid, virtual or in-person– and our understanding has grown and evolved. As the time to consider the 2023 Conference host city approached, some urgent questions were emerging:

  • What kind of conference do we really need now that so much differs from how it used to be, including our own mission?
  • How can we continue to serve the many people of the field who can only really access our programming when it’s virtual?
  • And how can we give these questions the time and space they need for careful reflection?

So, for the first eight months of 2022, a small, interdepartmental group of TCG staff gathered every 2-3 weeks in an ideation process that was adapted and developed from the methodology of design thinking, focusing on the future of our National Conference. 

Design thinking is a practice that was born of the tech sector but has expanded to be applied to many fields. IDEO defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation—anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas—that will transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and organizations…you make decisions based on what customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.” Of course, for TCG our “customers” are our members, and our service to them extends to the people in the field who may not be members, but whom our members serve and provide for in turn. 

We devised a long-term, four-phase process to root ourselves in questions of how our model needed to change to meet the multi-faceted needs of the field in today’s world. We’re a field at an inflection point, finding ourselves in the receding tides of a pandemic, and facing rapid change in the ways we all do… a lot of things. Our models of gathering need to evolve to reflect those shifting layers of our work and our lives. As the “gathering guru” Priya Parker observes in her post “A Time for Reinvention: When Traditions No Longer Serve Us” from October 2021:

"A funny thing is happening to our gatherings during this prolonged and confusing pandemic. In the process of postponing, shrinking, canceling, and rescheduling, our gatherings are being deconstructed. The different pieces of a gathering that used to knee-jerk go together are now — by necessity — being pulled apart and examined and re-imagined."

The four phases of our ideation process were Grounding, Listening, Ideating and Prototyping. The Grounding phase focused on creating a shared understanding and knowledge of the evolution of the Conference to date; Listening focused on diving deep into attendee feedback about past Conferences and other events; Ideating allowed us to aggregate all that context into a brainstorm of potential changes and major shifts; and Prototyping, which made space for bouncing around idea models within and outside of our group. The beauty of design thinking is that it centers the needs of people, but also makes room to consider what’s actually feasible in meeting those needs.

We considered a range of radical ideas including exploding the Conference model entirely and building new programming in its place, and we considered whether we needed to change much at all. Where we landed was somewhere in the middle: it was clear the Conference needed an overhaul as our old model was looking increasingly unsustainable; it was also clear that the Conference is an important fixture in our field, and that its disappearance could do more harm than good. We also emerged with a commitment to hybrid Conferences that would always have a virtual component, which we will work to improve over time. 

From a feasibility standpoint the commitment to remaining hybrid, while it sustains pathways for many folks to continue to access TCG programming, also creates a capacity conundrum for TCG. One big takeaway from 2022 is that producing a hybrid Conference is, as they say, basically like producing two conferences at once. Churning out that level of event on an annual basis would be next to impossible with our current resources, especially if we still want to produce new and responsive programming like we’ve been rolling out in recent years – so something had to give. 

That ‘something’ ended up being our annual schedule. When we realized we could return to the biennial roots of the Conference, as other conferences around us have also done, much more seemed possible.

In the days and weeks ahead we’ll be announcing more about our 2024 Conference (and we’re excited!). Another shift that will come with the expanded 16-month planning timeline is the deepening of our relationships with the theatre people of our host city, and a much more intentional experience that is truly co-created with the theatre-makers who will be welcoming us into their community. We’ll be in another “listening” phase with them and other folks in the field for several months, absorbing feedback about how the Conference can represent our host city with integrity, while also serving those in the field we’ve made commitments to prioritize.

We don’t know precisely what the 2024 TCG National Conference will look like, except to say we imagine it will look quite different from Conferences of the last decade or more. Over the course of our planning process we plan to keep the field updated as to the thought processes behind the changes that we’re making. Otherwise, we hope to see you online or at another TCG event in the next year and at the next TCG National Conference in 2024!