Without getting embroiled in the recent raucous debate going on in the so-called theatrosphere (or something like that–I’ve never been much of a hipster in the blogging world) about this delicate word, community, and the bastard-like idea that it has spawned, I would like to introduce the next part of my notion of a new model of sustainable theater in America.
To get down to it, when finding the words “community” and “theater” right next to each other, theater artists (myself included at times) tend to cringe a bit. The term community theater has become synonymous with amateur, often wholly self-indulgent (one might even say masturbatory), uninspired theater. Now, that may be the elite tendencies of the theater artist shining through, but more often than not, I think the reaction is justified in many ways. That isn’t to say that community theater doesn’t have its place, because it certainly does, and there are things about it that I think we could all learn from tremendously. Which is what I want to talk about: the word community as it applies to the future of theater; and how we might transcend the very idea of community theater–and what it has come to connote–in our times.
Before you read any further, however, I’d like to recommend Jonathan Hicks’ post on “arts and community.” It’s quite nice, really, and is more eloquent (and abstract) than what I have to offer…
To me (and this is an important distinction, I know, because we all bring our own histories and — dare I say — baggage to this perennial debate on the future of theater), the idea of community is essential to theater. There are different levels of community we must consider as well. First, there is the community we might call the company; that is, the folks that make up the core members of a theater, keeping it alive artistically, financially, and physically. Next is the first level of the theater community, including other theater companies that exist within one’s area, be it the same city, region, or state. The second level of the theater community extends outwards globally, and includes America’s regional theaters, community theaters, SPT’s, et cetera, as well as those across the world — because they are each attempting to engage in the art of theater we therefore have much in common with them. The final, and perhaps most significant, community constitutes those people in your city, town, rural area, who make up the people directly involved, affected by, and simply within reasonable geographic distance of the physical space that you consider your theater. In this group, I include not only those that attend your performances or events, donate or invest money in your company, or actively become involved in your work, but also those that drive or bike or walk by your theater, reading the posters or flyers or marquee, those that read about your work in the local rag, those that want to buy up your building to make way for a Wal-Mart, those that hate your very existence, and those that peek in during off hours saying things like “oh, you guys do shows in here?”
All of them — lovers, haters, and hangers on — are part of a theater’s community.
And it’s easy to stop there. Okay, so we’re part of a community. Some kind of community. But what does that mean at the local level — the level I am most concerned with for a theater model that is promoting and exercising sustainability? It means, simply, that if localization is a key element of sustainability it must inform every aspect of a theater’s work, from production techniques to the types of stories being told on its stage. A sustainable theater, concerned as it should be with the local, cannot disassociate itself from its community. It is, for all intents and purposes, a community theater.
In the perfect sense, this idea would translate into staging works that a theater’s immediate community (the ones walking by, and poking their heads in) would be able to relate to in a very real way — in my new neighborhood here in Madison that might mean a work that addresses the communities concern about the lakes and how no one feels safe swimming in them anymore, but it might also mean staging a play about two recent murders that have the city bound up in a conflict that involves the police department, the 911 call center, the homeless and their advocates, and the families of the deceased.
The idea of community also means that as an organization, a theater following a model of sustainability would seek to involve its community in its operations in some way — whether that be welcoming volunteers to help with the box office, or staging work that includes them as performers on a semi-regular basis is up to the members of the theater company. It should also extend to other businesses in the area, utilizing local vendors, and encouraging collaboration whenever possible.
So where does that leave us? With a company that cares enough about its locals to include them on every level. It seems like a no-brainer to me: what better way to keep the work vibrant, thriving, timely, and interesting to the people you want in the seats?