Posts Tagged ‘community theater


Lindsay Jones responds

Something that frequently gets lost on blogs is the nuance of life — the other side of the story.

When I recently posted a previously unpublished entry entitled Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on the trouble with the abundance of travel in American theater I asked my friend Lindsay Jones to help me understand the issue from the perspective of a theater artist who travels frequently to do his work as a sound designer. In some ways, I left off bits of what he said in the interest of brevity — or, rather, directness. But in the leaving out, I skipped over what Jones feels was an essential part of his point, and I’d like to give him an opportunity to explain it (in full) here.

He wrote the following to me in an email Friday night. I have not edited it, and have removed only the parts addressed personally to me.

It’s weird because I kinda feel like I’ve been placed in this role of the bad guy (which is not your fault), due to my line of work, and I kinda feel like there’s only been one side of the context that I provided, which was that I must travel to do what I do. That’s bad for the environment, and I understand that that was the point of your post, so I kinda let it go.

But, in seeing all these people picking up the discussion, I really feel like they’re missing the other side of what I wrote (and was not printed), which is that I think that a constant infusion of new artists collaborating together is actually very good for the future of theatre. Good art comes from new challenges and new ideas and, many times, that comes from new people and new situations. That happens by artists being in new environments, and, a lot of times, that happens through travel. I understand that your research shows that travel is now bad for the environment. And I totally see your point on cultivating a theatre that is based entirely in the surrounding community would be good for the community as a whole, but I thought that that kind of theatre already existed as “community theatre” (a term that has unfairly gotten a bad rap over the last couple of decades, but the principle and practice of it is still very strong, as far as I know). The type of theatre that I work in is different from that, and if you dislike the idea of outside professionals working in your community, that’s absolutely your prerogative. No one says you can’t make your own theatre your own way. But I do see some great theatre in the stuff that I do, and I believe that these theatres have a place in our cultural offerings. Not always, but quite a bit.

For the people who say that the future of theatre lies entirely in the hands of people who can do many different skills, I have to say that certainly sounds good, but only up to a certain level. I can guarantee that the person who thinks this policy applies to all situations across the board has never worked inside of a larger regional theatre or commercial theatre structure. The assumption that these theatres are just a bunch of dumbasses who never thought about combining people’s job skills in order to save money is simply ludicrous. Trust me, theatres are CONSTANTLY looking for ways to have less people do more work. They have the staffs they have because that is the bare minimum of what they need in order to get the work finished. I’ve seen what kind of hours those people put in, and I sure don’t see anyone in those situations sitting around, waiting for something to do. They all work very hard at the jobs they have. I honestly have no idea how they would consolidate their positions any further.

And, frankly, I’m no exception either. I have to justify my job to people all the time. Everyone has an Ipod now, everyone has a computer, and a whole lot of people think what I do is really a piece of cake or even completely unnecessary altogether. But my job is more than just technical skills, it’s a very specific craft that I have honed in over 500 professional productions now. And that’s the other point that I was trying to make, which is the one thing that I feel I was misrepresented in your comments to your original post. You say that “the implication that talented designers simply do not exist in certain parts of the country is nonsense”, but in fact, I only said that that was a possible reason why I might be hired. That situation has happened, the theatre told me that when they hired me. It hasn’t happened often, which I also mentioned in my email, but it has happened. But the larger point is that they may have talented people who do my job in their region and yet those theatres hire me anyway. Why? Because they hate locals? Because they love spending money? No. Because they believe what I have to offer them and their production is worth bringing me in for. They think that what I can do will make the overall product better. Am I the only one with this skill? No. But by this point in my career, I’m confident in what I have to offer. I feel like it’s worth it, and I work as hard as I possibly can to make it worth it. And while I’m happy to apologize that my air travel is ruining the environment, I won’t apologize for the work that I do. It’s good work, and I’m proud of it.

That being said, I’m not looking to engage in an argument with people who have an axe to grind. I feel extremely fortunate to have the career that I have, and I know that by even writing any of this to you, I run the risk of looking petty or egotistical or elitist. I know that you wanted to have an honest dialogue on this subject, and that’s honestly the reason that I’m sending this to you, because I really do respect your position and hope you’ll see my point of view as well.


A New Model part III: Community

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?

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