Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reclaiming Community

This essay was written three years ago, it was the final assignment in my senior seminar "Issues in Contemporary Theatre". 
I don't know if I still agree with everything I wrote here, but I come back to it often enough to re-evaluate my goals and ideas, that I thought it ought to be a part of this blog. 
I'd love to know what you think and I am sure I will be sharing some of my opinions and changing ideas in the next couple weeks.

I am reclaiming community theatre. I know many theatre professionals who say the word with disgust. Community theatre is theatre hell, and working in one is the death knell for a theatre career. I like the word though, community. Community is what theatre is supposed to be about. Community is the source of theatre. "Theatre began as a way in which a community could tell its stories to itself" (Tori Haring-Smith). My theatre then, is a community theatre. I am reclaiming the term so that it no longer brings to mind images of the travel agent, dentist, and high-school students putting on a production of Oklahoma in the local church multi-purpose room. My community theatre means professional artists functioning not above, but among the world they are attempting to portray; a theatre for, about and integrally linked to the artists, patrons, students and organizations that make up the environment in which the theatre exists.

I find it funny that the word has taken on a pejorative tone, because we are all about community in the theatre; we are just too selective. We talk about the "theatre community," that group of people who choose to dedicate their lives to the same goal we do. The theatre community is us; the rest of the world is them. They don't appreciate. They don't support the arts. When are we going to realize that they don't understand because we won't let them in? How can someone be passionate about something they aren't a part of? We need to widen the theatre community to include the community as a whole. We need to allow the audience to be an integral part of the work that we do, not in a cheesy subscription pamphlet tag-line way, but in a real tangible sense.

Hold talks with the audience, not talkbacks. If they care about the work they are doing, the actors, directors and designers should have just as many questions for the audience as the audience has for them. Invite critics. Engage in real discussion. Give respect to the opinions and critiques your audience gives you, they are more insigntful than we give them credit for. 

Open up your rehearsals, shops and design studios. As theatre artists we know that the full magic of theatre is not contained in the final product, but in the process. If we didn't, we wouldn't have the desire and dedication to become part of the process. There is excitement and wonder in watching all of the parts come together as a whole. There is satisfaction in seeing the results of hours of rehearsals, meetings, compromises, creative brainstorming and sudden inspiration come together to create a finished product. If we don't allow the community to see a part of that process, how can we expect them to feel the same magic that we are all addicted too?

Deal in the here and now. Theatre is a biodegradable art. It can exist only in the moment and then can only live on as a memory. Your production of A Doll's House will never hang in a museum and no one will be affected by it who didn't see it. There is no point in the endless, and usually fruitless search for the universal. The universal is pointless in theatre, the local is everything. Find out what your audience is doing when they are not paying to see your shows. What do they care about? What are the issues, questions, problems in their everyday lives? Read the news, attend government meetings, attend PTA meetings, read the fliers on the bulletin boards in the local coffee shops. Find out who your audience really is and do productions about them. Try to find local playwrights; odds are they are writing about the community you are attempting to reach. 

Don't just accept cooperation, seek it out. Maybe the local PFLAG chapter would be interested in your production of Take Me Out. Ask them if they want to get involved, you can't wait for them to ask you and you can't be content with the one yearly cooperative production you've come to rely on. Find community partners for every show, even ones without such obvious themes. Maybe the local animal shelter would enjoy helping with your production of Sylvia? Maybe a local casino could get involved with a production of Guys and Dolls? You never know until you ask. And if there is no local group, business or school that is interested in helping with what you are doing, maybe you should go back and double check that the show you are doing is something that is worthwhile, meaningful and current in your community.

Educate, through your cooperation with community organizations, through the schools and through your own programs. Send artists out into the schools. Send an actor to work with high school students rehearsing for their spring musical. See if a middle school class would be interested in dramaturgy for your production of Big River. Offer internships, offer classes, offer to help prepare monologues with students auditioning for colleges. Don't just give help when it is requested, actively seek out places in the community where you can make a difference. Make your theatre artists into mentors for the theatre artists of tomorrow. 

Above all keep learning. Keep discovering the world. Keep finding new hobbies. Encourage the rest of the company to do the same. Don't just give the actor packet to the actors; give it to the whole company. Create an environment in which everyone is a student and a teacher for everyone else. Know about the world that you are a part of and find ways to bring that world to the stage and to the imaginations of your community. Keep reading, keep watching the news, keep discovering and keep connecting the art you are making with the world that is changing around you. 

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