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In Defense of Community Theatre

This video by John Moore of CultureWest.Org caught my attention this week:

Oskar Eustis: “The Worst of Both Worlds Is Happening”

In it Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis speaks about some troubling trends in the American regional theatre community, namely decreased wages for artists and risk-averse regional theatre season planning.

What struck me was a comment by producer and composer Michael Friedman, who spoke about a strong continuing demand for theatre by American audiences, at least when one takes into account community theatre and high school productions.

Does this strike anyone else as odd? That we are so concerned about the decline of an art form (“The theatre is dying!”), while this shadow industry is quietly fulfilling the demand that professional theatres compromise their missions to court? Doesn’t this mean that demand for theatre is alive and well, and we have somehow missed the memo? And what are community theatres tapping into that regional theatres are not?

Forgive me for the generalizations; obviously there is exciting theatre happening in many professional theatres across this country, but as a Midwesterner, I can substantiate Eustis’ claim. So what do community theatres have that regional theatres lack? And should they be stealing these strategies?

1) Accessibility

And not just for wheel-chairs. Perhaps this is what is driving regional theatres to produce such safe seasons so chock full of spectacular musicals and bio-plays and revivals of old greats, as Eustis decries: the desire to make accessible art. These days theatres are painfully aware of their ticket sales, a symptom of federal budget cuts and a decline in disposable income. But, to paraphrase Ann Bogart, one’s intention is always visible in the work. Theatre-goers can tell when they go to the theatre if they are going to be challenged or if they will be pandered to, and they self-select into the performances they prefer. Who is catering to those-who-would-be-challenged? Community theatres know their demographics perfectly: it is their community. They deal in the best fits for their communities, the most accessible, micro-targeted work possible. Regional theatres have a responsibility to their Region; they should be catering to the niches left behind by their amateur cousins.

2) Economics

Community theatres charge (much) less than professional theatres. This is in part because their budgets are so small, which is in turn because they don’t pay their artists very much, if anything at all. As a result, the production quality can be much lower, and but the audience’s economic risk is also diminished. They are gambling: tonight’s show might be very poor, but for $12 it’s hard to feel cheated. Spend $92 on a Broadway show, and just try tell me mediocre is good enough. I say that the time has come to invest in small-scale productions that employ a very few well-payed artists, as some companies are now doing. Let the audience’s imagination supply the spectacle. Regional theatres can diversify into this kind of work at relatively low cost, but with potentially huge community impact.

3) Outreach

Community theatre shows are performed locally, by locals. Each person on stage has a connection to the theatre-going community, and each audience member can meet and know any actor, and may even join in on the art if the spirit catches them. O, that their regional counterparts would descend into their communities! Seed their seasons with locals and local issues. I think there is a tendency for professional theatres to try to mimic a Broadway theatre, just out in the diaspora. But instead of imposing art that has been shipped in from another side of the country, can’t we build our own? It’s riskier, sure, but to avoid this risk is the death of innovation, the death of ambiguity, the death of art. Art should be relevant in the context in which it takes place, and to transplant the art of the elite into the flesh of the populist, well, what happens to transplants when they don’t fit their new hosts?

I’ve harped on Regional Theatres a lot today, but that is because I think that they are the gatekeepers for the theatre of the Common Human. They are powerful. These theatres are the tastemakers in their communities. They are the importers of new plays, the prototypes of professionalism, and the guardians of the Difficult Subject Matter. This is where community theatres cannot be leaders — it’s not their purpose. Regional theatres need to be daring and locally inclusive,because they are conduits to the rest of the country (the world!), and they are where we look for inspiration, when we live, as I have, in the diaspora.



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