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Non-Theater People on “Theatre”

Rehearsing regularly and attending the School of Theatre, you build a bubble around yourself. Your friends are in this bubble, your work is in this bubble, your mind is in this bubble. This bubble says: everyone understands the basic importance of theatre. Everyone knows that being an artist is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, and yes, it is work. No one will ever ask you certain questions because everyone knows the answers.

And then you’re in a show (or in my case, you write one) and it’s:

  • How did they find the actors?
  • When is this going to Broadway?
  • (for playwrights) Did you pay for everything yourself?
  • What other productions do you have/are you in in Boston right now?
  • Why isn’t this program longer?

If you’re a “theatre person” and you’re reading this, maybe you’re giggling or rolling your eyes. But this actually isn’t a vent-piece about how silly non-theater people are (and yeah, I’m going to go ahead and use the -er spelling sometimes, because many professionals do, and even as a former English teacher I appreciate the vagaries and shifts of the English language). This is actually a genuine musing on how people imbedded in this bubble can and should communicate with people outside of it.

The obvious answer is, of course, through the show. It doesn’t matter what people ask you about the logistics before and after if you’ve actually reached them with the content of your play. And so maybe these questions are just to be shrugged off, or (better) answered honestly, but (importantly) without condescension. (Seriously, just because someone doesn’t have a BFA or MFA doesn’t mean they’re less wise than you. It probably means they have more life experience and are incredibly skilled at something you yourself don’t understand. So, like, be respectful.)

But maybe that’s not the whole answer. Because there’s a reason arts funding in this country is fairly terrible and is about to get a whole lot worse. The vast majority of people in this country don’t spend their whole lives trying to play (or write the new) Richard II, and genuinely don’t have the time or inclination to do a ton of research on what it means to be a theatre artist. So maybe we should tell them–and back ourselves up with data on why the arts need more funding.

Explaining the audition process can help folks realize that these actors are few of many who compete for professional roles in this town. Explaining why this isn’t immediately transferring to Broadway can raise awareness about how small the channels are that can lead to transfer. Explaining that no, you didn’t pay them, you actually were paid by a theatre company to have your work done can help others realize that writing is a crucial job that deserves some reward. Etc. And you’re not explaining all this because folks are less intelligent than you, but because if you want to sustain a career in the arts, you need to raise awareness about the importance and challenges of the field you work in. Funding doesn’t come from nowhere, and (surprise) it doesn’t come from starving actors or playwrights or designers. It doesn’t come from people in your bubble. It often comes from either the government (for which voter support is quite helpful) or wealthy patron individuals/organizations. So regardless of who you’re talking to–and especially if you’re talking to someone’s parents or grandparents–maybe take a moment and talk instead of laughing them off.

It’s easy to scoff at those who “don’t understand our art.” But that’s not respectful or sustainable. As theatre artists/theater people/unicorns who think plays are lifeblood, it’s part of our job to stop being only bubble-dwellers, spread the word about the arts, and ensure that we have a funded future.

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