Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Community

Both Angie and alwasyabridesmaid make eloquent arguments, and I appreciate their comments. The original intention of my line of thought was not to attack artists who work out of town, but rather to propose another model of thinking about the theatre that might be useful -- indeed, might create a stronger bond between theatre artists and their community, with the result of a healthier theatre scene. By definition, a new model assumes there is something wrong with the old model, and I must admit that I think there is, and it is illustrated by one of alwaysabridesmaid's comments:

"I work mostly regionally, and I love it, but I am cast out of New York. The auditions I attend are in NY, so I must be there to get the work. I lived in Boston prior to that, and found that they would rarely take Boston actors seriously enough to cast them. They went to New York to find actors. Frustrating, yes, especially because I love Boston and loved living there, but it is the reality, so I moved."

This is a very practical attitude -- if I were an actor, I would probably be inclined to follow the same path, and I don't condemn alwaysabridesmaid for having made that decision. But I think it is time for someone to ask whether this "reality" is 1) good for artists, 2) good for theatre, 3) good for human beings. Why do we in the theatre rarely question the status quo as far as our working model is concerned? Why do we simply accept "the reality"? There is a need for theatre all over this country, and the majority of the theatre tickets are sold outside of New York. So what is forcing actors to live in NYC? Why can't you live in the city you love? Why can't oldphort make a living as an actor in Asheville -- there's a lot of theatre being done? Part of the answer is implied by alwaysabridesmaid: "I lived in Boston prior to that, and found that they would rarely take Boston actors seriously enough to cast them." To paraphrase Laertes, "The director's to blame." Did alwaysabridesmaid acquire more "training and craft" when she moved from Boston to NYC? Was she immediately more talented? I doubt it, but because of her new address, she will now be taken seriously by Boston directors. Does this make any sense at all? Is this not madness?

Once one admits the insanity of this, one is led to other questions: whatever happened to the idea of a resident company? Why are plays cast individually, rather than casting a company? Why is there little commitment to the development of an artistic community that supports artists' development? The usual explanation is "money" -- an understandable plea. But what I ask is whether there might be more money -- i.e., more audience loyalty, more tickets sold -- if all of the people who work in a particular theatre also were a part of the community. Not just the producer, who can only do so much, but everyone. Would someone be more inclined to come and see alwaysabridesmaid if she had just spent a weekend working with her building a house for Habitat for Humanity, or stood in line with her at the grocery store, or her son was on the same soccer team as alwaysabridesmaid's son?

A useful model of this in action might be the high school musical. When I was growing up, we sold out a 400-seat theatre night after night for My Fair Lady and Mame. Was it because the show was that damn good? No, it was because family and friends came out to support me and the rest of the cast and crew. "Let's go see Scott in a play." Is it that big of a stretch to think that the same thing might happen in professional theatre? Didn't people pack the Globe to find out what Shakespeare and Burbage and Kemp were up to now? Wasn't Sophocles an important member of Athenian society, and weren't all of the actors drawn from the community? Didn't throngs come to medieval mystery plays in part because there was a community connection -- their guild was responsible for one of the plays, and they knew the guy playing Cain? Wasn't the Restoration theatre packed with people wanting to see actors they partied with the night before, and see plays by playwrights they knew and who were writing about them and their friends? Often it is said that the audience for theatre now is filled with other theatre artists. True or not, the implication is true: we're often there to see what someone we know is doing.

This is the very definition of community. A community is not just "a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government," but it is also "a group of people having common interests" that involves "sharing, participation, and fellowship." (dictionary.com) I think artists should be a part of the community. I think that theatre that was created would speak more powerfully. I think theatres would be healthier if they committed to the development of specific artists, and thus formed an identity that was connected to people.

In another discussion, David Novak proposed that the artist was a Magical Stranger, and that his power came from his outsider status. I disagree; I think the artist is magical, but that magic would be even stronger if the artist were a part of the community. The image I have is of the shaman. The shaman was, of all people, the MOST active and involved in the community. Keeping the community together, working for the common good, and healing the community was his or her job. The whole point of contacting the spirit world, of being "different" was to benefit, support and guide the community. Now, this did not mean that the methods of contacting the spirit world were somehow made common -- that the magic leaked out. But the shaman saw themselves as a part of the community, and the magic that they undertook was for the purpose of helping that community in some way. Their skills were not shared by all, but they were not set aside and worshipped because they possessed those skills. Everyone believed that they would use those powers in service of the community.What if we, as artists, conceived of our role in the same way?

1 comment:

Dorothy said...

That is a great question !
I have recently been working with a company called Effective Arts here in Seattle and never have I felt so good about my work as an actor as I have knowing that I might have saved lives by participating in a training for people to learn how to talk to families about organ donations. That is using the arts to help community.
In ancient, times, artists and storytellers were the visionaries and politiciand and communities listened and used the prophecies to create their society and better it. Now it's the contrary. And the visionaries aren't even the politicians either. It's the corporations.