Sunday, January 07, 2007

Robert Gard:

"Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America" by Robert Gard

As the book description explains, "Robert Gard’s timeless book is a moving account of one man’s struggle to bring his dream of community-building through creative theater to citizens around the country. He traveled across America—from New York’s Finger Lakes to the prairies of Alberta, Canada, to the backwoods of northern Wisconsin—discovering and nurturing the folklore, legends, history, and drama of the region. He talked to ballad singers, painters, the tellers of tall tales, and farm women, whose poetry and painting reflected the elemental violence of nature and quiet joys of neighborliness. Grassroots Theater reminds us that an individual’s creative vision transcends technology, current events, and changing demographics." Originally published in 1955 and re-released by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999, this book still has the power to inspire and refresh. Gard's vision of a theater rooted in a community and committed to works created by citizens who live within that community was realized through the Wisconsin Idea Theater housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and the Wisconsin Rural Writers' Association. This very personal and engaging book gives insights into the trials and victories, and the people and ideas that Gard encountered as he brought his ideas into existence.

A few quotations that I found inspiring:

"It seems to me that a stream of fine new community arts leaders should be issuing from the University of Wisconsin and, indeed, from all universities and colleges of the nation. The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theater departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater. The young person graduating from the university has little concept of the scope of te theater to be developed, of the delicate social problems of fitting himself and his talents successfully into community life. He is too frequently a failure when he attempts it."

I am reminded of a 1995 article by Richard Schechner entitles "Transforming Theatre Departments," in which he makes a strong case that theater departments are deceiving their students by pretending to prepare them for a profession that has no need for them, and giving them skills that will not be valued by the profession. He proposes that theatre departments create three different tracks: "performance studies" which would look at performance braodly in preparation for positions in other fields; theatre as a lifelong amateur activity, reminding us that it is the amateur theatres that are best able to contribute to theatre history through the creation of a theatre of classics, new work, and experimental work, all of which could be undertaken because one's livelihood would not be contingent on the box office; and finally a professional track that would focus on the skills needed for today's professional theatre: "emotive acting for soap operas, mugging and 'sincerity training' for commercials, training in two-minute auditions and quick character studies suitable to the four-week rehearsal periods common in regional theatres." Right now, theater departments teach the values and skills of the second track, while plying students with the Myth of Broadway of the third track. Surely community-based theatre offers a viable and creative alternative to the commercial theatre's siren song of plastic fame.

In order to overcome the Myth of Broadway and the Siren Song of New York, what first must be confronted is the defensive elitism that typifies many artists who, in response to a feeling of being undervalued, strikes an aggressive attitude toward the general public, particularly at the local level. Gard quotes a "gentleman involved in the organziation of an art show in Milwaukee" who "expressed his opinion of popular art and mass participation":

"Frankly, I'm a snob. I believe shows like this are for a minority and the people that come to shows like this are a minority. Do you realize that less than 5 percent of the people of Milwaukee are interested in art? But the door over there is open. Anyone can come in. But it makes no difference to me what 95 percent of the public thinks about this show, whether they think it's crazy and artists are all nuts. And I wouldn't go out on the street to try to convince them to come in here. It makes no damned difference to me."

Gard explains:

"Such a statement shows plainly to me the breakdown of communion between the artist and the public. Many of the modern artists aggravate the breakdown of rapport between themselves and public by failing to make clear the nature of the new developments in art. If the average interested art show audiences were told 'why' Mondrian painted rectangular planes of pure color which 'don't look like anything' or 'why' artists cannot simply go on repeating the styles of the past, they would undoubtedly become more receptive to experimenatl and abstract work. And, of course, more attention by the community to the whole question of public taste would help in many ways."

But unfortunately, our theatre artists and playwrights are given no encouragement to consider themselves rooted in a specific community, and instead they hold onto an abstract notion of the elite audience members who ought to attend their plays. "He is willing," Gard writes, "to observe but not to put down roots. There is no education at present to teach the aspiring playwright [and, I would say, actor/director/designer] that he must grow with a community, that community roots must become his roots, and that only through such merging will he have any value to that place and consequently to other places as an individual and as an artist."

It frustrates me that, throughout my education, nobody ever mentioned Robert Gard or any such other theatre artists and pioneers, so focused on the New York scene has theatre history been. He provides a different view of theatre's role in the life of a community and of our society. I encourage you all to read Grassroots Theater as a source of inspiration and new ideas.

If you would like to read a 1969 interview with Robert Gard, read "Running To Catch Up with the People: A Conversation with Robert Gard, Ralph Kohlhoff and Michael Warlum, 1969."


Tom Loughlin said...

Thanks for this, Scott. I am going to read the article linked as well as buy and read the book.

BTW, do you remember in the early 80s that the University of Nebraska-Omaha actually had a Masters' program in something called "people's theatre" or "community-based theatre?" I remember hearing about it while in Lincoln. They had a show called "Looks Good from the Road" which detailed the crisis in the farm community in the mid-80s. I know it's not there anymore, but I want to assure myself that my memory was at least accurate. -twl

Scott Walters said...

Tom -- I don't remember this, but I am very new to this whole field. Apparently, there are now other degree programs in community-based arts, which I believe are listed on the Community Arts Network website.