It’s not that this is a novel artistic approach in human history. Artists have often, and in many cultures, expressed their creativity at a community level. South African theater artist John Kani (who also served as chair of their National Arts Council), described in a Globe and Mail interview the place of artists in African village culture:Africa is different. There is no Broadway, and the community is what is important. When you become an artist, you become an artist in that village â€” a storyteller, a dancer, an entertainer, a percussionist. You’re doing it for the village. The fact that it may be seen by people coming from the neighboring village is just another embellishment.However, in our society, which has seen such rapid and drastic erosions of community life, this is a relatively recent discipline. I’m often reminded of a story I heard from my friend Ron Evans, a Metis oral historian, about the time an anthropologist came to an African village. They had just acquired their first television set and, for several weeks, they spent most of their time watching it. They neglected the old man by the fire, the griot who knew all of the tribe’s history and mythology. But, after awhile, people drifted back to the fire, and eventually there was no one left by the television. The anthropologist, curious, asked one of the villagers, “Don’t you think the TV knows more stories than your old storyteller?” “Oh, yes,” came the reply. “The TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows me.” Perhaps this need for immediate, intimate, neighbor-to-neighbor, homegrown culture is what gives force to the contemporary community arts movement.
And maybe that simple sentence -- "The TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows me" -- is the starting point for a way of defining theatre's raison d'etre, for separating it in the public's mind from the mass media, for identifying what makes theatre unique and therefore valuable. Don't get me wrong -- I think mass media is delightful and often powerful, and I am not a theatre snob. But when I go to the movies or turn on the TV, I know that the storyteller doesn't know me, and hasn't created that story with me in mind, and will tell that story the same way no matter who is in the audience -- and that makes a difference. Later this week, I am planning to go see storyteller David Novak do Gilgamesh at the North Carolina Stage Company, and even though he will be telling a story that is many millenia old, I know he lives in Asheville, and has created this performance for us; he will perform the same basic story each night, but he will adjust it slightly according to who is there and how they respond. And that makes me excited to see his work.