Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Clarifying Community

One of the themes that surfaced during our value discussion was the idea of community. However, there seems to be a misconception about the term -- that is means community activism or involvement with community political and social issues.

When I use the word community, I mean it in a much simpler way: the ties or bonds between people. To create community is to create, and then strengthen, the bonds between people. One way to do that is through community activism, of course -- bonds are often strengthen through a common activity or a common enemy. But community is created simply through talking and listening. The times that I have been in church, there often were parts of the service in which we were asked to turn and greet the people around us. The intention is to create a sense of community, a sense of being part of a group. If that were the only thing, it would be a pretty superficial community, of course. But then there often was coffee and cake in the church basement afterwards, where many people went to talk -- and to strengthen bonds. I take a yoga class once a week, and at the end of the session, we all give each other a blessing, acknowledging each other individually. Why? To create a sense of community in the class.

So when I talk about theatre creating and strengthening community, it doesn't have to go outside the walls of the theatre. It might be creating a point during the theatrical event -- before, during, during intermission, after the show -- in which people are given an opportunity to talk to each other, to get to know each other as more than the head in the row in front of you.

For me, the traditional post-show Q & A session doesn't really promote community. Nobody introduces themselves (except whoever happens to be onstage fielding the questions), and the discussion is anonymous. But imagine a post-show discussion that follows the World Cafe model, in which people are put into groups of four and given a general topic to discuss, and then after a certain amount of time, they rotate and get new members. Each time, they introduce themselves to those who are at their table. In a small group, people are more comfortable talking than in the entire assembly.

So does that inspire community outside the walls of the theatre? Well, if you have talked to someone after a show and then you run into them in line at the grocery or at a meeting for another organization, you will probably talk again. And the bonds are strengthened. And when you are talking, you might introduce the person to another friend of yours, and the circle widens.

These are the bonds that are missing in many of our communities. This is how a theatre might contribute to creating community. Once ties are established, and community has been created, then you can put that energy to work. And that may or may not be something organized by the theatre.

That's what I mean by "community."

9 comments:

Devilvet said...

I am a contrary son of a gun (Ian if you are reading this forgive me)

Nothing wrong with what you are proposing here, but...

I think we weren't merely defining community. I think we were talking (Ian and I) about how the denotative use of the term 'community' was tepid marketing and mission statement making at best... without specificity.

This post makes my winter coat nice and shiny like a big bowl of Benefil, but if we stop here, at let all talk to each other more...are we letting an opportunity pass us by?

What I like about "community theater" a term a time and place, that is uncomfortable for many who got to university or beyond in their theatrical pursuits of a living wage as artist...

What I like about the 3 or 4 "community theaters" I participated with in central Florida is that it requires all different types of people within a certain square mile radius to come together and MAKE something. They have to get on their feet, move around the room, swing a hammer, focus a light, pour a cup of lemonade, rehearse, move, action, harmoniously...people coming to together to build something, to build a performance.

But your definition and my community theater paradign... that isnt the same spirit I think that so many have when they type the word "community" on a grant application or mission statement or press release without saying more specifically who, what, how, and yes even when.

The glass is half full here though...especially if we keeping amplifying, further defining that word you that I'm sure everybody knows by now sticks in my throat like a chicken bone.

Could the next step be, after we get them talking...guiding the conversation...possibly with our content?

Director said...

I don't know about anyone else, but I hate hate hate hate hate being put into a group of 3 or 4 people that I barely know in order to talk about some particular topic that's been assigned. It's the way half of my college classes went when I was working on my education degree, and I hated it. I guess I can't really say why, but I hated it. It makes me uncomfortable and I feel like a dipshit when I'm in those kinds of situations.

I also hate the turn-and-greet in church. It just reeks of superficiality to me. If someone really wanted to know my name, they'd really ask me without having to be prompted by someone else. If I really wanted to talk about theatre with someone I barely knew, I'd do it without being prompted to by someone else.

I dunno. I just don't like that kind of thing.

Others might, though. More power to them.

Scott Walters said...

Well, Director, then you don't really want to be in community, because for that to happen, people who don't know each other have to talk to each other so that they get to know each other. That's how communities are built, and it is awkward. Hey, I don't like it that much, either, but if I don't do things like that, then I never talk to anyone that I don't already know. I can stay in my comfortable little world with my wife and a handful of acquaintances and be very, very happy. And that's what we've done in this country. We have pulled into a little shell where we only talk to people we know in advance will agree with us and who share our lifestyles. We've created gated intellectual communities. And I don't happen to think that is good for our country. In fact, I think it leads to the ugly polarization that we see today. So we need to create situations where people are encouraged to talk to each other. And that may seem forced, but in our current situation, it is necessary.

Bob -- I don't market community any more than the Cubs market the smell of hotdogs and beer and the people sitting on buildings watching the game from beyond the left field wall, but it is part of the experience and, truth be told, probably the most important part. But the Cibs sell the gamel we sell a play. Community is what you do once you get there. It is intentionally built into the experience, so that a situation is created where sharing is possible.

And if somebody types "community" on a grant application, and I am the guy giving the grants, I want to see exactly what activities are built into the evening that contributes to community. If you're just doing The Exonerated and then rushing back to the dressing room right after curtain call while the audience files out -- well, you haven't done a damn thing to create community, I don't care how politically-charged the piece is.

Devilvet said...

Scott,

One, please call me devilvet ;). You start calling me Bob, people might are going to never take me seriously. (again ;))

Two, "I don't market community"...

I get ya tough guy! But, god darn so many out there do. I just wanted to clarify what I thought was the origin of the thought string.

Segue - I remember being at what we call 'Theatre Dish' years ago here in CHI. There were probably about 40 flegding to thriving theatre companies in attendence. And if I had a sawbuck for everyone of them who marketed with "community" without getting specific like Tony's example in the comments on our talk...well let just say I could buy you and me some damn fine steaks and high priced beer to wash it down!

"I want to see exactly what activities are built into the evening that contributes to community."

A-M-E-N...I like this use of hyphens. It really makes it feel like A-C-T-I-O-N as I'm typing ;)

Scott Walters said...

I have to admit I have a hard time calling you devilvet -- I feel like I'm talking to a carton character. But OK, if that's how you want it! ;-)

Yes, there are so many buzz words out there it is discouraging. People do the same thing year after year, but they just adopt the current buzz word for it in order to score grant money. Makes me disgusted. They think it is a game. I'm serious about it. I think community actually has a meaning, and I've even read books about it, too! ;-)

Devilvet said...

Devilvet vs Bob

just kidding

RVCBard said...

...if I don't do things like that, then I never talk to anyone that I don't already know. I can stay in my comfortable little world with my wife and a handful of acquaintances and be very, very happy. And that's what we've done in this country. We have pulled into a little shell where we only talk to people we know in advance will agree with us and who share our lifestyles. We've created gated intellectual communities. And I don't happen to think that is good for our country. In fact, I think it leads to the ugly polarization that we see today. So we need to create situations where people are encouraged to talk to each other.

QFT, Scott.

Anyway, I tend to experience things like family, friendship, and community a bit differently from mainstream society. I have some sort of psychological disorder where these things are more than words to me. They are realities as concrete as gravity. For me, family runs deeper than biology; a friend is more than a name, a face, and some contact information; a community is more than people who have shared interests and geographical location.

Unfortunately, what I often see isn't really community, but relationships of convenience. No one goes out of their way for someone else unless there's something in it for them. When people speak, they don't want to communicate or understand; they want to sound smart. There's no interaction, only marketing. It's no wonder people feel so isolated. How can you make meaningful connections with people if the first thing you think about when you meet someone is how useful they are to you?

Speaking of my own experience, I have never found a sense of community by assuming people have to prove they're worth my time. I have usually found it by going out of my way to connect with someone free of expectations and assumptions. I have found it by listening rather than talking, by asking questions instead of making statements, by being mindful instead of careless. It's not easy, but I'm afraid I haven't found a shortcut. Otherwise I'd use it.

So, to make a long post short, I experience community as a connection, a relationship, where either one of us can say, "I. Care. About. You."

Scott Walters said...

revcbard -- OK (gulp) -- what is QFT? I feel like Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple when he gets a note from Felix: "We're all out of coffee -- FU" -- "It took me two hours to figure out FU was Felix Unger."

I agree with you about real community running deeper. I think that is the ultimate goal of the relationship between an artist and the audience -- that they connect outside their art on a caring basis. I'd love it if one of the members got to know a member of the audience good enough to babysit their kids or help them move or dig a garden.

I know there will be people who will say, well, that's not about art, not about theatre, but I have come to see theatre not as a production (a product-ion), but as an experience of relationship, and that goes beyond only telling stories in the dark.

If I were starting a tribe, I'd want you in it because you get it, and you get it on a personal level.

RVCBard said...

Scott,

QFT = Quoted for truth.