Brace yourselves, folks: he's right. Without that last piece, a theatre tribe and a community theatre do resemble each other. But that last piece -- well, that's kind of a major exception, isn't it? I mean, isn't that sort of like saying to Marx that the model for communism already exists in capitalism except for that whole private ownership thing? The whole point of this research is an attempt to provide a decent standard of living for all involved while doing theatre outside of Nylachi.
But let's put that aside for a moment.
Don then goes on to talk about his experiences as "Music Director for a Southside Community Theatre," a job he left when he "realized that the production of Cy Coleman's City of Angels and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance (both were shows that I fought aggressively to get on the program) had garnered more complaints of both elitism (some folks couldn't fathom us doing opera) and offense (the language and situations in City of Angels was just too raw and bawdy) and lost the theater more money than any two productions in the organization's twenty year history. When, in reaction to those two shows, the risky production was scheduled to be Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up I was gone, gone, gone." He concludes:
The choices made before I got there were extremely conservative and my experiments in pushing the artistic envelope were met with nothing less than hostility from the community. The audience was more interested in entertainment that was both nostalgic and, like their Southside churches, avoided challenging their own choices very directly and told them in no uncertain terms that they were just fine. That not being the world that I see, I found the choices of producing yet another production of Anything Goes or Singing in the Rain to be nothing less than pedestrian and self-congratulatory.I'd like to examine this from several different perspectives. First, the reason that Don offers up this story is to illustrate one of his main arguments about the theatre tribe model, which he sees as a community theatre model in a thin disguise: "the promise that by moving and setting up shop [in a smaller city] provides an opportunity to work frequently is a false one unless your craft is limited to productions of melodramas and Greater Tuna with the odd production of West Side Story when you can find the local talent able to handle it." To put it into an equation, what Don is asserting is: community theatre = commercial fare.
What is meant by community theatre? I don't think it would be too controversial to offer this definition: theatre that is created by people who volunteer their time and who make their living doing other things. Fair enough? By that definition, though, Don does community theatre. He makes his living working for public radio, and he does plays without being paid a living wage. And this would be the case for Bob's recent production of Clay Continent, too, and pretty much every independent theatre production that happens in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. And that model -- doing theatre and working a day job, i.e., the definition of community theatre -- has been fiercely defended by Don and Bob as allowing artists creative independence and artistic integrity. I suspect neither Don nor Bob are in the midst of planning their next production of Greater Tuna. So what gives? How come Don and Bob, working in Chicago within the community theatre paradigm, can do DADA Soiree and Clay Continent, whereas South Side Community Theatre working within the same paradigm are destined to do Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Why aren't Don and Bob fated for Barefoot in the Park anytime soon?
The answer is that having a day job and not being paid a living wage for your theatre work (i.e., community theatre) has nothing to do with repertoire. There are community theatres that do commercial work, and community theatre that do alternative work. It depends on the artists's vision.
But doesn't South Side Community Theatre's rejection of Don's "experiments in pushing the artistic envelope" indicate that community theatre is intrinsically conservative? No, and the reason why lies in Don's own narrative: Don's two productions "cost the theater more money than any two productions in the organization's twenty year history." For twenty years, South Side Community Theatre had built an audience that valued what it had to offer. They had developed a brand, and a customer base that was committed to that brand. Similarly, Don's WNEP is a brand Don has developed over his years of running that organization, and he has developed a customer base that is committed to that brand. If Don hired a young director who came in and "fought aggressively" to get Greater Tuna on the WNEP program, I suspect that Don's committed audience would react with with as many complaints as did the South Side Community Theatre audience.
Theatres benefit from a committed audience, and an audience becomes committed to a theatre because they value what that theatre has to offer them. If your artistic values lean toward the experimental, you will develop a following of people whose values also lean toward the experimental, and that audience will not appreciate it if you "throw them a couple bones" of commercial fare. You might find your audience grows when you produce that commercial fare, but I doubt very much that it will be the same audience that follows your experimental work. And in fact, while short term you may benefit from an influx of money at the box office, in the long run your base audience's commitment will be weakened by your venture into the world of commercial fare. You would have been better off sticking with what you do and focusing on growing that audience.
This is why I argue that an ongoing relationship between artist and audience is so crucial to the success of a theatre tribe (or any theatre, for that matter): you need to develop and audience that is committed to what you offer. Don's attempts to push the envelope for the South Side Community Theatre resembles the Christian missionaries who invaded native communities and tried to persuade them to abandon their own gods in favor of the "real" god. Don said, in essence, "I know what's best, and you need a good dose of raw language and bawdy situations." And the committed audience looked at him and said, "Actually, no we don't." And his choice, as a latecomer to the scene, was to either get with the program or get out. He got out -- probably a good thing. But because of his missionary zeal, he took the wrong message from that experience. What he should have learned is that you don't change long-standing organizations in one fell swoop, but you do it over time and through the relationship; outsiders do not change cultures easily or quickly. If you want easy and quick, you start your own organization and develop your own audience. That's may takeaway.
Don then goes on to chase a red herring: that my rejection of Nylachi and promotion of the theatre tribe is based in a desire for more government funding for non-Nylachi theatres. Nope. The theatre tribe model is being designed to rely as little as possible on donations and grants. How is that possible when ticket income accounts for 35% - 65% of a non-profit theatre's budget? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? But the short answer is there is two ways to lower the percentage of a budget being provided by grants and donations: reduce the budget or increase the earned income. The theatre tribe model will explore each.
Don then chases a second red herring: that my development of the theatre tribe model is about what kind of theatre is going to be done. It's all about banishing experimental theatre. Again, wrong. He is mixing my own aesthetic preferences in with the model itself. The theatre tribe is an empty box to be filled by specific, individual artists. I have no opinion at all about what kind of theatre an individual tribe produces. Whether it is DADA Soiree or The Music Man makes absolutely no difference to me. It is entirely between the artists and their audience as they engage in a continuing conversation. A conversation involves give and take, open-minded listening and sharing; it isn't a monologue. Because a theatre tribe cannot successfully dictate to a community and force them to buy tickets, they can do one of two things: consistently offer a certain type of theatre and wait for an audience to develop who wants that type of theatre, or engage in conversation and open-minded listening and talking. Both approaches can be successful, and both require time.
In conclusion, I must confess to bafflement at this continuing attempt to figure out what my development of the theatre tribe model is "really about." It is simple, really, and I don't hink I have been hiding anything. The goals are:
- To spread theatre to non-metropolitan areas.
- To provide an alternative to the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles theatre scenes.
- To create a model that has the greatest possibility of providing a livable income for those who participate.
- To create a model that is ecologically sustainable.
In the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century, editor Alex Steffen writes: "When no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice -- and people in despair almost never change anything. When no one believes there might be a better solution, those who benefit from the status quo are safe. When no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But when people have some intelligent reasons to believe that a better solution can be built, that better solutions are available, and that action is possible, their power to act out their highest principles is unleashed. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is."
I am trying to provide "intelligent reasons to believe."