Thursday, December 08, 2005

Theatre and Community

Steven Oxman over at "Theatre Matters" (see sidebar) has a post today called "Theatre, Community, and Community Theatre," which in turn is a response to Steven Leigh Morris' article in LA Weekly called "Squinting Into the Sun: How our theater will change over the next decade."

Let's begin with Morris, who sees the sun setting on regional theatres "as they've existed for the past half century." He first discusses the attack on federal funding for the arts (or just about anything non-profit-making), the change in buying patterns (subscriptions are down, single ticket buying is up), and private foundations are shifting their priorities to social problems.

"There are also other reasons," he continues, "cultural and technological, leading to the reality that putting on shows can no longer be the primary purpose of theater. Such a purpose — as a sole purpose — is unsustainable for either profit or nonprofit theaters in an era of funding cutbacks when the Internet, iPods, cell-phone cameras and flat-screen TVs have added to the already tempting distractions of California’s beaches, mountains and amusement parks. Even the film industry is struggling to get audiences into luxurious new movie houses." (my italics)

He predicts: "An entirely new paradigm for the performing arts is descending upon us, quickly, and for the theater to survive, it’s going to have to adapt just as quickly, redefining not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose.... The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling."

Oxman, clearly made queasy by Morris' analysis (and who wouldn't be), writes: "I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought."

I think Morris diagnoses the situation correctly, and even prescribes what needs to happen (the theatre will have to "redefin[e] not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose"). But I think he prescribes the wrong medicine.

In order for theatre to survive, it needs to be done by people who spend their lives developing their skills, focusing on their vision, and using their skills and vision to stretch the art form. IN other words, it needs professionals. As I said in a previous post, I think there is a very, very valuable place for theatre in prisons (ala Rhodessa Jones' Medea Project), in hospices, in the context of community building. Like the traditional theatre, it needs to be done by people who have devoted their lives to developing the skills, understanding, and vision necessary for that form of creation. But the two groups are artists are not the same, and neither are the art forms themselves.

But the prescription of "community" is a good one. I think theatres and theatre artists need to become more actively and permanently involved in the lives of their community. Brand loyalty (to use a marketing term) in an environment flooded with entertainment options will rest not on subscriptions, but on relationships -- and probably personal relationships.

Recently, I have discussed different ways of helping our audiences to get more from our work: extended catalogs/programs that provide help in mining the play they are going to see (and this doesn't have to be done through expensive printed programs, but could be done with websites, blogs, and podcasts), postshow discussions that actively involve the audience in talking about the show, and (just as importantly) talking to each other. We need to stop thinking of our job as creating a product, as Morris says, but unlike Morris' recommendation that we focus on process, I believe we should focus on creating an experience. This would allow us to expand our thinking beyond simply selling a production to providing a source of engagement, discussion, socializing, stimulation. Thus, the production becomes a part of a larger experience. I have written about an idea for a possible model in "An Attempt at Synthesis." I'm certain that there are many, many other approaches that would be just as effective or moreso. The point is that we probably do need to redefine theatre's structure and sense of purpose, as Morris says, before it is too late.

But that shouldn't make us queasy. It should inspire us to ask the questions that are central to our art form, to start from square one (two boards and a passion?) and re-examine each piece we add thereafter. George asked where is the garde that daring artists are supposed to be avant of? Well, the garde may not be a style of theatre, but rather the way we conceive of theatre itself, the way we create it, sell it, think about it. It is the perfect time to have a blog where this conversation can happen between intelligent, creative, and committed artists all over this country and beyond.

I hope we can begin such a conversation.


Freeman said...

All of this stinks of surrender. I hate to say it, but the idea that Theatre must become a sort of unpaid community service, performed in hospitals for the sick, the criminal and the old, is terribly painful.

There are a few of us that raise up Augusto Boal as a new model for what theatre should be. He was working in Brazil in the 1950s and 60s, in a completely different culture, and his work is rightly called "Theatre of the Oppressed."

Theatre in the United States is not one thing, is not actually and only for the oppressed, or for the oppressors. But it is as necessary and constant as poetry, and public broadcasting, and painting.

We don't hear modern painters saying "Painting should be moved out of galleries and into the the hospitals, where we must teach everyone to paint" and you don't hear poets saying "We give up! We will write prose and hallmark cards. No one cares for poetry anymore." You don't see screenwriters watching the rise of Reality Television and say "We cannot compete with this inexpensive new genre. We will all do our work in museums."

We should not change the work being done, we should try to affect a change in the managing of, funding of, and value of our valuable asset.

Recently, the beer industry lost ground in sales to wine and liquor. It decided, as an industry, to market it's product as a whole. Pork, Peanuts, Milk, Cotton...all these industries did the same thing.

Why are we averse to this, when it is so clearly necessary. We should come together to market and brand what we do, before we move into the libraries and perform reader's theater for cub scouts.

MattJ said...

As you mentioned before Scott, theatre outreach is a specific act for a specific person or group of people. They've got grad degrees for that. Theatre education is a rapidly growing academic field in colleges, with more and more programs popping up. But if we expand the definition of "educational theatre" beyond just elementary arts education, a specialized group of people could arise who are professionally able to work in prisons, head up outreach organizations, and yes Matt, maybe even perform for cub scounts if they are so inclined! I mean, not everyone who loves theatre is cut out, or even wants to do something like direct a Sarah Kane play or do a gender bending Lysistrata or something. Specializations like this exist in every field, and this particular one could be very useful I think, and could only strengthen the audience and artists outside of the educational and outreach faction of theatre artists.

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