What If…professional and community theatres partnered more often?

by Angie Hayes

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project and what comes next)

What if more professional theatres sought out community theatres as potential partners?

In North Carolina, we blur the traditional lines of professional and community theatre. NC professional theatres are passionately focused on their communities and often feature local artists. NC community theatres are producing work that is often regarded as high quality, and many pay their directors and designers. NCTC (the theatrical service organization that I lead) values all types of theatre equally and we produce events and services for all of our member theatre companies and leave the categorization to others. We have found that all producing theatres look to us for the same services – providing professional development, advocating for public funding, and cultivating the next generation of artists and audiences through our education programs. While we used to have separate programs for these different types of companies, we now hang our hat on our annual Producing Theatre Gathering. This event brings together leaders and administrators from theatres across the state to connect, share best practices and learn the latest trends. At this event, there is little relevance placed on that big topic that divides us – payment of artists. Instead, we work on the issues that are significant to every company – growing our base of support, keeping up with the latest technology, making our work relevant to our communities, etc. This event kicked off in 2008 and has grown to be one of my favorite NCTC programs. This year, Teresa Eyring is our keynote speaker and we are presenting over 20 sessions in two days!

So, what if professional companies continued this collaboration with their local community theatres, looking for opportunities to learn from one another? All theatre companies must first serve their mission, but as professional companies focus on audience development, there are certainly lessons to be learned from their community theatre counterparts. There is an ownership that comes with a community theatre audience base, one that I think many professional companies are seeking to build with their own audiences. I have visited many of our member theatres in NC, and most times when I enter the lobby of a professional theatre, I feel a collective sense of excitement about the edgy/challenging/new work that we are about to see. In most community theatre lobbies, I feel a sense of and friendship and comfortable celebration, more like we are visiting the home of a good friend and about to see something we can all take pride in. What does each of these things say about a theatre’s relationship with their audience and the service of the mission? Perhaps we are right on, or just maybe we can find ways to analyze strategies for audience engagement and determine a better way, through conversations with one another.

What if we took the idea of collaboration much further? Many arts organizations have partnered to share administrative expense. But, what if each town’s major community and professional theatres shared more than office support? What if companies shared a space, a board, an operation? Is there an opportunity to unite under a common mission? How important, to our communities, is the distinction of professional vs. community? Is there room for both types of production in one season? It’s possible that this could be the best of both worlds: as the community theatre group builds a home for audience members through education programs and peer-driven productions, the professional company is allowed the artistic freedom to produce new or more challenging work, to an already engaged audience.

In 50 years, we will have new labels for our companies and work. We are all so busy, trying to keep our heads above water. But, we will do a great service to our future selves by remembering to occasionally get out of the pool and walk over to our neighbor’s for a visit. I encourage you to share a cup of coffee, better yet, share a cocktail and start asking the question….what if?

Angie Hays is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference (NCTC), the service, leadership and advocacy organization for the statewide theatre community. NCTC produces numerous events each year, including the Producing Theatre Gathering, College Discovery Day and a statewide High School Play Festival. Angie previously served as the Communications and Audience Development Manager at Paper Mill Playhouse. She has been a part-time professor of Arts Administration at Elon University and Greensboro College and a guest instructor at Wake Forest University, Salem College and the UNC School of the Arts (where she received her MFA in Performing Arts Management).