Answering Questions We Never Thought We’d Be Asked

by Scott Palmer

in MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It Do It

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(The following post features work by a MetLife/TCG A-ha! grantee–to learn more about the program, click here.)

My first indication that my assumptions were likely to be seriously challenged came while eating a homemade maple bar in front of a deli case on a Tuesday morning in Gaston, Oregon.

Gaston is a small town in Washington County, population 658, located 11 miles west of Hillsboro (my hometown and the city where my theatre company, Bag&Baggage, also makes its home.) Gaston is the smallest of the 7 communities we are reaching out to as part of our MetLife/TCG A*ha! Think It grant and had, for the first few weeks of our research, presented the greatest challenge in terms of identification of community leaders and artists for us to interview.

On this particular Tuesday morning, I was preparing for a meeting with a local business owner, Elena, who owned Gaston’s only supermarket, located in the heart of Gaston and serving as the unofficial hub of all Gaston social and community interactions. The market was built in the early 1960s and literally provides access to basic supermarket staples alongside locally sourced fruits and vegetables along with a remarkably urban deli counter with homemade soups, baguette sandwiches and organic salads…oh, and homemade maple bars.

I arrived at 9:55am for my meeting with Elena at 10:00am. I walked into the market and was greeted by a small, immaculately dressed dark haired woman in her mid-thirties standing behind the cash register. She smiled broadly, said, “Hiya!” and continued to ring-up her customers groceries. I waited a moment until she was finished and asked if she knew where I could find Elena. She smiled again and said, “Yep, that’s me! You the theatre guy?” I said I was and she said, “Gimme a minute, I have to wait until Cheryl gets off her break and then take the soup off the stove. Grab a donut, they’re homemade, and coffee is in the back. I’ll be with you in a sec…”

I did as I was told; grabbed a maple bar, a cup of coffee and sat near the deli case to wait for Elena. A few minutes later she joined me at the table and said, “Now, tell me this; why do you want to do theatre in Gaston.”

Elena

Our Think It research project has two phases: first, interviews with local elected officials, opinion leaders, community leaders, teachers, artists and students in an open-form, discussion led structure without any preconceived ideas of where the discussion will lead us. The second phase involved a tour of a short, 1 hour long readers-theatre style performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to each of the communities, followed by an open forum where audience members can provide us with feedback on what their communities want from performing arts experiences, what the barriers to access might be, and what unique qualities their communities possess that might be of interest to Bag&Baggage as a professional theatre company. One basic assumption of the project is that we would be asking the questions and leading the discussion, not our participants. First assumption – challenged.

I responded to Elena by talking about Bag&Baggage and our inception as a small touring theater company that would visit communities throughout the state without access to professional performing arts. I told her about finding a permanent home in Hillsboro and how, over the past six years, we have grown and developed a solid audience base in suburban Washington County and in urban Portland. I talked about how important it is for me, and for the company, to honor our heritage by reaching out to our neighbors in smaller, more rural communities who had little to no access to the professional performing arts. I talked…a lot…and Elena continued to prod and question, clarify and interject, throughout the first 10 or so minutes of our “researcher-led, open ended style” interview. Finally, after a solid 15 minutes of back and forth discussion, Elena said, “Now, tell me this: why would we want to help you guys make a profit when there is a non-profit community theatre just 15 miles away in Forest Grove?”

I have to be honest: I was completely confused by this question. Had I said something in our conversation to indicate that Bag&Baggage as a FOR profit theatre company? I was absolutely certain that I had said we were a 501c3 theatre company. I asked Elena what she meant by “a for profit” theatre and her response was this, “You keep saying you are a professional theatre company. Doesn’t that mean you make a profit?”

Core assumption of my life – challenged.

Let me pause for a moment and give some background: When Bag&Baggage first started performing in Hillsboro there was only one other theatre in town: HART (Hillsboro Artists Regional Theatre), a community theatre that had been performing in town for nearly 30 years. As the only theatre company, HART had established a firm reputation (not only in Hillsboro, but throughout the region) as a very accomplished community theatre. HART provides an essential service, as all community theatre companies do, of giving people without training or experience access to performing arts. It is important work, and work that we value and appreciate, but it is not professional theatre. Bag&Baggage was the first professional theatre in town and the work we produced was of a different kind, both in terms of cost and in terms of production values, artist training and experience. In order for us to succeed as a professional theatre, we needed to be clear that there is, in fact, a difference between community theatre and professional theatre; we may be in the same general line of work, but there are key differences between what it is the two companies produce and what our core functions are in a community. As a result, we worked very hard, over many years, to communicate to our audiences that we were a professional theatre that does provocative work (not always family friendly and that sometimes deals with difficult and controversial issues). Our assumption was that the distinction between community theatre and professional theatre would be clear and distinct just by saying the words: We are a professional theatre and…well…you know what that means.

In Gaston, and with Elena on that Tuesday morning, I could not have been more wrong. It became clear that the use of the term “Professional Theatre Company” was translating to Elena as “For-profit Theatre Company.” The reason for this also quickly became clear; Elena had experience of attending theatre but all of her experiences, in her youth, were via exposure to small “Community Theatres,” which she knew were non-profits while “Professional Theatres” must, by process of elimination, be for profit.

It was an eye-opening discussion for me. The language that we use to describe ourselves, which we approached with such care and specificity, was, in fact, NOT communicating who are or what we do. In fact, it was doing the opposite; it was defining us (at least for some of our colleagues in rural areas) as something that we were NOT which, in turn, was generating resistance. Why would someone in Gaston want to help a profit making theatre from Hillsboro make more money when there was a local non-profit community theatre just down the road? The answer is pretty simple: the people of Gaston would not support us…

downtown Gaston

This same question, or resistance, has been found in a number of discussions we have had with residents of our targeted communities; many individuals know of or have had limited experience with Community Theatre groups, but very, very few of them have ever been to, know of or have experience with Professional Theatres.

The opportunity for us is to help define and clarify not only the purpose and mission of Professional Theatres as non-profit organizations, but also to open up a dialogue about the differences between the work that we do and the work that is produced by our colleagues in the small Community Theatre community in and around Washington County. This is a crucial discussion, not only for us but also for our colleagues in Community Theatre. What is unique about the services we provide? How are we different? What needs do we each meet and how can we work together to better meet those needs?

Even though we had started this process with a commitment to “leaving our assumptions at the door,” it became clear, almost immediately, that our assumptions are so deeply ingrained in who we are that this is, in fact, not possible to do. It took a maple bar, a cup of coffee and a grocery store owner from Gaston, Oregon to get me to realize that, even in asking the questions, our assumptions are made clear.

I think it is fair to say that another of our ingrained working assumptions was that some of our neighbors in these rural communities, particularly in the predominately agricultural communities, would have limited interest in major literary adaptations of classical work like Shakespeare. The work we produce is often conceptual in nature, or has included radical re-interpretations of texts that most people are unfamiliar with. Our own experience in Hillsboro has led us to the knowledge that not everyone in our community is interested in seeing our kind of adaptations. Having discussed this issue with staff, it is fair to say that we assumed this resistance would be higher in smaller, more rural communities and that the result would be a lower level of interest.

Assumption – challenged.

What we have been finding is that when our interviews are BROAD (ie…when we say “Would you be interested in attending a major literary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) the response is generally negative or hesitant. However, when we are SPECIFIC (ie…when we say, “Would you be interested in attending a funny, tongue-in-cheek comedy spoof of A Christmas Carol that brings the story to life in new and unexpected ways?) the response is significantly more positive.

This project, even at this stage, has already giving us a growing awareness of our own internal prejudices related to HOW we talk about our work, how we describe what we do…and a growing awareness of the importance of being specific and never resting on what WE think our audiences should, or do, already know.

Assumption – changed. Thanks, Elena.


Scott Palmer, Bag&Baggage’s founding Artistic Director, has directed and produced critically acclaimed theatrical productions across the globe. As the Artistic Director of Glasgow Repertory Company (Scotland’s Shakespeare company), Scott directed world premiere adaptations of King Lear,Titus AndronicusRichard IIIHenry VAntony and CleopatraAs You Like It and The Tempest. His radical reinterpretation of Lear was called “a 21st century Lear to cherish” by The Scotsman and his anti-war adaptation of Henry V was called “a thoughtful effort to relate to the modern world” by the Scotland on Sunday. In the United States, Scott has adapted and directed versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and JulietMuch Ado About NothingA Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Comedy of Errors. His world premiere adaptations ofTwelfth Night (featuring added text by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and The Taming of the Shrew alongside Fletcher’s rarely performed sequel The Woman’s Prizehave helped to develop an international reputation for Bag&Baggage. In addition to Shakespeare, Scott has directed critically acclaimed productions of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Simon Levy’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and his own zany, comedic adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that puts Dickens himself center-stage. Scott is a passionate advocate for the arts, having served on the Hillsboro Arts and Culture Council, the Westside Cultural Alliance and regularly reviewing grants for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust. In 2010, Scott was awarded the City of Beaverton’s Arts Leadership Award and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce recognized him as Business Leader of the Year. Scott’s continuing work on major literary adaptations have brought him to the attention of Shakespearean scholars across the world, and his work is regularly reviewed and featured in textbooks and journals. Scott received his BA at the University of Oregon, his Masters at Oregon State University and studied for a PhD in Contemporary Theatre Practice at the University of Glasgow.


The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.

  • Joanna

    I believe in making professional community theatre–that it can be important (new) work of the highest professional standards but have low-overhead costs. The wages may not be professional scale but the productions need not be pap. I am interested in Bag&Baggage’s work and mission–sounds like you are doing intriguing and important work!

  • Scott Palmer

    Thanks, Joanna! And don’t misunderstand me: we 1000% value and adore our colleagues in community theatre and we agree that they can be platforms for excellence and innovation…as you note, there are different challenges when doing professional scale work and our project has helped us realize we need to do more to clarify the unique benefits that professional theatres and community theatres bring to our community.

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