Changing relationships between theatres and communities

by Lenora Champagne

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

When I began making work, back in 1981, it felt as though everyone in the performance world was part of a community.  Of course, at that time there were fewer people making performances that bridged dance, the art world, and theatre.  There were lots of regular events that you could join in on:  evenings at Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman loft, Open Performance at PS122.  There weren’t audiences for these events—we were all participants.

Part of this sense of community came from everyone living near one another, mostly in the East Village or Soho, with some of us elsewhere downtown (I was in the West Village) or a few outliers in Brooklyn.  Then, as now, you could count on having other artists and performance makers in the audience when you made a work for public viewing.

As everyone knows, real estate development has made it pretty impossible for artists to stay in those areas—young theatre makers, dancers and artists choosing to settle in New York City now live throughout Brooklyn and Queens, and there are many more of them.  It takes longer to get to the performance spaces that are scattered throughout the boroughs.  Those young people can easily stay connected via social media, but it takes effort to maintain a sense of live community.

Collectives such as AUNTS are hosting movable salons for live performance—people bring brews and wander about various spaces where dances, installations, and performances happen simultaneously, often culminating in a dance party where participants and spectators all join in.  Is this a model regional theatres can follow?  Maybe not, but if you’re hoping to engage audiences under 40, encouraging eating and dancing together between artists and audiences in your space, not to mention giving audiences a chance to participate in the art-making process themselves, is likely to create more loyalty and excitement.  Indeed, lately community-based work seems to be everywhere.  Non-performers are recruited as participants in work by major artists.  I’ve been in a couple of these performances in the past two years (with 600 Highwaymen), and have helped engage others for projects for which I wasn’t available.  Why?  It’s rewarding.  It extends your world.

I’ve been involved in this kind of work since at least 1992, via the art world.  In the New Museum’s Art Mall As Social Space, I created an installation and engaged spectators in dialogue.  I still have the results of the surveys they filled out. To my amazement, some answered questions I never would have.

In 1993 I was invited to do a community-based project in Baltimore, through Maryland Art Space.  This experience was transformative for me, and, I hope, for some of the participants as well.  One or two Baltimore-based artists and actors participated, but by far most of the “cast” were local people who had not performed previously.  I was surprised that everyone had a response to a prompt about fire—they’d all had an experience of being there when destruction happened.  An extraordinary woman in the cast said it was the first time she’d talked about her mother leaving her behind when she came to the US to earn money for her family.  For the participants in this project, the workshop and performance gave them an opportunity to explore and share personal material in a way that enriched both the larger community and themselves.

Community participants were also co-creators in a piece we made together that I directed in Staten Island at Snug Harbor in 1995.  At the beginning of that decade (‘89-‘90), I had the revelatory experience of being a spectator in Fiona Templeton’s You, The City, (1988) which was a completely immersive experience for the audience, each member experiencing the performance one at a time, as a completely personal piece.  (You moved from space to space in mid-town, ending up at a bar on 10th Avenue after viewing a peep show, visiting a church, taking a taxi, encountering kids on a playground, etc.)   All of these experiences altered my idea of what can happen in theatre, and how theatre can alter your perception of daily life.

Do I think this kind of work alters the theatre’s relationship to a community?  I’m not sure.  I think it alters the experience and perception of individual community members.  Is that better than what theatre in a space with theatrical lighting and a set and professional actors does?  I think it’s different.  Is it better?  I don’t know.  In 1988, when Tom Reagan was taking me through the playground in midtown, speaking Fiona’s lines, little kids came up and asked why he was there everyday.  He didn’t alter his lines, so I explained that he was an actor, and this was a show.  They were skeptical.  “So,” the kid asked, “If you’re an actor, where’s the camera?”

As everyone knows, media has changed the way we experience the world.  Now, when I teach solo performance, the students all engage the audience in their work.  What people want is to share experience, to have even a fleeting experience of community.

Companies like 600 Highwaymen include a range of genders and ages and races in representation, suggesting the scope of identities in contemporary America.  In The Record at Under the Radar at The Public Theatre, there were something like 45 performers, some professional, some just regular people, kids to grandmas, who made the time to rehearse the work and engage with an audience in performance.

This work has been there, going on, getting started, building up, for many years.  It’s important and exciting work, and I think it offers theatres an opportunity to become more vital to the lives of their communities and their constituencies.  Everyone is  looking for space in which to do our work—why not offer your theatre space, at least sometimes, to a company that engages with the community surrounding your theatre building?  It is likely to bring energy to the space and good will to your organization.

One caveat:  As a writer, I’m still a believer in hearing the individual voices of playwrights.  What’s really exciting is the co-existence of different kinds of work in the same building, or in the same neighborhood.   Documentary-based interview work with real people, next to exciting original work by writers.  Wouldn’t we all go to see it?


Lenora Champagne came to New York from Louisiana to be a painter, but found her voice in performance. She has been making work as a performance artist, playwright, and director since 1981. In 2012-13 she lived five months in Tokyo as a Fulbright Fellow to Japan and in Spring 2013 she had a month long residency at the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy, where she wrote I.C. (I See), responding to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and her recent visits to Japan and Italy. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Performance Art in 2003 and a NYFA Fellowship in Playwriting in 1998 and was awarded three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in solo performance, directing, and an artist’s residency in Canada), commissions and project support from the New York State Council on the Arts, and has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and Tofte Lake Center (MN). In 2012, she performed her solo Memory’s Storehouse as part of Tiny Lights, a collaboration with Lizzie Olesker, at Invisible Dog Arts Center and at the New Ohio, and performed it in Tokyo, at the Goethe House, in May 2014. In 2013, she performed in 600 Highwaymen’s The Record and an excerpt of I.C. at AUNTS in Greenpoint. She is an alumna of New Dramatists, and was a resident HARP artist at HERE Arts Center, where she developed TRACES/fades, an intergenerational performance with music and video that is a meditation on memory, loss, and our national inability to remember history. Her publications include Out from Under: Texts by Women Performance Artists (TCG, 1990), which she edited, and plays and performance texts in the journals Performance Research, Performing Arts Journal, The Iowa Review, Women and Performance, Chain, and in books published by Smith and Kraus and in Plays and Playwrights 2009. She is a member of PEN American Center and is Professor of Theatre and Performance at Purchase College, SUNY.

  • jujuwiz

    Thank you for this! Sometimes, as trends in theatre wax and wane, it feels like it’s an either/or situation, as if everyone should be doing this thing or that thing. Maybe the big funders are currently very excited about it, or maybe all the press is going to the theatres that are doing it. It’s important to recognize that there’s room for more than one type of engagement, without diminishing the importance and relevance of a different type.