Crossing the Value Border: Doing Theatre in Non-Traditional Communities

by Jennifer Fawcett

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.)

Let’s be honest: there’s a lot of talk about connecting theatre to communities but I believe there is a fundamental disconnect in our industry between the theatre we talk about doing and what actually gets produced, and this in turn leads to a disconnect between theatres and potential audiences.  By potential audiences I mean those thousands of people who don’t go to theatre because they don’t see how it is relevant to them.  So let’s get past the buzzwords and grant speak and really talk about the value that we, as individual theatre makers, place on certain kinds of theatre.  This is something I wrestle with on a regular basis and if I’m asking you to be honest then I will do the same.

Why do you do theatre?

I’m asking you to answer this on a personal level, as someone who dreamt of being in theatre as a kid, as someone who has made specific choices and sacrifices to be in theatre and who deals with the reality of the business on a daily basisWhat value do you give to the theatre you do and the theatre you want to do?

How many artists move to already over-crowded cities where there isn’t space or money for even half the people there.  How many amazing artists leave theatre each year because they don’t feel valued?  How much potential work is lost because of this attrition rate?  And yet there are so many communities that would value them, except that the appreciation of the small town in the Midwest is not seen as equal to the appreciation of the major city reviewers and producers.  If we are being honest about wanting to do theatre that connects to a community, then the way we measure the value of a play, a company and an artist has to change. And that’s really hard to do because that value system manifests itself into all sorts of tangible things that we rightly want and need and deserve.  Let me put it another way:

  • Actor A performs in a production that runs Off Broadway for eight weeks.  She gets paid X and is mentioned in a review in a major publication.
  • Actor B performs in a production that tours middle schools in the south for eight weeks. He gets paid X and the theatre company gets a lot of emails from teachers, parents and students expressing how much they loved the play and how it had made changes in the school.

If you saw that information in a bio or on a resume, who would you assume was more professional?  Who would you assume was more successful?  I can’t speak for you but my response would be Actor A, even though my career is more like Actor B’s.  There is a very deep bias in our industry that values the theatre produced in large venues in major cities over theatre that happens in small communities or in non-traditional venues, and I have bought into that bias.  And now that I’m actually doing theatre instead of just being a kid dreaming about it, I’m starting to re-assess those biases.

I’m one of the founders of a company called Working Group Theatre.  We are based in Iowa (what, Iowa?) and have become a company that makes work about specific populations in our community.  In all honesty, we started here because it seemed like a good jumping off point for bigger and better places, but it didn’t take long for us to become entrenched in the community.  The level of support we get here is not something we’d have access to in a bigger place but it’s more than just a financial arrangement.  When we started, we decided not to create a mission statement but to see what kind of theatre we gravitated to and let the mission statement grow organically out of that, which it has.  We knew we would be doing new work with a strong political bent (two of the three founding members are playwrights, myself included) and we knew we wanted to make theatre that was an experience, which meant making theatre that spoke to the audience and involved them as more than passive spectators.  Much like our mission statement, our process of creating community-based work has also grown organically, shaping itself to the needs of a particular project and the artists involved.

An audience that has a sense of ownership to a production is a different kind of audience.  I’m not talking about preaching to the choir, I’m talking about people recognizing their community on stage.  It’s a bigger experience for them than just buying a ticket and showing up because the experience has started potentially months earlier when the show was being created.  As a result, it also becomes a bigger experience for the creative team.

One of these community projects was a play called The Broken Chord, which was commissioned by Hancher Auditorium.  The Broken Chord was about the spouses and adult children who are on the long, often very lonely journey of caring for someone who is lost in the cloud of Alzheimer’s Disease.  It was created after a year of interviews, volunteer work in memory units and the local senior center, and a workshop process that involved the whole creative team and included public presentations of scenes in progress.

The afternoon of our dress rehearsal, we got an email from a woman who wanted to see the play but couldn’t because she was a caregiver and adult day care centers aren’t open when plays are typically on.  She had found someone to watch her mother that night, could she come to a rehearsal?  She arrived about ten minutes before we started and slipped quietly into a seat near the back of the house. She was a middle aged woman who looked like a lot of the caregivers we’d interviewed; clothes thrown on, hair in need of a cut, deep circles under her eyes.  She looked like someone who was used to be invisible on the sidelines of someone else’s terrible journey.  When the lights came back up for intermission she had tears streaming down her face but when she saw me she smiled.  She said, “I’ve felt so alone. This is my experience.  It feels so good to sit here and see it.”  It didn’t change the fact that she would be returning home to the same situation with her mother, but for a couple of hours on a rainy evening in April, the mirror held up to nature had reflected her experience.

All of this is well and good but if it sounds like I’m trying to paint myself as some kind of martyr theatre artist happily toiling away far from the limelight doing theatre that is just for the good of the community then I have been lying to you.  I’m no martyr.  I rage at the fact that this production doesn’t seem to count in the same way others at more established theatres do.  I want it to be given the same value as the plays being done Off Broadway because I want to be seen as equal to the artists who work in those places, and right now it seems like there’s an almost unbridgeable chasm between the two. But as we continue to make this work, I’m starting to wonder more and more if my being seen as equal starts more with my own values.

From 2010 – 2013, I traveled to Tanzania and Rwanda doing theatre projects with a nonprofit called International Theatre & Literacy Project.  Working with another teaching artist, we’d spend two weeks creating a play with teenagers going from the very initial stages of writing exercises and games all the way to performances for the community.

Day One of these projects usually starts the same way: we get together in the morning, all of feeling a little shy, the teaching artists still bleary with jet lag, and spend the day playing theatre games and trying not to stress about how in two weeks, we’re going to have a play.

Our first day in Rwanda was exactly like this.  It didn’t take me long to notice the tall guy lurking on the sidelines.  It wasn’t just that he was shy; he was skeptical, and as he was one of the older members of the group, his reluctance to jump in was affecting the others.  At lunch, I complained to my teaching partner that Jonathan was going to be trouble.  Maybe he wouldn’t show up for the afternoon session and we could work with the people who wanted to be there.  But he did show up.  And he showed up again the next morning.  Jonathan asked a lot of questions and always wanted to know why we were doing what we were doing, and how it was going to become this “play” and what was the point of it all anyway.  He’s a young man in a post-genocidal country about to graduate and go into the world: he had bigger issues to deal with. Because he was asking us questions, we started asking him questions too.  What do you think about that character?  Does that part of the story make sense?  When we sent groups off to work on a scene, we sent Jonathan as a director.  A role for him in the play emerged and by this time, he’d forgotten his skepticism because he had ownership of the production.  We had been invited to perform the play in Kigali at the Centre X Centre International Theatre Festival.  This festival had performances of theatre and dance coming from across Africa and Europe; professional companies with sets and costumes and hours of stage experience, and our rag tag group of teens with the costumes they’d made by raiding the school lost and found and using rice bags, but also a play that held their own words and ideas.  Full ownership.  Did some of them struggle to project to the back of the very packed (very hot) theatre?  Yes.  Did one of our ancestral ghosts get confused with the new stage setup and enter from the wrong side, yes again.  But their performance was filled with joy and pride. And yeah, I’m totally biased, but I think it was the best performance of the night.  After they got off stage, the cast burst into the parking lot, high on adrenalin.  And Jonathan; resistant questioning Jonathan came up to us, shook our hands and said, “I feel like a man now.  I feel like a man.”

The border that needs to be crossed is personal, unique to each of us.  If we really want to do theatre that connects to a community, we need to think locally.  Local is about being where you are now and valuing what’s around you instead of always reaching out to the far away place you were told was better.

I think the way we measure our success has to change.  There isn’t enough money or room on the stages that exist for all of us to follow the traditional path.  What is the theatre that matters to you?  What is the community that matters to you? When we can answer these questions, as individual artists and administrators, as ensembles, companies and organizations, then we can truly create theatre that is passionate and meaningful to our audiences.  I am not proposing that we devalue commercial theatre, the need for glowing reviews, the theatre done in the major taste-making venues.  My proposal is that we make some room on the table for the other kinds of theatre too.  There are more than enough artists to make both happen.  But this kind of theatre won’t attract artists unless it is seen as valuable.  So how do you change value?  Slowly, one person at a time.  Let’s start by being honest.

Jennifer Fawcett is a playwright and the Associate Artistic Director of Working Group Theatre. Her most recent play, Birth Witches was nominated for the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award. Her plays have been produced at Riverside Theatre (Iowa City), Available Light Theatre (Columbus), Tennessee Women’s Theatre Project (Nashville), The Drilling Company (New York), the Adirondack Theatre Festival (Glens Falls, NY), Alcyone Festival (Chicago), Theatre Masters (Aspen/West Palm Beach), the Hatchery Festival (Washington, DC) and in festivals across Canada. She was the NNPN Emerging-Playwright-In-Residence at Curious Theatre Company (Denver) and is the winner of the National Science Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center for her play Atlas of Mud.

  • Laurie McCants

    Kudos. I salute you from my home in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, where my theatre (Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble) is about to embark on its 37th season. We employ our ensemble year-round and provide health care. We value our artists. In addition to producing a mix of classical and contemporary plays, we make work about the place where we live (HARD COAL, SUSQUEHANNA, FLOOD STORIES, LETTERS TO THE EDITOR), we tour original plays about local history to schools all over our region, and we conduct international collaborations (so far, with artists from Japan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Egypt). We are valued by our community. We value our community. Do we still have a ways to go in getting more of the folks from around here to actually see our shows??? You bet. But we have a loyal and adventuresome core audience, including lots of kids who’ve grown up watching and participating in our plays, and they’re now making their own plays, because they know that can be done and that it’s a valuable way to spend their time. So, yes. Thanks for your wonderful and challenging thoughts and questions.

  • Alexander

    But there is also the reverse attitude if you want to earn a living. Some how you are not a sincere artist. I don’t see theater in New York etc as more professional. For me that feeling is more about working fairly consistently and earning somewhat of a living. It doesn’t have to be riches but enough to met some of the basic needs of living. Then I feel I can claim it as a profession. If it’s done in NY, LA, Chicago so be it, if it’s in Ithaca NY (where I’ve worked a lot) or Iowa or wherever matters not. But it seems sometimes that it is the only field in which one is supposed to “not” want to earn a living.