Building Bridges

by Dave White

in National Conference

Post image for Building Bridges

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

As a playwright, international artist, and scholar, I am looking more than ever to connect to my numerous communities.  In connecting to a community, I can find an audience, funding, a gathering of artists with common ideals, and much more that connects me to my craft and to the world.  But my ideas about community are changing, some things that initially brought me together with my community now seem to be fragmenting it.  In examining community, I am filled with more questions than answers.  I am compelled to explore the idea of community by delving into my impressions about what community is and using definitions of the term to guide my thinking.

To begin with a few questions:

  • What are the relationships between theatres and communities?
  • Are communities different than what I think they are (is my thinking too broad or too specific)?
  • What is the theatre community and how can it intersect with other communities?

Thinking about the idea of community makes me wonder if I really know what community means.  Sure, I have a general idea of what a community is, but do I understand the amorphous idea of community that theatre hopes to simultaneously connect to and create?   So I think about my ideas of community:

  • An audience.
  • The director(s), dramaturg(s), actors, and designers that are brought together when working in the theatre.
  • The city in which a theatre is located.

I’m sure there are more, but those are some initial ideas about the community that surrounds theatre and the communities theatre artists are hoping to engage.

My next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary, certainly an antiquated and western view of this concept, but one that may shed some light on this inquiry.  And here’s what I found; I won’t share all of the definitions, as the listings are extensive, but here are some of them and brief discussions of the central ideas and paradoxes about community that were illuminated for me.

The definitions begin with a few obsolete ideas, though they are clearly underpinnings of later concepts:

1a. The generality of people; the people as a group. Obs.

Even though it is referenced as obsolete, this definition shows how broad an idea of community can be.  Certainly as a playwright I strive to have many people see my work, but is it possible to “try” to appeal to that many people without compromising one’s own ethos or aesthetics?  If “never compromise” is an edict we all aspire to, then why do our ideals for success (personal/monetary/geographic/etc.) so often imply that compromises should be made?  If I am connecting my work to my specific community then fewer concessions will have to be made.

This idea of getting very specific in order to affect people guides much of my work, but there also needs to be a sense of openness in the work so that others can see themselves in my work and how they fit into my community—this is a strategy that is helping my community grow.  And while my latest play, Dance on Bones, was written in the U.S. about jazz in St. Petersburg, Russia audience members at the at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan thought the play was written for them since it was drawn in specific lines with malleable ideas.  It’s these ideas about community engagement that help me bridge the line between theatre artists, jazz musicians, and audiences who happen to be on the other side of the planet but also happen to be in my community.

Our next definition of community is “rare,” but continues to illuminate what some people consider to define their community:

2b. A body of people who live in the same place, usually sharing a common cultural or ethnic identity. Hence: a place where a particular body of people live.

With a theatre organization, geographic location is often of the most apparent idea of community.  This investment in the local is something that I am deeply committed to, but I am also aware of a certain xenophobia that hides around the edges of it.  To combat this, I seek to connect with people locally, from around the country, and around the world, that can offer new insights and perspectives to the conversation.

As I continue delving into the definitions of community, I am moving from the obsolete and rare into our more common usages.

5b. A group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, oroccupation, esp. when distinct from those of the society in which they live.

What interests me here is the idea of a community as being “distinct” from society. Certainly the theatre community is distinct from society (or at least many members of our community believe we are) but if this community is distinct from society, how can I make work that intersects with that society? If we are making theatre for a community, how can we discover what their needs are as “distinct from the society in which they live?”

And yet, with a simple article, community is once again subsumed into the whole of society:

6. With definite article. The civic body to which all belong; the public; society.

And this is where I see the challenges of connecting with community if community is defined as society at large. Sometimes artists are in touch with their specific community and that community has its finger on the pulse of the larger society or societal shifts, and therefore their art moves from their distinct community to our larger society. But can this be the intention of the artist from the outset?

I have often thought about my intersection with community and society as a Venn diagram:
venn diagram

If I work in my community and my community finds a common ground with society then this common ground may lead to the world of “commercial success.”  The United States is a commerce-based society, so to succeed on the societal level is to succeed commercially, but what is it to succeed on a community level and not a societal level?

When I find my community and begin to figure out how my particular skills can work in a community then both the community and I evolve.  In a community, even if theatre does not achieve commercial success, it can begin to reflect, refract, and change that community and begin to extend outward from community to society.  This extension from community to society is rare, but when it occurs is when we see ideas like immersive theatre simultaneously appearing in numerous geographical communities.

Theatre is rarely more powerful than when it unites a group of people around a common purpose. Uniting people is a great ideal for success in a community.  A community such as WordBRIDGE, where I served as Artistic Director, united dozens of artists each year in the development of new works—the subject or style of those works varied widely, but the ways in which we worked provided an ideal which united the entire community of artists.

But what happens when the concept community begins to change due to societal shifts?

8. An online facility, such as an electronic bulletin board, forum, or chat room, where users can share information or discuss topics of mutual  interest.

Contemporary communities exist (or virtually exist) and some would say that finding a community is easier than ever.  I counter that idea with the notion that maintaining a community is easier than ever, if the community can manage to forge a physical connection (yearly/monthly/weekly) via face-to-face meetings.  Many people are finding online communities to be fleeting and fickle and if connecting virtually is my sole means of contact then I quickly become disenchanted with this medium, but an online community can be used to engage both artists and audiences if the online presence is complemented with opportunities for maintain spatial as well as virtual connection.

Communities in the 21st century cannot afford to dismiss either the physical or virtual realm.  In the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to spend time abroad in Russia, Slovakia, and Uzbekistan.  In each of these places I have felt lucky enough to be a part of the theatre community, if only for a moment, but now I can keep in contact with those communities virtually which only fuels my desire to return to them geographically.

Theatres and theatre artists can create deep and lasting connections, but only if they are willing to bridge the geographical or ideological gap between our community and diverse communities around the world. So does it really all come back to the idiom: “Think globally, act locally?” I can now act and think both globally and locally, creating theatre that is vital to more people because it is theatre that bridges communities, finds connections, and waits for society to catch up.

Dave White is a Baltimore-based playwright, director, and Associate Professor at Towson University. His research focuses on new works for the stage; connections between theatre and mathematics; and translating and directing new Russian drama.  Dave’s research has taken him on several fellowships to Slovakia, Poland, and Russia, including a Likhachev Cultural Fellowship in St. Petersburg.  He has presented workshops and research at national and international conferences and festivals; and was Artistic Director of WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory from 2007-2012. Dave’s plays has been presented in theatres in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia; Moscow, Russia; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.