It Takes a Village to Raise a Theater

by Jules Odendahl-James

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

For her 1996 book It Takes A Village Hillary Clinton borrowed from an African proverb, the premise of which being that raising children is an interdependent process. The nuclear family unit is just one part of a critical social web that surrounds and propels a child forward through a life marked by empathy, intelligence, equity, and resilience in the face of challenges. To describe the recent work of the Ladies of the Triangle Theatre, I am borrowing her borrowing. LoTT argues it takes a village to raise a theater, particularly a theater we’d like to see marked by the characteristics Clinton imagines for the world’s children. And just as Clinton’s manifesto argues for a reinvestment in the communal, so do we. Such a commitment means relinquishing control, foregoing tradition, and cultivating new, untested partnerships. It means crafting reciprocal investments between on-stage and off-stage communities sometimes in pursuit of work that may look very little like a conventional theater production. It means examining standards of achievement for the ways they often embed inequity under the guise of “quality.” It means risking decades of the way things are for an uncertain future of the way things might be. And it might be the key not just to the theater’s survival but to a whole new way of its being.

The Ladies of the Triangle Theatre (LoTT) was founded in the summer of 2012 in conjunction with a series exploring the contours of “theatre cities” across America. The group’s initial co-organizers, Devra Thomas and Sylvia Mallory, seized this moment to offer local women-identified theatre makers a space to discuss the specific constraints and opportunities they experienced. As that initial group talked, we all learned quickly that shared gender identification did not mean shared gender experiences across our artistic lives. Over the past three years, it’s been complicated to craft an action plan when the group’s membership is so diverse in perspective, fluid in participation, and broadly inclusive in its mission of “supporting women in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill theatre community.”

In forging future plans, what has emerged for me, as LoTT’s Research Director, is just how much existing structures of theatrical production seem incommensurate with the complex lives of a theater making community comprised of a majority of artists who make their economic living in fields outside of the arts. This is a reality in our area somewhat obscured by an extremely flexible definition of the term “professional.” While tensions over compensation and budgets have not reached the level of LA’s “99-seat plan” battle, the economic realities of holding a salaried job one in a non-arts industry and a stipend/volunteer job two in the theatre drive many of the choices and the visions of artists in our community. Add to that list a third job as spouse/parent/caregiver and the ranks of who can participate in theater-making, what they do and how they do it gets exponentially more complicated.

A few months ago, some members of LoTT were called together by another member who is also the Artistic Director of a small theater season within a larger community arts center, which has been a hub of community arts making across the performing and visual arts for over twenty-five years. Like most centers of this kind, it is bursting at the seams with use and demand and running out of short-term solutions to maintain its aging if beloved building. To answer this need, it has embarked on a major campaign to build a new facility. This is a moment of intense trepidation, as we have seen to many examples of how new buildings eventually overburden and evict the companies they were built to house or how the pressure of repaying such capital expenditures requires said companies to abandon any impulses they might have had toward lower ticket prices, riskier artistic ventures, or community integrated programming.

At our brainstorming table, these worries were articulated but we decided it better to seize this moment and dream a new structure of community performance, one that could attend to the specific needs of women-identified artists and, in turn, intervene and innovate on the issues of parity, inclusivity, accessibility, and diversity that animate our work individually and collectively. After all, we make up a large percentage of the center’s educational and administrative staff, not to mention its clients and audiences.

At the center of our proposal, is the idea that the center’s relationship with “resident” companies would be short-term, project based, and strike a balance across performance forms. This could level the playing field between established and emerging companies, would incentivize interdisciplinary collaboration, and make a space for those artists at any stage of their careers whose life situations require entering and exiting theater-making systems at variable times. A central component of the application process for residency would be the unique collaborative models companies articulate between themselves and the various educational components of the center as well the communities beyond the center itself that they will bring into the performance making process. Companies would be encouraged to imagine intergenerational performance projects, so that families of artists could work together on pieces that, in the words that describe Soho Rep’s Washeteria, would be “artistically rigorous performance of all ages.” Ultimately the goal is to expand the vision for what comprises a theatrical performance, a community collaboration, and the sustainability of the center for both artists and audiences. The center would invest its capital to support of these proposed innovations and give these companies space to build their identities in a more robustly integrated way as community theaters under an entirely new model of what that term means, what those companies would produce, and who would gather together to make and experience the performances.

Ours is just a vision document. For now. Significantly, it doesn’t address looming issues regarding the economic capital that seems required these days to even consider investing deeply in human capital. Even if the proposal does not come to fruition, its creation offered LoTT a chance to imagine the utopic future where we would not just advocate for institutions to change, but we could help implement specific structures for that change. For me, it is one small way to put to use the data I have collected and analyzed over the past few years that illustrates how constrained and constraining our current systems are for women-identified artists, artists of color, for theater makers at either extreme of age, and for those with a variety of accessibility needs. And then there is the omni-present constraint on artists who lack economic capital to provide a safety net for their artistic risks, including the very real challenge of pursuing artistic careers.

Fundamentally, these limits fuel other limits. When there is collective dismay within this field over

  • the lack of diversity among regular theater goers and the absence of younger patrons who include theater in their circles of cultural consumption,
  • personal and public stories about artists, particularly women-identified, who disappear from artistic communities after having children, losing a day job, experiencing an illness, or managing care for ill family members,
  • racially uninformed casting choices excused by a supposedly “limited pool” of performer options,
  • continued lack of inclusion, diversity, and parity in theater seasons across institutions,
  • censorship or artistically limited material available for Theater for Youth, accessible theater for those with physical and intellectual differences, and Senior Theater,

we must realize that these things will not change without a fundamental reconceptualization of how institutional theaters big and small, alternative and mainstream, structure the selection, making, and presentation of creative work. To raise a new kind of theater will require participation but more importantly sacrifice from multiple parties. To embed gender parity, diversity, and inclusion into more than just the season titles on the marquee will require a willingness and ability to risk money and time to transform the perception of theater as either a luxury good or a profession of the privileged. Until that time, even if we are not losing money we are already failing ourselves as artists and those who might join our ranks and in turn we are failing those who are and who would be our audiences.

Jules Odendahl-James is a scholar/artist who works as a director and dramaturg primarily in the Triangle, NC. She is an Associate Artistic Director at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, serves as the Research Director for Ladies of the Triangle Theatre and as the Regional Vice-President for the Southeast for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Her research interests are in documentary performance, sci+art collaboration, digital dramaturgy, and women identified artists in contemporary American theatre. She sits on the Steering Committee for The Process Series, a new works in development unit at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for Arts and Humanities. She is a Board Member for Hidden Voices, a justice through storytelling performance company and tweets about performance, politics, and parity @naturalreadhead.

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.