Those of you who read the New York Times (and not just the Sunday edition) may have seen Bruce Weber’s wonderful piece last November on the not-for-profit theatre movement. It was supportive and positive without being false boosterism. It demonstrated the grasp of a movement by someone who had spent months seeing work all over the country, talking to artists and managers, doing his homework thoroughly. And it likened the movement to an “independent denomination”–a movement of vibrancy and integrity, conceived for disparate communities and audiences; a movement to be applauded for what it is doing around the country, and not to be judged according to its relationship to New York. It’s the first time I can recall that the Times has acknowledged the rest of the country as anything more than a huge out-of-town tryout!
On the heels of that article, the phone at TCG began to ring off the hook. Many calls came from reporters who wanted to assess the strength of their own local communities. It made me start to ask: What are the vital signs of a healthy theatre community (not merely a healthy individual theatre)? Among the criteria I might offer are the following:
• The healthy theatre community is able to offer vibrant, vigorous, provoking, entertaining theatre productions.
• It offers a diversity of experiences, aesthetic and cultural. A theatre community, like an ecological landscape, depends on diversity for its ultimate health, and the more various, the more multifaceted the choices, the richer and healthier the community is.
• A healthy theatre community serves diverse audiences–it is a place where people of all colors, all ages, all physical abilities, all races and sexual orientations can ideally encounter with regularity stories that they recognize as their own.
• A healthy theatre community contains at least three major strains of theatre: the great plays of the past; new, unknown work, often by risky and controversial artists; and work that gives voice to particular communities, often those that have been silenced or ignored.
• A healthy theatre community counts among its constituents a robust network of local artists who create work, dedicate themselves to community life and are compensated for their work at a livable wage (at least).
• The healthy theatre community offers a range of theatrical dynamics: There are proscenium houses, black boxes and thrusts; there is site-specific work and work outdoors; there are large institutions and small emerging companies; there are groups that work as ensembles and those that work in a largely free-lance system. It is a rich landscape of possibility, not a suburb of uniformity.
• A healthy theatre community is supported by a complex and diverse group of constituents—foundations, corporations and local businesses, individuals, government. Within these groups are smaller subsets who are willing to undertake not only theatre support but theatre activism and advocacy, often through board or volunteer group service.
• A healthy theatre community is supported in various subtle ways as a sign of its significance. Public referenda on behalf of artists are passed; signage and directions are easily posted; official commemoration is often created. (Visited Philadelphia lately? If you have, you have undoubtedly seen the Avenue of the Arts signs that direct you to a central arts corridor from almost any point downtown.)
• A healthy theatre community engages in regular, informed dialogue with its audiences. Local criticism is rigorous and informed; audiences are regularly given the opportunity to engage in reflection and conversation about their experiences.
• A healthy theatre community engages in regular, direct, intra-community conversation. There is generosity in sharing mailing lists and expertise. Members freely share information and counsel. People see each other’s work. Like families, members fight behind close doors but band together in public.
• A healthy theatre community is populated by individual theatres that are fiscally viable, both in the short and long term.
• A healthy theatre community embraces new talent. New arrivals are greeted warmly. There are ongoing education programs for young people, and children grow up with a rich array of theatre experiences, both as audience and as creator.
• The healthy theatre community gives back. It sees itself in relation to local issues. It participates as a concerned citizen. It supports freedom of expression. And when threatened, it rises en masse to the defense of any threatened member.
• A healthy theatre community embraces and supports other artistic disciplines, recognizing that audiences are enriched by encounters with art in all its forms.
Clearly, these are just a few of the indications that make a healthy community. How many of us feel that we live in communities that meet these standards? So often, as we struggle to create healthy individual theatres—an objective that is always a true struggle, no matter the size, mission or location of the institution–we lose sight of contributing to a larger community health. We drop out of community meetings; we forget to offer our help to one another; we wait to be asked when we see others in distress, rather than rising to their help unprompted.
The more we ignore the essential task of building a healthy theatre community, the more we can be marginalized, fragmented, undercut by those who oppose us–and the weaker, in the long run, our individual theatres must be.