Across the United States, regional theatres have a great responsibility to our communities.
We are creative incubators, civic institutions, educational hubs, gathering places, artistic playgrounds, safe havens, and much more.
But among all of these important roles theatres have played, many of us have missed the most crucial point along the way: We have failed to reach all people—sometimes through our very design, location, or programmatic choices.
Why should amazing, transformative theatre be confined to just one space or location? Great theatre can be everywhere—for everyone.
If regional theatres are truly going to live up to the immense responsibility of being pillars of our communities, and being a “public good” (a designation as a 501c3), we must rethink our models so that everyone has access to the work we make. We must build deep, authentic, reciprocal relationships with all who call the theatre their artistic home.
In New Haven, that’s what we’re trying to manifest with Long Wharf Theatre’s path forward.
Earlier this year, we came to a decision that was years in the making: to leave our current home of 57 years and venture out across our city and region as an itinerant theatre company that will partner with local organizations and venues to bring productions closer to all people.
While we made this decision in part because we recognized the need to rethink our business model amid a shift of revenue and the pandemic’s impacts, we more importantly made it because we felt a significant portion of our community was being left out.
Long Wharf Theatre is currently located in a food terminal in an industrial part of New Haven, away from transit and in the outskirts of the city.
As we just announced our new 2022-23 season—the first to begin the transition to our new model—we’ve already felt the change in energy as we explore our city’s neighborhoods and invite audiences and community members to participate.
We made our season announcement in Dixwell, a neighborhood with deep ties to jazz music, that for decades has received an inequitable lack of investment.
Now, with this model, artists will have the autonomy to curate their own venue or location in the city that speaks most authentically to themes or subject matter of their work. We now ask artists: What’s the right “container” for the story you want to tell?
A concert reading like Jelly’s Last Jam, which came to Long Wharf Theatre in August, took on new meaning in its celebration of jazz because we were able to partner with Dixwell’s Stetson Branch Library and experience the music through the lens of Dixwell’s jazz history.
Or The Crucible, the first show to ever be produced on our stage 57 years ago, will be performed next spring by a star-studded cast at the Lyman Center, creating a special evening to celebrate this full circle moment.
But this model doesn’t have to be just for New Haven.
Theatres across the country need to consider who might be excluded or unrepresented in our current models. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to think about new ways of engaging our current audiences while also finding new communities to build relationships with. By forcing all of us to shutter our doors for months on end, leaving our spaces vacant without the revenue from ticket sales to help pay our rent or mortgages, we all went virtual, or set up shop outdoors in imaginative, unconventional venues to keep our communities safe.
And we learned that theatre doesn’t have to be confined to a conventional stage with blazing lights and four walls. In fact, these new ways were exhilarating, providing artists with a more intentional, inventive way to produce work and audiences with even more ways to experience it more authentically.
Theatre is not just about a physical space. It’s about the staff and artists; it’s about the people and connections; it’s about the memories and lessons. And maybe most importantly, it’s about celebrating our shared humanity through the stories we share.
It’s about investing not just in a piece of real estate but in artistic innovation, radical inclusion, and kaleidoscopic partnerships.
Regional theatres across the country have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine what our responsibility to our regions is.
Let’s usher in a new era for the American regional theatre together.
Kit Ingui is the managing director, and Jacob G. Padrón the artistic director, of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Ct.
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