What Theatres Can Learn from a Missouri Music Store
On Saturday mornings for several decades, people have entered Westgate Music in Sullivan, Missouri (population 7,000) for a “jam session.” The store is a hub for country music and community gathering in the northern Ozarks. I grew up in Sullivan, but rarely went to Westgate until my father, a self-proclaimed non-musician 50-something, started taking guitar lessons. He began visiting Westgate weekly, and I, home between freelance stage management contracts, went with him. I quickly became fascinated with the music (what former owner Jerry Thurmond calls “Southern Country Gospel”) and the group of people who gathered to drink coffee, talk about the status of hay/corn/cattle/the election, while playing and listening to music together. I was surprised by the sense of community within the store’s walls, a togetherness that I couldn’t remember experiencing anywhere in Sullivan during my childhood. Westgate’s jam sessions provide opportunities for connection among local artists and citizens in a number of ways. From their example, I have pulled three principles that theatres, particularly those that produce classic works, might emulate to provide such a gathering space for their communities.
1) Develop a thick skin.
Thurmond jokes that Westgate jam sessions are “way past embarrassment,” but in all seriousness, people who can’t take good-natured teasing are probably in the wrong place. Theatres, like Westgate’s musicians, could stand to give audiences credit for having thick enough skin to engage with challenging material and interpretations of classic pieces, rather than focusing on the possible loss of ticket sales after a risky production. For theatre to become a “front porch” space that welcomes diverse perspectives, we as theatre professionals must trust our communities to engage with challenging material, and we must trust ourselves to hear and act upon opinions that challenge our ideas.
Additionally, we can create intentional spaces for dialogue sparked by artistic experiences. Many theatres offer pre-show lectures and post-show discussions; these conversations are generally pre-determined, moderated by staff members, and limited to 20-minute periods immediately surrounding a performance. Conversely, it’s not uncommon to find a relatively large group huddled around Westgate’s communal coffee station, musicians and listeners alike, deep in conversation. If classical theatres can create spaces where artists and community members can engage with each other informally and authentically, the conversations that take place can empower artists (and therefore their institutions) to better serve the needs and tastes of their communities.
2) Young people (and their ideas) matter.
James Grus’s electric guitar is a staple at Westgate. James, a teacher in his mid-20s, and Daniel Scott, who purchased Westgate in 2013, are part of a small but dedicated contingent of young adults embedded in Westgate’s community. One of Scott’s primary goals involves inviting younger people in Westgate’s community and maintaining their participation. Even as a younger musician himself, he finds this goal challenging, but essential to building his business and encouraging continued engagement with live country music in the Sullivan area.
Scott’s challenge of engaging a younger demographic mirrors a concern many classical theatres (and other arts organizations) face. How can we engage young people in ways that are meaningful to them? One strategy may look similar to what is already happening at Westgate—a blurring of lines between artist and audience member. Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi note that in many young people’s cultural participation, “art is integrated into people’s everyday lives and is not necessarily a special event like a concern or sanctified space such as a museum or opera house” (175). Westgate’s jam sessions are regular, informal gatherings; people of any age can drop in for a song or two on their way to the grocery store, and they can choose to play, sing, or listen.
There is a reason traditional plays, like classic country music, still resonate with audiences, and a great need also exists to innovate means of producing these plays and ways of offering opportunities for communities to connect around their central themes.
3) Tradition does not Equal Stagnation
During jam sessions, each song begins with a collaborative verbal navigation of key and tempo before the playing commences. From the negotiation of this group of musicians coming together to play this song on this morning with this audience springs a unique musical interpretation. These songs evoke classic themes—love, regret, self-discovery, the beauty in daily life—that continue to resonate with the community of listeners and musicians. Rather than losing relevance through a heeding of traditional themes, the music grows as the musicians continue to practice their crafts.
A deep knowledge of craft also informs new music created at Westgate. Several years ago, Sullivan’s city government replaced a major intersection with a traffic circle, a decision that proved wildly unpopular with city residents. Musician Glenn Stack wrote a comedic song about the roundabout’s perceived uselessness. The proceeds from the song, which a group of Westgate’s regulars recorded and sold on CD, benefitted the Meramec Community Mission, a local food pantry. Through the creation of new music, Westgate’s artists both commented on community events and made a clear statement regarding how the group’s beliefs of how public money should be spent.
Westgate’s example offers a strong case for theatres that wish to present traditional works while addressing the needs and preferences of their communities. There is a reason traditional plays, like classic country music, still resonate with audiences, and a great need also exists to innovate means of producing these plays and ways of offering opportunities for communities to connect around their central themes. By opening avenues for conversation around larger themes, theatres can offer meaningful engagement with classic stories while opening their models to include increased opportunities for dialogue with their communities.
One of my recent Westgate experiences preceded a local gospel music concert. The jam session served as rehearsal for the concert, and after one rousing song, Glenn Stack exclaimed, “When you play that [steel guitar riff], you bring down the roof of the temple. They ain’t never heard anything like that, but they need to!” It is in this spirit that art can bring together the values, aesthetic preferences, and traditions of a community to offer an important perspective to that community. This convergence of ideas strikes me most about Westgate’s presence in my hometown. This jam session coincided with the first anniversary of Daniel Scott’s purchase of the store. Celebrating this simultaneous milestone and sign of forward motion with cake while listening to Scott plan an upcoming band instrument rental system, I noticed how the solid foundation of the past, the community conversation of the moment, and the possibilities of the future came together. As artists, of country music or classical theatre, we have the ability to meld common experiences, traditions, and innovations to move forward not only artistically but also as responsible members of the communities we serve.