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The Full Service Theatre—What We’ve Learned at Civic Ensemble

This week on HowlRound, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. Find the full series here

At Civic Ensemble, we believe that theatre is everyone’s birthright. Civic Ensemble was founded in Ithaca, NY by Sarah K. Chalmers, Jennifer Herzog, and myself in 2012 in response to a growing sense that despite a real theatre-going culture in Ithaca and surrounding areas, many communities were not being served. This included communities of color, rural communities, college students, poor people, and local artists who were not getting many opportunities for work.

We produce community-based plays, new or overlooked plays by women and people of color, and community and personal development programs. We have spent three years building our company toward a Full Service Theatre ideal. Not unlike a full service gas station, where the attendant fills your gas and checks your fluids and oil when your car needs attention, the Full Service Theatre provides daily opportunities to meet the needs of a community. We have positioned ourselves in a very short time as a company that other Ithaca-area companies and organizations want to partner with. We get asked a lot about how we established a foothold in Ithaca so quickly. It’s happened through a series of discoveries and hunches about civic engagement’s place in theatre, engaging communities and artists, challenging the status quo, and creating opportunities for constituents to meet each other.

a woman giving a speech on stage
Ithaca College student Nathiel Tejada as the Fair Housing Act in Civic Ensemble's Home: A Living Newspaper, an examination of the affordable housing crisis in Ithaca and the rest of the country, produced by Civic Ensemble in February, 2015 at The Kitchen Theatre Company.

Civic Engagement And Theatre Are The Same Thing:
When we founded Civic Ensemble in the summer of 2012, we knew that civic engagement would be the financial and creative engine for our first few years. Why? First of all, it was important to all of us that our theatre be civically engaged with our community. That much was non-negotiable. Secondly, we knew that funders and contracting institutions would see more value in “civic engagement” than in “putting on a show.” Finally, it would also be much simpler (not easier, mind you, but simpler) to start a civic engagement project than to gather artists and develop an audience for a production of, say, a Shaw play about Victorian gentrification. A civic engagement project’s success is not measured by the tickets we sell, but by the experience of the people we serve. In any case, because we were not bound by the idea that a theatre exists only to produce plays by and with theatre practitioners, we could then focus on a variety of different applications of theatre: Parent Stories, a community-based play about parenting; a documentary play commissioned by Cornell Cooperative Extension called Circle Forward, about the history of the Land Grant Extension System; a playmaking workshop at a male juvenile incarceration facility. All of these programs provided major financial and audience support for the company’s activities, which still include producing plays with practitioners. In reality, what we call “mainstage” productions are just another civic engagement program. Through these programs, our constituents began to see the necessity for theatre in their lives.

Engage The Larger Community Before The Coterie Of Artists:
This sounds way more controversial than it really is. Artists, of course, are part of the community. It’s just that instead of gathering our favorite artists to talk about what we all wanted to do, we first had stakeholder and informal meetings with community members who had nothing to do with theatre to find out what needed to be done here. We took our Off-Broadway/LORT glasses off and saw the actual terrain we were standing on. We learned how theatre in Ithaca was perceived, how important theatre was to the community, and where the gaps were in terms of audience and community development. We also discovered the ways that theatre artists and administrators unwittingly alienate audiences and constituents.

We also learned that artists often feel alienated from their communities either because they work too much to engage or because the community hasn’t embraced them. We did have a series of gatherings with artists, where we were able to speak with them from a much more informed place after our community meetings. By that time, a few artists had worked with us already and were getting a sense of what was important to the community and by extension, us. We discovered that Civic Ensemble’s work would be the intersection of what we wanted to do and what needed to be done.

We don’t want to compete. We want to support other theatres, and sometimes that support means doing things that those theatres don’t or can’t do.

Do The Opposite Of What Every Other Theatre In Your Community Is Doing:
This is almost verbatim from advice given about fundraising by Ron Russell, Executive Director of Epic Theatre Ensemble, another Full Service Theatre, in NYC. I think about it in every situation, not just fundraising. There are so many ways in which we will probably be forced into doing certain things according to the industry status quo, like using a CRM, developing a board, or producing a fundraising event. But within those constraints and the parameters of our mission, there is so much freedom. This is not about setting ourselves apart from competition. There is no competition. We don’t want to compete. We want to support other theatres, and sometimes that support means doing things that those theatres don’t or can’t do.

Every Public Event Should Provide A Structure For Strangers To Meet:
This one took us a minute to figure out. We cringed at the word “talkback,” and the barrier between the audience and the practitioners made us uncomfortable. We played around with how we ran post-show conversations—we hated the idea of simply ending a show or event with experts talking about the play or the audience asking the actors how long it took to learn lines. We came up with creative ways to force audience members to engage deeply, if only for a few moments, with the strangers they’d been sitting with for two hours. I cannot tell you how much this means to our audience members. Regardless of what the show or reading is about, audience members—participants, as we like to call them—seem to crave connecting with new people. And participants that have a private conversation with a stranger, make a tableau vivant with an actor and other audience members, or have a direct interaction with an actor during a performance are going to remember and cherish that experience much more than if they just sat in the dark watching a play and left after the curtain call.

We’ve had to disengage with some community stakeholders that actively refused to recognize the ability of theatre to solve problems and create community. And we’ve learned that when we actively engage with established regional theatres in our area, they are infinitely more interested in Civic Ensemble’s success than in its failure.

The key verb for us is always engage. Engagement is tricky. Engagement is harder than just doing your work with whom you want to do it. Engagement is time consuming, and very rarely properly compensated. But we feel the rewards of authentic and organic engagement for either a company just starting out or a venerable institution can last far longer than box office receipts. The simple act of engagement has been the most crucial component of what we’ve tried to do in creating a Full Service Theatre. We are a long way from the ideal, but we’re on the eternal road to achieving it.

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In this series, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. 



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Wow! Great read! I loved that last paragraph! Gave me something for my very own theatre project I'm currently working on. Thank you for sharing!

So great, Godfrey, to hear how you are taking these values, moving them into practice and building a company from the ground up. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing the stories.