Community-Specific Theatre

Conversations, Connections, and Considerations

On January 31, StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky hosted its first curated conversation about making theatre specific to a particular community. Anchoring the conversation were two pieces of theatre about Louisville—participants attended At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka, presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville on Friday evening, as well as And In This Corner Cassius Clay by Idris Goodwin, presented by StageOne on Saturday afternoon.

two children on stage
Ava Johnson and Brandon Greenwald in At the Vanishing Point, Actors Theatre of Louisville, 2015. Credit: Bill Brymer.

With more and more theatres devoting their time and resources to stories that speak directly to their local cities and towns, it seemed worthwhile to gather and discuss the processes behind the two professional theatre productions here in Louisville, and, at the same time, offer other examples of local work being produced both near and far.

actors dressed as boxers
And In This Corner Cassius Clay, by Idris Goodwin. StageOne Family Theatre 2015. Credit: Hannah Wemitt.

Months before planning this weekend gathering, I asked myself: Theatres around the country and the globe are embracing many types of community-based arts; what makes the theatrical offerings in Louisville unique? Well, for one, the timing felt significant: Less than two blocks away from each other, two professional theatres in downtown Louisville were simultaneously producing scripted performances by and about the local Louisville community as part of their main stage seasons. Secondly, while this sort of community-specific focus may not be unique, it certainly felt worthy of conversation. With more and more theatres devoting their time and resources to stories that speak directly to their local cities and towns, it seemed worthwhile to gather and discuss the processes behind the two professional theatre productions here in Louisville, and, at the same time, offer other examples of local work being produced both near and far. 

Although the Saturday morning conversation was formally called, “Community-Specific Theatre,” it was important to me that words did not get in the way. Since theatre inspired by, for, with, and about communities can have multiple meanings and applications, any one of the thirty theatre professionals in attendance was invited to contribute—either as a panelist, or as part of the small group conversations that followed each question. The tone was familiar, casual, candid—bagels, coffee, first names, and thoughtful reflections were present throughout. The discussion questions were:

  • What is the starting point for producing work that connects with a particular community?
  • What is the best way to develop work [for/with/by/about] a specific community?
  • Once a theatre company gets connected with a specific community, how does it stay connected during and after a production or event?

The majority of our focus held to how producing theatres (for both young audiences and adults) can connect with communities to make new work. We left with several takeaways from the morning:

  • Don't produce community-based theatre in a vacuum; jointly discover it. While theatres can start with a topic or point of interest, artists and producers must dig deeply to uncover the story that wants or needs to be told by, with, for, and/or about the community.
     
  • Create spaces for ongoing, honest conversations that foster genuine collaboration. Community members can respond in the earliest stages of play development, like at Write Now in Indianapolis, Indiana and Tempe, Arizona, and they can contribute to a remounting (or reimagining) a previously produced production like At the Vanishing Point’s 2015 production at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
     
  • Don’t be afraid to change course. Jeff Frank of First Stage Milwaukee shared a story in which an artist had been writing about a Milwaukee neighborhood as part of First Stage’s Wisconsin Cycle and after feedback from the community, it was clear that the story the artist was interested in writing about and the story the community was interested in hearing were not the same thing. So Jeff shifted gears and is looking for a new playwright to collaborate with the community.
     
  • Create theatrical structures that are flexible and have room for input and insight. Idris Goodwin of StageOne Family Theatre, Pamela Sterling of Arizona State University, and Tom Arvetis of Adventure Stage Chicago offered three different examples of how a play can be structured to include community contributions. As Idris put it, “I bring in the Christmas tree, and the community hangs the ornaments.” Along the same lines panelists encouraged: Don’t be afraid to use existing material as a jumping-off point or a through-line to tell a new story. Pamela infused her stage adaptation of Blue Willow by Doris Gates with true accounts from agricultural laborers living in Fresno, California. Tom used the myth of Prometheus to begin a discussion about violence with the local community.
     
  • If your doors are truly open wide, your community will find ways to support you. Peter Holloway of StageOne Family Theatre and Matt Wallace of Kentucky Shakespeare both shared stories of breaking down barriers to increase audience participation: Kentucky Shakespeare’s outdoor venue and StageOne’s Play It Forward program allow audiences of all ages to attend theatre at no cost. Both Peter and Matt found that by eliminating a ticket cost, overall attendance and financial contributions to both theatres have increased.
     
  • Words are important. Successful community-specific theatre is not “for them”; it is “with us.” When connecting with new populations, power and politics are often at play. The more theatres try to create theatre that is “for others,” the more we miss the mark. Successful community collaborations come from a genuine interest to connect with a community on multiple levels, and tell stories that are about and alongside a community, not “for” them.
     
  • Successful theatre-community relationships are ongoing. Tom shared how Adventure Stage Chicago’s recent production, SPARK! grew out of conversations and responses to a previous community-based piece, Augusta and Noble. Just as panelists encouraged participants to be open to improvement and adjustment during the development process, they also reminded the group that relationships do not end once a particular production is over.

By the end of the morning, the conversation held no pretenses—we were simply a group of theatre professionals honestly discussing the benefits and challenges of making community-driven theatre. In three hours, we had just scratched the surface, and we ended our time together wishing to extend the conversation. It was clear that community-based work in the region is alive and well in many forms—including devised work and youth-driven original theatre—and professional theatres in our region and beyond are finding more ways to include local subject matter within their offerings each season. Participants headed home with new ideas, new examples of community connections, and new colleagues, and are eager to gather again to continue the important discussion of making theatre for with, by, and about our own communities.

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Drawing audiences in with stories that feel near to their territory is a brilliant form of inclusivity, as opposed to exclusivity. Sometimes the things we find in our own backyard open up a whole new world. Thanks for making the connections, Talleri. Great article.