Towards a Participatory Public
The Meeting of Theater and Community
When I was seven years old, my mother signed me up to audition for a community theatre production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin at our local recreation center. After a relatively painless audition process in which all of the kids within my age group were gathered in a room and asked to say a few lines from the script, I received the role of a rat. Not just any rat, but the “head rat” that would ultimately lead the other rats to their watery grave. After receiving news of the role, I left the room with mixed feelings. There was something energizing about the opportunity to be part of this new experience, but the tediousness of the long rehearsal hours and the additional work I needed to contribute in addition to everything else I felt I was balancing in my overextended seven-year-old lifestyle felt overwhelming (can you tell that I was dramatic?). Over the next several weeks, my relationship with my other actors—rats and otherwise—grew and I found their excitement and passion for the production contagious. I listened in on conversations about their roles outside of the production—accountants, teachers, store clerks, lawyers—and why they found this experience a necessary creative outlet for their artistic energy. I learned about the importance of collaboration and commitment—whether it be memorizing lines (or in my case, my one line) in between homework and other extracurricular activities or working with our team of student directors on how individual elements of our work would harmonize with the production as a whole. After our first successful performance to a group of elementary school students and their families, I ran into my parents’ arms with pride. While it’s difficult to articulate exactly what I was feeling at the time, I knew that I had contributed to something that had made a positive impact on those who had participated in or experienced it.
It’s a tendency to be dismissive of community theatre in our field, but looking back, I realize that my introduction to theatre through community theatre activated an interest and inquiry in the relationship between theatre and community. When I decided further down the road to pursue a career in theatre, this ongoing inquiry about community deepened as I started to engage with different models of creating theatre either with direct participation from the community or the community as the audience. What are the points of intersection and interaction between artists and communities that create dynamic and culturally viable exchanges? When should community be a key player in the development of a creative process? And how can forming new engagements or partnerships with the community be thought of as integral as opposed to ancillary?
In her book Utopia in Performance, author Jill Dolan argues that, “considering theatre audiences as participatory publics might also expand how the communitas they experience through utopian performatives might become a model for other social interactions.” Dolan goes further to identify communitas by definition of anthropologist Victor Turner as “the moments in a theatre event or ritual in which audiences or participants feel themselves become part of the whole in an organic, nearly spiritual way; spectators’ individuality becomes finely attuned to those around them, and a cohesive if fleeting feeling of belonging to the group bathes the audience.”
What are the points of intersection and interaction between artists and communities that create dynamic and culturally viable exchanges? When should community be a key player in the development of a creative process? And how can forming new engagements or partnerships with the community be thought of as integral as opposed to ancillary?
I love Dolan’s description of the power of theatre and communities to create a transcendent effect that elevates the collective experience. That the bond between these two elements ignites a synergetic reaction that ultimately leads to a stronger connection outside of the darkened theatre.
During my time as Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at Arena Stage in Washington DC, the Artistic Development department which I was a part of began a long-term investigation into the dialogue we shared with our staff and communities about and around the art. Our curiosity was very much grounded in the seismic shift of our organization—having moved into the renovated Mead Center for American Theater in 2010 after being situated in Crystal City, Virginia, and U Street in the heart of DC for two and a half years—and our contemplation of the life span and stretch of the organizational and production dramaturgy. In some ways, we felt our art maintained a strong and vital engagement with our audiences and our communities. In other ways, we didn’t feel like we were fully sharing the work with them or expanding their understanding on how they could be engaged holistically or spiritually in accordance with Dolan’s ideas. As a response to these feelings and desires, we decided to experiment with various programs under an initiative called the Public Arena—combining best practices intimated from the incredible work by our peers with other methods invented by an impulse or new idea from our community of artists, audiences, students, staff, and partners. For example, in conjunction with our production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, we held informal discussions in the on-site café after every performance where the performers, members of Arena’s staff, and audience and community members could openly discuss the themes, resonances, and take-aways from the play over drinks. When presenting John Logan’s Red, partnerships were fostered with the Phillips Collection—a beautiful and intimate modern art museum housing one of the only “Rothko Rooms” in the country—and the National Gallery of Art to stage interdisciplinary public programming at both the museums and the theatre following every Sunday performance. During our performance run of My Fair Lady, we engaged fifteen florists to create a unique floral design that complemented a costume worn by a leading lady in a previous Arena Stage production. The costumes and floral designs were displayed in our upper lobby for a weekend. Inspired by our friends at Steppenwolf, we developed a new program titled Theater 101 that gave fifty audience members an inside look at the development of a production from inception through to opening night, attending read-throughs, rehearsals, and sharing conversations with members from the production and Arena’s artistic staff.
These experiments were met with varying degrees of success, challenge, and complexity. In some respects, we developed relationships with members of the community that weren’t artistically engaged and helped them to discover a newfound passion in maintaining a regular connection with the theatre. We advanced the discourse of the art in the form of meditations and musings about the current conflicts, mores, and politics of our world today. We shined a light on how one could be culturally active in the DC community by building bridges between cultural organizations. In this process, we had to consider what kind of access we felt comfortable sharing with our community and what barriers—whether intentional or not—we were harboring in the process. With Theater 101, for example, inviting participants into the rehearsal room became a point of contention with some our collaborating artists who felt it disrupted the intimacy of the rehearsal process and that the participants should be observing and responding to the work further in the process. And then, there was the demand of measurables. In order to make the case that this programming was vital to the time and energy of the organization, we had to examine how to measure success. There were moments when we programmed something that we felt was vital to advancing a preexistent and important dialogue within our community, but the majority of the community didn’t show up. There were times when the artists and community members participating in the engagement left with a new sense of meaning or a shift in perspective, but we were unable to figure out the methods of capturing that feeling and reporting it back. We continued to grapple with how best to express our understanding of when communitas was achieved.
Following my time at Arena, I journeyed to Ashfield, Massachusetts, to pursue an artist residency with Double Edge Theatre. Having spent six influential years in DC, it was fascinating to delve into a community and artistic culture that was vastly different, yet resonated with a similar inquiry about the inclusion, cultivation, and mutuality of communities in the artistic process and production. In comparison to DC, Ashfield is situated in the heart of a rural landscape—surrounding by farms and hills—with a population slightly under 2,000 residents. Before Double Edge arrived in Ashfield in the mid-90s, there wasn’t a regional theatre in town. As such, the company has developed a symbiotic exchange with the local community that took time and devotion to achieve and was met with its struggles early on. Initially, the company was viewed by many in town with fear and confusion. As Founder/Artistic Director Stacy Klein and Lead Actor Carlos Uriona once told me, the company’s rigorous physical training methodology—including running up the hills of the Berkshires—drew queries of whether the company was part of some kind of special ops training center.
There were times when the artists and community members participating in the engagement left with a new sense of meaning or a shift in perspective, but we were unable to figure out the methods of capturing that feeling and reporting it back. We continued to grapple with how best to express our understanding of when communitas was achieved.
I arrived to Ashfield this past summer when the DE team was in the process of mounting their annual summer traveling performance spectacle, which I feel is a fascinating model in exploring the relationships between theatre and communities. The performances take place in and out of doors throughout Double Edge’s 105-acre Farm Center in the hills, woods, barn, stream, and pond. Often described as a community performance, the summer spectacle engages the direct participation of local stone masons, painters, carpenters, farmers, innkeepers who moonlight as puppeteers, and other members of the town to develop and create the design elements of production with Stacy and Technical Director Adam Bright. Local contractor Ray Gray monitors the weather to ensure that none of our performers suspended by harnesses in the trees are in danger of getting struck by lightning. In short, the summer spectacle would be impossible without the community and in turn has activated a deep sense of pride, belonging, and creative release for the community members who engage with it annually.
What continues to fascinate me about the sense of artistic expression and cultural mutuality fostered between Double Edge and its local community is how the environment provides a fertile landscape for engagement. Ashfield had once been a flourishing farming community with thirty family farms throughout the town and the devotion of the community ethos towards the land still remains. By asking the community to teach us how best to care for the land and inviting them to contribute to the artistry of the summer spectacle, we became friends and partners through mutual interest and reliance. We now face the question of how we grow the relationship we so meticulously built with our community as our interest in expanding our work and dialogue to other communities nationally and internationally gains momentum. Are facets of our relationship with our local community replicable elsewhere through listening and understanding? Will we lose the intimacy with our local stakeholders as we branch out to other environments?
My gratitude for the various encounters I witnessed or participated in with theatre-community intersections remains strong as my inquiry in the dynamic of these relationships continue. Getting back to Dolan, the sense of accessing community as a participatory public from my early encounters with community theatre to my current adventures in the urban and rural nonprofit sector continues to excite and inform the way I think about the art, its role, and its service. There will be variations in models, forms, and practices always. The variation is necessary. But, perhaps, if we continue to seek a path towards finding the holism between theatre and community, we’ll achieve an organic and authentic sense of belonging and shared value felt by the seven-year-old rats of the world and beyond.