What Do We Have Against Community?

By John J King

Say the words “Community Theatre” to a theatre professional and you’ll often get a Pavlovian eye-roll. For some, there are stereotypes associated with the phrase and most of them aren’t good.

In the midst of starting my own company, thinking in terms of marketing, I found myself thinking, “I want to sell this as a community theatre, but without using those words!”

But what’s wrong with Community Theatre?

At a workshop I attended, Marsha Norman said something that has stuck with me ever since: “A play is a community; every night, the act of theatre creates a community between the story, the artists, and the audience.”

That sense of communion, of theatre as a social act, is what excites me most about the art. It is a shared experience with others, and shared experiences are what blur the differences between people, erasing sects and creating communities.

In light of the Slow Food theme of the upcoming Boston Theatre Conference, how do we embrace the virtue of Community Theatre? A few thoughts that I feel particularly match up with the analogous slow food movement:

  • a theatre in San Francisco involved their audience in the selection of an upcoming season. The company picked 10 plays, each of which were given public readings throughout the year. At the end of the season the audience voted, and the top four plays were selected for the company’s next season. Not only did the audience feel engaged with the work, but the theatre had a chunk of eager audience ready to purchase tickets!
  • We talk about the student diaspora of Boston, with many fleeing to NYC and L.A. We need to “cultivate taste for locally grown” theatre while these young artists are here so they have reasons to stay. How? Internships, workshops, readings at the schools, open rehearsals just for students: all of these are free and relatively easy to coordinate.
  • Collaborations between groups give audiences new and different ways to engage with local theatre. Good examples that have already taken place: FeverFest; The Shirley, VT Festival; Emerging America Festival; Orfeo Group’s COMPLETE WOWS(A) which incorporated local bands and performers as opening acts.

To me, “Community Theatre” is the highest ideal one can strive for. At worst, the phrase may be redundant, because theatre is community. There is no theatre without community.

What excites me about the Slow Arts theme of the Boston Theatre Conference is its implicit assumption that Boston has everything it needs. We do! The Slow Arts movement encourages us to celebrate and better share with our communities what is already here, to create more opportunities for the shared experiences that enrich, deepen, and build communities.

I look forward to the many possibilities of communion that the Boston Theatre Conference will bring.

John J King is a Boston-based playwright who’s work has been produced by New Exhibition Room, Mill 6 Collaborative, and the Orfeo Group.  His new full-length BEAR PATROL will premiere at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, March 3 – 20, 2011.  www.J-RexPlays.com

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  1. #1 by Marc Miller on November 16, 2010 - 12:32 pm

    Fort Point Theatre Channel thinks of ourselves as “community-based,” which bypasses the distinction some people make between community and professional.

  2. #2 by robynlinden on November 16, 2010 - 12:46 pm

    What if we reversed the words? Come see a Theatre Community show? Gives a different, potentially interactive message, no?

  3. #3 by Joel on November 16, 2010 - 3:25 pm

    This article takes the words “Community Theatre” way too literally. There is a HUGE distinction between Professional and Community Theatre – it’s not quality or talent. Presumably professional theatre should be of a higher quality and stronger talent, but of course that is not always the case. The real difference between Professional and Community Theatre is the purpose. Professional Theatre is a living and Community Theatre is a hobby. And just like in every profession, sometimes the professionals are better than the amateurs and sometimes they’re not, but if they are trying to make a living doing this then they get the distinction of being called a professional – and if they don’t do it for a living, they don’t get that distinction. My friend is incredible on the computer and can fix ANY problem, but he is not licensed as a computer technician nor does he have a degree in it. He’s not a professional, he might be better than some of the professionals out there, but he is NOT a professional. Why would it be any different in the dramatic arts? So, Community Theatre, by definition, is the community of non-professionals coming together to create for the love of it and yes, that should be celebrated, but there is a huge distinction between that and Professional Theatre, and I think sometimes the “eye-roll” has to do with the community not understanding that distinction.

  4. #4 by John J King on November 16, 2010 - 5:56 pm

    Marc, I like the phrase “community-based”!

    Joel, if the article implies anywhere that there’s no distinction between the common usage of “community theatre” and “professional theatre”, it’s certainly not my intention. I do understand that line and it has its validity.

    My intended thrust of the article (though apparently I’ve misrepresented it) is that ALL theatre (small, large, professional, community, fringe) can stand to engage more deeply with it’s community, which is the whole idea behind Slow Food and Slow Arts, and thus the theme of the Boston Theatre Conference.

    In fact the three examples I make for how a company can further engage its community/neighborhood/city, are all taken from Professional theatre companies.

    The gist of the Slow Food/Slow Arts movement is that producers of food/arts (farmers in the first, artists or companies in the second) can do nothing but benefit when they reach out to the people who consume their product locally, and involve them more deeply in all aspects.

    In many ways we already do this. (Professional theatres with subscriber bases do special subscriber or donor events all the time, as one example). But there are tons of other possibilities!

    Call it whatever you want, but the more ways theatre companies and artists can find to connect with their local consumers, the more we’ll all thrive.

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