By Troy Siebels
From my position as head of a performing arts center in downtown Worcester, at first glance I’m on the periphery of “Boston Theatre Conference 2011 – Home Grown.” On the periphery of Greater Boston geographically; and on the periphery of “home grown” as well, as most of what appears on our stage are national touring productions that arrive and leave in trucks and buses.
The slow food movement is about resisting the Big Mac, whose ingredients arrive on a truck from points unknown; in favor of the family restaurant or kitchen whose ingredients come from the local farmers market. So speaking for a theatre whose performances arrive on trucks from points unknown, who am I to contribute to this discussion?
For me the key lesson to be learned from the slow food movement is the importance of making connections between our performances and our community. The performance I don’t create though, so it’s not so easy for me to have a great deal of impact on it. So can I impact the community instead?
Community doesn’t mean the same thing today that it meant to our parents. The digital generation and the explosion of social media have connected people in one way while driving them apart in another. I’m much more likely to have a meaningful conversation with someone thousands of miles away, through Facebook or email; than I am to have that same conversation with my neighbor. The same conversations that happened at corner drugstores in the 1950’s, in bohemian enclaves in the 1970’s and at raves in the 1990’s continue to happen, but they now cross geographic and cultural borders in a way that makes chat rooms look like sewing circles. A community, today, is self-defined and self-selected; a group that assembles around a shared interest, opinion, need or desire.
Maybe what I need to do is to create community around my theatre and the works we present; to find those with connections to our performances, with less than two or three degrees of separation from those performances. And I don’t mean just relatives of the performers; but those with personal connections to the story that inspired the script, or to a theme that the show explores. If I can find those ties, maybe I can create a community that’s already predisposed to connectivity?
Another thing about community today – we receive and process information differently. We don’t sit in front of the television and watch the news – we “click” to add a comment, or we Facebook, blog or tweet about it. We are a part of the news today in a way that we weren’t as recently as 10 years ago. I believe that theatre needs to engage its audiences in the same way, to give theatergoers opportunities to connect in a deeper and more meaningful way with those that create the work, or to be a part of its creation. We like to say that the audience is an actor in the show; that every performance is different because of the ways the audience reacts; so is this really that much of a stretch?
It will be interesting to look back in a hundred years or so to see how the social media revolution has changed live theatre, an industry that is by definition built around the proximity of the viewer to the performer. I choose to believe that there will always be a need for shared cultural experiences and deeper engagement; and even a theatre like mine, with shows that roll in on a truck, can make those connections and create those opportunities for engagement, if we focus on finding and building our community.