I talk about community a lot. About getting artists and lovers of art together and starting conversations about the work that we’re doing: how it is, what it needs, how it could be better.
In fact, last summer, I was being interviewed for a preview piece in the Globe about the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston‘s upcoming FeverFest and the reporter interrupted me at one point to tell me that all my talk of “getting the community together” and “getting the conversation going” wasn’t actually going to make it into the final piece that she would run, because it felt too touchy-feely. Which is odd, right? That the idea of community-building and talking about the work being done in that community has the faint smell of patchouli attached.
I didn’t end up giving her that much more to work with, because what has always excited me about FeverFest and what excites me about the Alliance itself is that very idea: that something crucially important happens when people who make art in a city come together in a room to talk about and support the art being made. And that the conversation that starts in that room continues into other rooms and other theatres and takes on a life of its own.
True to her word, not a sentence about that idea made it into her article.
But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I grew up outside Boston, coming to shows in the city throughout my childhood and teenage years, but I hadn’t lived in the area since high school. So when I moved back to the city and founded Whistler in the Dark Theatre six years ago, I had no community here: I didn’t really know anyone. And I’m kind of pathologically shy about meeting new people, so finding a way into the community that was here was daunting.
So, I took a different approach. If I didn’t know the people making the art, I could at least familiarize myself with the art. So I went to dozens of plays – not nearly as many as Larry and Barry, but a lot – and I got to know Boston through the work that was being done. And then, slowly, I started asking people whose work I respected out for coffee, to talk about the work and the city and the community that I was discovering. Those conversations helped shaped the niche that Whistler carved for itself – our place in the ongoing artistic conversation became clear through watching and listening to what the other companies were choosing to present, and how they were choosing to work.
The process that I went through, of meeting this city’s artists through the work that they do, is what our audiences do every time they walk into one of our theatres. And from my experience of our audiences at Whistler, if we give those audiences the chance to deepen that moment of meeting, they will. Our audiences are generally smarter and more curious than we give them credit for being – if we can find a way to include them into our work beyond simply sitting back and appreciating it, they will.
So we, like many of the other theatres in the city, have been doing just that: a more approachable presence online with Facebook and our blog (we’re still figuring out what that whole Twitter-thing is about…); Friday and Saturday night post-show receptions in the theatre where we encourage the audience to stay and share a snack and a drink with us and talk about the show; semi-monthly new-work readings followed by moderated discussions between the playwright and the audience. And now, when I greet our patrons in pre-show, or talk with them after the performance, or respond to the emails I get in the mornings after shows, I feel like my community of collaborators has expanded out one more circle to touch all the people who choose to spend an evening with us in the theatre, working with us to understand the play we’re presenting.
The next step, the one I’m so curious about now, is how to make that conversation one that our audience wants to continue long after they’ve left the theatre – one that expands out not only to bring in more audience, but that sends our audience members on the same journey I went on – of exploring the full range of Boson theatres in an expanding circle of knowledge. I know my audiences will and do see shows by our close collaborators, companies like imaginary beasts or Mill 6, and often shows by other companies in the Alliance, thanks to our new cross-promotional program insert, but how do we engage in the audience on a city-wide level, not just theatre by theatre?
This is an exciting time to be in Boston. The emergence of so many new small and fringe companies, and the growth and development of our midsize theatres mean that we have more artists working and more artists engaged in the process of making this town a more exciting place to be. The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston is fostering conversation and collaboration among the emerging artists in the city. And the Boston Theatre Conference aims at focusing our attention on continuing to open up the conversation to include and empower our audiences.
I so look forward to getting in the room with you all in February, and talking about art, and life, and collaborations.
Meg Taintor is the Artistic Director of Whistler in the Dark Theatre. She is also a proud founding member and the President of the Board of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, an organization dedicated to fostering the growth of small theatres and emerging artists in the Boston theatre community.