Thoughts On a Similar Theme

02.04.10 | 11 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, rabble rousing

How do you introduce theater to people in impoverished areas?

People in many areas of Chicago might not have had an exposure to theater due to several factors: money, transportation, time.

How do you introduce theater to people who live in areas like or live in Cabrini-Green and Altgeld Gardens in Chicago? Do you make it free and easily accessible, performing in a park in the community?

And what plays would be done?

Would the city have to take the initiative, or would a theater company do so?

Having theater in a community that is easily available to the residents is like a library: it enriches knowledge and imagination.

Perhaps this sounds very naïve, but these were all thoughts that occurred to me while I was trying to think of the practical applications of public policy and urban theory to the theater. These thoughts can also be applied to any city.

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Monica Reida

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  • I think the most important task is to make it relevant to the community.

    The best way to do that is to help them tell their own stories in a fashion that is relevant to them.

    Start simple, make it relevant, recruit talent from the community, build an audience.

    Plan for the long but rewarding haul.

    Playback Theatre might be a good start:


    Boal might also be a source of inspiration:


  • I agree with Sterling. Bring the Cornerstone model to Cabrini Green

  • It’s not exactly the same thing, but several years ago at the Humana Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville presented a commissioned work by Naomi Iizuka that was about the Butchertown section of the city. It was at one point a large meat-packing district and still is to some extent today.

    She interviewed residents, built up a history of the area and developed a show that covered the history of Butchertown and, like “The Wire,” its decline.

    The play, “At the Vanishing Point,” was actually staged in an abandoned factory in Butchertown, just a few minutes by shuttle from the theatre. They created a fantastic temporary playing space there, and it played to good audiences. It also played to a fair number of the immediate residents of the area, most of whom had never been to see live theatre, let alone Actors Theatre.

    Maybe we need to develop projects like this, projects that connect directly to residents’ experiences and transforms them into easily accessible art. Develop adaptations of classic plays set within a similar world.

  • I think that doing something like “At the Vanishing Point” would probably be a good idea because it would give the residents of the area a story that they connect with.

    Somehow getting residents involved with the process of creating the story to be told would probably be a great way to introduce theater to those areas.

    (I might have to follow up on this and carry it out.)

  • Pingback: It’s 2 a.m.: Do You Know Where Your Theatre Is? « Fragments()

  • I really like the idea of doing interviews. It gets people engaged with the story / idea of theatre right from the very start.


    “What are you doing”

    “Research for a play. For theatre.”


    “Yeah. I’m looking for stories to tell. To show really. Of people who live around here.”


    “When’s that happening?”

    “Oh, in X amount of time. Depends how much help I get. For finding the stories.”

    “Oh yeah. I can help. I got stories.”

    “Tell me one.”

    And so on.

    If you can involve residents in the actual writing process — even better.

    To be blunt: we shouldn’t only be doing this for impoverished areas. It’s an approach we should adopt wherever we are.

  • Any time you want to introduce something to a new audience, you have to fully involve the community you’re trying to reach. That’s as true if you’re trying to get rural Southerners into soccer as if you’re trying to get a public housing development into theater. If your touring soccer team announces that it’s playing a match in Alabama, you’re only likely to generate interest if you spend the week passing out soccer balls and offering clinics – and you’re only likely to build a sustained interest in your events if you work to ensure that the community has an ownership of it. That means establishing long-term ties with members of that community to support them as they form their own teams.

    I’m using the soccer analogy because the rules are the same anytime you’re trying to get people to pay attention to something they haven’t got a cultural inclination to care about – it’s not unique to theater at all. You can’t interest people by imposing it on them, only by creating it with them. It goes deeper than just telling stories that the community can relate to. You have to tell stories that the community is invested in. Otherwise, frankly, they’ve gotten by just fine without theater, and you probably don’t understand their lives well enough to connect, anyway.

    This echoes a lot of what’s been said in previous comments, but I’m re-stating it because, honestly, I don’t think it -can- be overstated. There’s a real possibility of coming in as a well-meaning carpetbagger, and I think that the only way to avoid that is to make sure you’re not thinking in terms of “how do we get people in Cabrini Green to come see theater” and instead thinking of “how do we get people in Cabrini Green to start making theater”. The answer to the first question is probably, “You don’t.” The answer to the second one is that you start a company in the community you want to serve.


  • Sterling, I agree that the approach should be applied to wherever theater is because it does engage the (potential) audience immediately. And having the residents contribute to the actual writing is even better.

    Dan, if I’m understanding what you’re saying, what you’re suggesting is a community theater in a completely literal meaning of the term. Theater that is created by the people, performed by the people, for the people. Am I wrong?

  • You’re absolutely correct.


  • Kat

    To add to Dan’s comment, you need to create community partnerships. Contact organizations who already have ties to the community. Don’t go in thinking that everyone is going to fall all over themselves with excitement just because it’s you and theatre. Partner with existing organizations or community leaders so that you’re seen to be working WITH the community from the start, rather than coming in with white knight mentality.

    The other most important thing is to listen without trying to immediately impose your own idea of what should happen. Listen completely and respectfully and start from there. Ask the community what they want. Don’t assume you know best. There can be a real paternalistic attitude to bringing ‘culture’ to labeled groups (impoverished, marginalized, minority, etc) and frankly, people can sense it.

    Anyone you work with has things to teach you about theatre and creativity that you never suspected. Be open to learning as much as you teach.

    • Love hearing this talk.

      You need to start where people are. In order to influence people you must know what already influences them. Otherwise you’re only bashing heads.

      How did they introduced coffee in a land full of tea drinkers? Ice cream. Coffee flavored ice cream. I imagine a much different outcome if they tried to force the beverage instead.