A Theater Should Be Like A Bookstore

04.11.10 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES actors, audiences, conversation starter, development, devised work, directors, ideas, major regional theatre, marketing, playwrights, presenting, producers, the process, theatrical ecosystem

Not just any bookstore, but specifically this bookstore: Montague Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts. Seth Godin sums it up well when he stated:

This is the bookstore of the future, because it’s not a business trying to maximize growth and ROI. No, it’s a place, an attitude, an approach to an afternoon. They don’t sell every book, they don’t even pretend to. Just as vinyl records persist, an object of joy for some listeners and a profitable cottage business for some sellers, bookstores are going to become like gift stores. The goal isn’t a commodity transaction with maximum selection at minimum price, the goal is an experience worth seeking out and paying for.

One look at the photo tour and it is easy to see that this place has charm, personality and gives everyone an experience that is not like any other bookstore. This bookstore shares the space with a café, a restaurant, an artist’s studio, and an antiques store. This creates a community of experience for tourists, and through the bringing in of guest artists, something the local community can return to frequently. This business becomes integrated into people’s lifestyle because it is based on experience.

In the April 2010 issue of American Theatre magazine, Michael Rohd, Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre, encourages us to rethink the relationship of theater and community, “One thing that gets said a lot about theatre is that a bunch of people come into a room and they laugh and they cry together in the dark, and that builds community. But I’m starting to think that’s bullshit: People crave something that involves more than sitting and watching.

Theater can no longer have people sit in their seats for two hours and then call it community if they hope to have the yonder generations as audience members. Much like Montague Bookmill has the other venues on the premises, a theater organization, that has multiple spaces, can provide opportunities for performances by the other theater companies in the area, especially theater companies that are not doing the work that is being done by the larger organization. People crave an experience where they can participate and be in the mix. Granted, for some people participation means sitting and watching, and space should be given for that, but for others, sitting in a dark theater for two hours does not define connecting with people. How can a theater make room for both these experiences? What new models can be explored to begin to ask how audience members can be involved more than simply sitting and watching? How can we break down the fourth wall that has been built under the mantle of American realism?

Dennis Baker lives the ultimate freelance life as an actor, teaching artist, fight director and also working in web design, web development and search engine optimization. You can follow him on Twitter: @dennisbaker

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Dennis Baker

Dennis lives the ultimate freelance life as an actor, teaching artist, fight director and also working in web design, web development and search engine optimization. You can follow him on Twitter: @dennisbaker

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  • nickkeenan

    Having some experience with the Montague Bookmill (it's real close to my hometown in Massachusetts), there's another aspect of it that is important to consider for theaters:

    It's a converted Mill. It's a space that has had this unique character that has been repurposed as a bookstore, then a cafe, then a studio, then a performance space. But the prime location – sitting on top of a picturesque waterfall – is entirely due to the fact of the old need of Mills for water power. As that phase of industrialization came to an end with steam and gas, an industry died.

    Artists serve a crucial role here. We can creatively reinvent these spaces for new commercial and artistic use, and also demonstrate those uses through our own work. The bookmill folks – like most folks in New England – have access to a community of inventive craftspeople and carpenters who live in the area who engineered the windowed cafe space that overlooks the waterfall, and they drew upon a network of artists who use the space as a hub to share their wares.

    Building those creative hubs that really connect with a community out of under utilized spaces is, naturally, the name of the game.

  • devonvsmith

    Reminds me a bit of the idea behind “Canoe Social Club” in Seattle (http://canoesocialclub.com)

    Canoe Social Club provides a social gathering place for artists, arts supporters and science professionals in Seattle who want to:
    * Empower and embolden the creative class
    * Provide a forum for idea and resource exchange
    * Be a hotbed for generative, creative solutions
    * Provide gathering space for artists outside the typical mainstream bar culture

    It's a kind of bizarre cross between bar/arts space/live #2amt-type conversation hub, that was founded by a few artist friends of mine last year.

    Does anything like this exist in Chicago? elsewhere?

  • If such a place doesn't exist in Chicago, it should. From what I understand, the Chopin Theatre fosters that kind of atmosphere, yes, Nick?

  • The Chopin has hints of this.

    The old-school social/service clubs (The Union League Club, etc.) do some of this, but mostly in a restrictive way.

    The Hideout definitely has a mix of programming that, over the course of the week, could combine folks from arts/cultinary/political circles — as in their monthly interview show, http://bit.ly/CAdMT

    There's a place in Evanston called Boocoo that seems to do some of this: http://www.boocoo.org/

    But I think starting a membership-driven hangout that combines of arts, food for the mind/body/soul, and hanging out is something that would work exceptionally well right now in Chicago.

  • coryhuff

    Once when I went to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, it happened to be the weekend when all the high school kids were there for a drama competition. They were yelling out, booing and screaming during the professional performance of The Merchant of Venice.

    Some people may be turned off by this – but I thought it was hysterical. The kids were totally engaged. They had all the right reactions at all the right times. For some reason, we train our audiences not to do that, and I think that's too bad. An engaged audience is an audience that will return.

    The actors took it all in stride, pausing for laughter and cheering to die down, managing to (almost) not break character when someone let out a funny quip.

    People WANT to be engaged during performances.

    A couple of months ago I attended a Polaris dance concert where the artistic director invited everyone to Tweet the event, take pictures & video, and post those images to Flickr & Youtube. It was freakin' fantastic. It created an audience that was way more engaged with the rather esoteric modern dance pieces that were there – and it kept up a conversation for a few weeks after because people kept posting their content.

    Devon – I love Canoe Club. I'm going to have to take a trip to Seattle and check it out.

  • nickkeenan

    Agreed. We don't quite have this here yet, but we are close to it.

    Honestly, one of the biggest problems is that there is SO MUCH art being created here that it segments and categorizes itself. This self-categorization is kind of typefied – no fault of their own – by the sections in our news media that reinforce readership's desire to quickly find more information about things they know they like rather than things they might like. I know Eric is a champion of finding ways to get these different circles to talk to each other.

    Part of the bookmill's success is that it's a destination in the middle of a sparsely populated area – it is THE PLACE to go in Montague – however, it's ALSO within 30 miles of about 12 colleges and universities, and so there is a high concentration of students & professors that have a vested interest in keeping it well-supported.

    Harder to do that if you a) don't have a community that connects with the vibe of the place and b) you have SO much community – i.e. a city – that connects with the vibe of the place on a superficial level but not an integral level that you have a hard time becoming unique in the middle of so many competing models for success.

    Eric, to +1 an earlier comment from you – I'd say the real example of this in Chicago is the Old Town School of Folk Music. Which, again, is about music, community, study, and food. Not so very interdisciplinary, but certainly the go-to spot for the music community.

  • I think this goes back to the rural theater discussion that Walters is having over at CRADLE. Part of the charm of Mon­tague Book­mill is the rural aspect, but yet it is needs to be “within 30 miles of about 12 colleges and universities” to have its client/community base.I think for some theaters to become like this bookstore they are going to have to forsake the city and go out to the rural communities and join with bookstores, restaurants, etc. Yes, it would be smart of those artists and theater companies to be near colleges and universities for various reasons: base audience, shared resources, teaching opportunities. And hopefully through the traffic of the partner businesses they can gain audience members who might not normally go to theater.