Thesis: The American Theatre Movement has had a tendency to define itself partly by what it is not – distancing itself from community theatre and mere entertainment. This distancing should be reevaluated to determine whether its ongoing benefits outweigh its ongoing costs.
Most American theatre professionals will readily explain how professional artistic theatre differs from two other categories of performing art.
What they do is not community theatre. Their artistic collaborators are trained and usually credentialed individuals. A certain amount of money changes hands to permit those artists to feel that they have been compensated. The combination of academic preparation and economic entanglement is believed to assure a higher quality of artistic output. Even within the realm of professional theatre, there are strata largely based on the amounts of payments, the union memberships of artists, and the times of day during which rehearsals occur. A modest amount of sneering goes on both up and down these strata.
What they do is not mere entertainment. This assertion is harder to quantify or explain. I’ve had people try to make the argument to me that art challenges our assumptions about the world while mere entertainment comfortably reinforces those assumptions. However, that means every person would carry around a different definition of art versus entertainment, making the distinction meaningless. For example, as a hyper liberal individual who opposes military adventurism deep in my bones, the excellent production of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles I recently saw at Forum Theatre would, for me, be total fluff. So I can’t characterize the mere entertainment side of this dichotomy very clearly, but I know it’s out there. Some of my friends bring up Tyler Perry’s work as an exemplary piece of mere entertainment. Holiday chestnuts like A Christmas Carol are also frequently implicated.
There’s no real mystery why these distinctions are made and to some extent clung to.
Diane Ragsdale, in a meta-comment to a recent Jumper post (http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/2013/02/when-does-coaxing-become-coercing/) writes “It strikes me as more than a little ironic that some foundations are now wringing their hands because arts organizations are engaging in ‘spectating’ and are resistant to ‘participatory engagement’, since the shift away from the participatory arts and the engagement of amateurs in the last century was urged by foundations and others seeking to ‘professionalize’ arts organizations. If the field is frustratingly isomorphic it may be so in large part because of ‘field-wide systemic interventions’ by foundations.” In my words – for most of the 20th century, if you wanted money from foundations you had to explain in what ways you were not community theatre and not mere entertainment. It paid organizations really well to seem stuck up about the art form.
As Diane discusses in her post, and a number of related ones; some foundations are now seeking organizations with programming that engages broader communities in more participatory ways. This is leaving some established companies with a severe case of “Who moved my cheese?” thinking. It is possible that new approaches and new types of programming that break down the community theatre and entertainment barriers may be highly fundable in the near future; but that’s not why I think we need to reexamine the value of those barriers.
My concern is that we’ve built those barriers so high that attending community theatre and lighter forms of live performance entertainment don’t function as good doorways into routine playgoing. We are so eager to hold ourselves apart from those realms of playmaking that we do nothing to encourage people who discover playgoing through those channels to discover and appreciate our work as well.
That’s a significant problem, because community theatre and mere entertainment bring in a lot of new audience. Community theatre has the hook of drawing in friends and family members of performers. That happens in professional theatre as well, but often many of the artists in a professional production are out of towners whose friends and family are far away. Community theatre inherently casts locally, and so provides an instant draw to members of that community.
Most mere entertainment either has the power of tradition to attract new audience or the power of celebrity. Tyler Perry brings Madea Gets a Job to the Verizon center in April and will likely bring in more than enough people on that one night to sell out two full productions at Woolly Mammoth. It seems a waste that we don’t have some way to try to lure a few of those patrons back to any of the five theatre venues within five blocks of the center.
I am not sure exactly what an infrastructure for recruiting new playgoers from among the ranks of those who attend theatre we are predisposed to disdain would look like, but it would probably include stronger and warmer relationships between conventional art theatre companies and other producing organizations. There would probably be value in some document, whether paper or digital, that could be made available at all performing venues and drawn to the special attention of new patrons; a document that would present the full spectrum of available playgoing in the region. I note, for example, that TheatreWashington’s Playing Now feature on their web site does not include Dial M for Murder at the Little Theater of Alexandria, a community theatre company performing closer to the center of DC than many professional companies they do list. To achieve a goal of radically increasing playgoing, all opportunities to become a more frequent playgoer should be fully exploited.
In addition to positive actions to capitalize on all theatre audiences, I suspect there would also be value in combing through all our communications to look for any messaging in the sidebands that discourage some segments of the public from considering attendance. Do we choose fonts or use vocabulary that may cause some segments to immediately dismiss the idea of attendance? Is there anything about the look of our lobbies that may make some segments feel out of place? I think it would be a good mental exercise to review the image of your organization and interrogate how welcoming and approachable your organization appears to people who don’t see themselves as culture vultures, but might well enjoy and value the work you produce.
For the avoidance of doubt: I’m not encouraging any organization to change programming to be more like community theatre or mere entertainment. I am encouraging you to build relationships with those who do program those categories that will allow you to fully exploit all their hard work in order to recruit more broad spectrum playgoers. Big tent. Room for a bunch of rings. More people attend the circus.
So there’s my contention. The conceptual moats built around high art American theatre previously served valid purposes. I think they are now doing more harm than good. We should either fill them in or build a lot more draw bridges. But I may be missing something. Is there continuing value to a deep moat that I’m not allowing for? Does it make you feel more important? Wouldn’t consistently full houses make you feel even more important?
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.