A large topic of conversation at the Network of Ensemble Theaters Summit was how to create sustainable models of theatre. Current most theatre companies function in a charity mind-set. They are non-profit organizations which receive at least half their revenue from grants and donors, the largest of which is often the government. Donors tend to look upon theatre as a luxury--something to give money to in times of excess because theatre provides "culture" and people with money are supposed to like "culture."
Most of the (non-theatre) people I know rarely go to see plays. From conversations I get the sense this is because plays are often boring, irrelevant, and pretentious (sounds like church), not to mention people pay high-prices for what feels like gratifying the performers' egos. The popular blog, Stuff White People Like did a humorous post on this phenomenon. The fact that the blog is called "Stuff White People Like" is also a telling sign, as most major theatres tend to be inhabited by aging white wealthy people (another similarity to main-line Protestant churches).
I see theatre's insustainablility and its cultural isolation to be connected. In a recent discussion with Elana McKernan we discussed how making theatre explicitly serve a community might make it sustainable. In the previous post I discussed community-based theatres which go into a community for a short time, write a play, and then leave. What if instead a theatre company was dedicated to continually gathering individuals' experiences within an community and sharing them on a regular basis with the community at large? City councils or neighborhood associations could hire a group to be full-time listeners to the drama and comedy of daily life in an area. Actors would function as constant and informal census workers, poll takers, and neighborhood watch patrols, trying to understand the pulse of a region. Once a week they would craft what they observed into a subsidized performance for the community. This would allow people to understand what was happening with parts of the community that they weren't normally aware of. It would bring problems to the attention of city officials. It would provide an acceptable space to mention the unmentionable, much like a court jester. It would provide entertainment for the population as a whole and improve constituents satisfaction with their government because it would make them feel that they were being heard (which goes a long way towards improving moral). It would also give the community a great sense of pride and common spirit.
And as opposed to much publicly funded art which causes controversy when some people don't like it (as will inevitably happen), this type of theatre has the advantage of being informed by the people who will be watching it. Whether or not they like it, they will always be interested to see what it looks like.
When I suggested this type of thing at the NET summit, a couple of people seemed concerned that it might restrict the artistic integrity of the theatre company. To this, I must respond that yes, it will. I'm more and more coming to feel that if artists expect to be supported by a larger community, they must also expect to be accountable to that community.
On a lighter note, I just wanted to mention that the NET summit ended with a parade and a cabaret featuring performances by a variety of the companies present. There's nothing new or innovative with parades or cabarets, but they are a very simple and effective way to create community events by letting people share their art. I guess some of the old-fashion theatre models can still be some of the best.Also, I promise my next post will have more pretty pictures and less rant.