Tuesday, August 4, 2009

World-Class Theatre in the Sticks

On my drive from Seattle to Berkeley, I stopped by two of the biggest names in ensemble and community-based theatre.

Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre is located in Blue Lake, California, population around 1100. Dell'Arte moved to Blue Lake about thirty years about right when the logging/salmon debates were just getting fierce. Being the artsy type, Dell'Arte was expected to side against the loggers and therefore encountered significant initial hostility. Instead, Dell'Arte committed themselves to becoming a member of the small community; they sought to learn, tell, and poke fun at both sides' stories. Three decades later, Dell'Arte is a central and much-loved part of Blue Lake.

When I asked what the key to their success was, Dell'Arte cited simply living in the same space as everyone else. In a town as small as Blue Lake, you couldn't help but get to know your neighbors. To accent the point, they gestured to the cafe next door where everyone in the town stops to get their coffee. It's the local rumor mill; spend any time in there, and you'll know what's happening in town. I did, and sure enough, everyone who entered was greeted by name and shared what was new in their life.

Second, Dell'Arte stresses community service, and not just through their art. They sign up for the help cook at the Rotary Club's pancake feed, and if there's a town clean-up, they pitch in. The service they felt was most influential was volunteering to teach theatre in the local schools. When parents saw their kids being more confident public speakers and capable of giving strong presentations, they began to see the value in what Dell'Arte was offering.

Students at the school of physical theatre are required to be involved in the local community from meeting the elders of the town at a Rotary story swap, to volunteering, to living and working with a specific community within the town or even smaller neighboring towns to create specific theatre pieces for that place.

I also stopped by Eureka, California, where my friend Stacia is working with Cornerstone Theater (based in L.A.) this July to create a production for, with, and about the northern California town.

Cornerstone goes to a different community each summer and does a community-based piece with them. From one day's worth of watching the tsunami of activity that goes into creating a show in a month , this I what I've gathered from their process. The company first picks a community based on where they have some pre-existing contacts and where they can find space to house a small army of theatre folks for a month (in Eureka's case, they knew a drama teacher in a Catholic high school with dorms). Before the summer comes, they send in a playwright who interviews people in the town and holds story-circles to get a feel for the place and the narratives of those who reside there. The playwright takes these interviews and stories and uses them as inspiration to create a rough script. When summer arrives, the theatre company rolls into town and starts a massive community engagement campaign. They advertise through standard media, but also through organizations that they have connections to (local arts organizations, religious groups, fraternal orders), and by walking up to random people on the street. But Cornerstone isn't trying to get people to come see their play, they're advertise to get people to help make their play. They gather quotes, take pictures, invite people to audition and help with the production. About half the cast ends up being people from the local town, most of whom are without much theatre training. Cornerstone doesn't try to make actors out of these people, instead, they just focus on helping them carryout their roles. As the newly formed hybrid ensemble rehearses, they adapt and refine the script to include the insights of the community members as well as to take into account the venue that they are using. In Eureka, the show is being performed in a functioning lumber and woodworking mill, and the cast makes good use of the space. Old boat hulls, log stumps, and working forklifts are all put to use as the show climbs about the the mill's workspace.
(photos by Stacia, to see more, click here)

By the end, so many people are involved in the production, they can't help but have a huge turnout. From the rehearsals I saw, the show looks really good, so if you happen to be in Eureka August 6, 7, or 8, check out Jason in Eureka. Also, there is an official blog with photos that records the process.
(not only is the photo of this poster by Stacia, but she also made the poster on a nearly century old hand-press in the mill)


stacia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stacia said...

the poster is actually a scan, not a photo. lovely write up!

MFConnection said...

Last night at the contra dance Aaron C was telling me how much he liked your blog, and especially this entry. This sort of theater provides such a valuable service to a community. It puts me in mind of rock or other popular singer/songwriters, capturing the feelings and concerns of an audience, but with the stabilizing influence of a beneficient community/group. Plus, the way it targets a specific community to tell its story is highly therapeutic. It takes me to public art in post offices during the depression, and the earliest forms of theater in ancient Greek cities.