Do community theatres really serve the community?

For a very long time, I have wanted to start a theatre company to serve my community. Not necessarily a community theatre, and not necessarily a professional theatre, but something in between. Something different. A place where trained artists would be able to have full time employment in their field(and health insurance!), while serving the community- and making art that they are proud of.

In the initial phase of essentially closing down our entire society, I was struck by the fact that, in general, while community theatre organizations have their basis in the community, they do not actually serve the community beyond arts entertainment (thought some also provide arts education). When we were unable to rehearse and perform, we were paralyzed, with nothing to do. As an artist whose purpose has been to serve my community and students through art, my purpose had been stolen by this pandemic. As a theatre community, our collective lights had been snuffed out. 

As the bottom of our entire economy seemed to fall out from under us, I began to consider… Why don’t we already have the community contacts to be able to provide food and aid to the communities we serve? Why don’t we already work in our communities to provide employment or résumé assistance to those seeking work? Why don’t we share our empty spaces as a third space for the members of our community to hold meetings or classes when we are not rehearsing and performing? Why don’t we do more to serve our communities? We should be. It is time for change. 

Why don’t we do more to serve our communities?

After the death of George Floyd, when protests started first in Minneapolis, here in DC, and around the world in communities large and small, it has been laid bare that racist policies and systems are killing and exploiting members of our communities at a rate that is unacceptable. As an educator and an co-conspirator, I have worked tirelessly so that my students see themselves reflected in the stories that we tell. I have had the experience of community theatres coming to me, asking if I knew any Black actors for their production of Hairspray, or Latinx actors so that they could produce In the Heights, but unwilling to do the work of making my students feel like part of their community. I have had students in the LGBTQ+ community tell me horror stories of their treatment in theatres outside of the bubble of education (though some have experienced this in their schools, too). This cannot stand.

This cannot stand.

The reality is that there are so many more stories being written by marginalized voices than are being told. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and female playwrights often struggle to get their work produced, not because they aren’t good, but because the gatekeepers aren’t open to their voices. Those same people struggle to even be considered for creative positions directing, choreographing, or designing productions where their unique voices will be honored. 

Now, with the world turned upside down (pardon me, I couldn’t resist), we have an incredible opportunity to rebuild the communities where we live and create. Why go back to the theatre of the past? I want to rebuild our theatre community with these ideals in mind. Let’s create a theatre space that is expansive, that changes the definition of community theatre to include our entire community, regardless of their ability to afford tickets to our productions. Let’s break down the barriers to careers in the arts by providing opportunities for mentorship and networking for the entire community, and by providing recent graduates with the chance to support themselves with a job in their field

Some may think it is impossible. If I have learned anything, it is that telling a theatre person that something impossible only serves to light a fire, and they will find a way. The one thing this pandemic has given us is time- time to work out the details. Time- to start producing readings by new playwrights with the intention of bringing them to the stage when we are back to our new normal. We have time to build the relationships necessary to build a community from the ground up. So we must.

Strangely, our current reality has removed many of the financial barriers to creativity out of the equation. I intend to spend the time that I have figuring out how to keep them from being rebuilt. I may build that theatre company in the future, but I plan to use this time for building a theatre community.