Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Theatre, Community, and Community Theatre

Steven Leigh Morris, theatre editor of the alternative LA Weekly, has written a provocative piece, called "Squinting into the Sun: How our Theatre Will Change in the Next Decade." It's about the future of theatre in Los Angeles (but also regional theatre generally). Fundamentally, he notes that economically theatre is simply going financially bankrupt -- subscription houses are unsustainable due to the fact that subscribers are literally dying off, and living wages for artists at small theatres are impossible.

It's perceptive, smart, and my God, I hope he's wrong. Maybe I'm just not ready to accept it.

The article is filled with a mixture of dour pessimism and old-fashioned utopianism. His prognosis involves theatre's return to what he sees as its truer purpose: fostering community.

"The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling."

I'm going to absorb this for a little while longer and see if I have any further response to it, other than: Will I really have to sit through more of what I consider community theatre? That's a very unpleasant thought.

Steven does mention the Cornerstone Theatre as a model. For those who don't know, the Cornerstone is a very interesting company that takes professional artists and brings them together with a local community to develop a theatrical production; e.g. an adaptation of Aeschylus on a Native American reservation.

I love the Cornerstone, but, to be completely honest, a bit more for the idea of it than the actual productions.

I mention them also because they're in transition. Their founder and artistic director, Bill Rauch, has given up the reigns and the company has just announced a replacement, playwright/director Michael John Garces.