Thursday, October 28, 2004

Community. Riiight...

Part III: The Community

“Community” is a word that gets thrown around a lot whenever theatre-makers get together and people nod their heads at the sentiment, giving very little thought to what it actually means. “Support” is another one. They’re good and happy and nurturing connotative words, so they’re used to an excessive degree whenever there’s a conversation about independent theatre.

Now…we all know there isn’t really a theatre community, right?

Well, I know that sounds harsh, and it’s not 100% true (more like 99%), but hear me out.

Again, a lot of this was triggered by the symposium with the founders of the Off-Off-Broadway movement Nosedive recently attended. It dawned on me that:

a.) Despite the dinosaurs playing lip-service to the idea of a theatre community, none of these people knew who the current OOB theatre-makers were, and

b.) There is no interaction/awareness of current OOB theatre-makers with one another, the way the founders of the Living Theatre knew (and followed) the founders of La MaMa.

There’s no dialogue — that is, any dialogue of any value — going on between theatre groups. No discussion about the merits of one another’s shows (creatively or artistically) is happening at all.

Again, I’ll be making many references to the Community Dish (hereafter referred to as “the Dish”) in this Jamespeak, which — for those who don’t know — is a consortium of about fifty-odd Off-Off-Broadway theatre companies.

Recently, we at Nosedive had our “Pottymouth Social” fundraising show. It went quite well; we had a large turnout of attendees, and the bulk of said attendees seemed to enjoy themselves.

We also did not have one Dish member in attendance.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers, naming names or trying to make anyone feel guilty (honest — considering my spotty attendance record for OOB shows, I’m in no position to be superior). But when I went to the Dish meeting the following night, I heard many of the same complaints of “lack of support,” “dwindling audiences,” and the implicit, j’accuse, “We need to support each other to fix this problem of dwindling audiences and where the hell are YOU?” And I couldn’t help but think: “Folks! None of you were at our function last night, and we still damn near sold out!”

It did make me notice that — for good or for bad — much of the stuff that Nosedive is doing is happening with or without any sort of theatre community.

I suspect many other theatre companies are having similar experiences.

(I occasionally get quite grumpy contemplating this when I first worry that I’ll get a flood of angry responses from the Community Dish chastising me for negating and shitting on “our community,” then realize that the people who use the words “community” and “support” the most in the Dish — and most of the Dish in general — CAN’T BE FUCKING BOTHERED TO READ THESE ENTRIES!


Although it certainly doesn’t surprise me, I have noticed of late that the people quick to denounce the deplorable lack of support within the theatre community and the ones who are the most vociferous in their attacks on other theatre people are the people who are curiously absent from virtually every OOB theatre event.

(Personally, I try to see as many shows as I can, which isn’t nearly enough, and if I like what I see, I try to let others know. I fuck up a LOT on this — playwrights Claudia Alick, Stephen Gridley and Mac Rogers will attest to this — so I don’t consider myself to be in a position where I can climb aboard the “Support the Little Guys” train.)

The Dish (and many collectives of the same ilk) is trying to force community. And that just doesn’t work. It’s like trying to force a long-lasting loving relationship based on a series of shitty blind dates.

Blind support for the sake of blind support (i.e., going to shows you know you won’t like in order to have people who don’t like your shows go see your stuff) doesn’t really make a community. It becomes an endurance contest that whittles away the wills of already tired and depressed people (and I don’t think I’ve met any group of people more collectively tired, depressed and depressing than self-producing Off-Off-Broadway theatre-makers). And it’s a lose/lose situation: you’re seeing things you don’t want to see (which therefore drains your enthusiasm for theatre) and the members of the other group are guilted into seeing something they won’t like.

Maybe not having a theatre community isn’t the worst thing in the world. As younguns now taking over the OOB theatre world (for the time being, anyways), it’s important for us to carve out our own path, find our own voices and — most importantly — find our own audiences. Sure, it seems very lonely and intimidating, but perhaps it’s just what we need.

I do have to take a break from interacting with other OOB theatre-makers from time to time, simply to remind myself that the world of self-produced independent theatre is not nearly as bleak as they say it is.

It’s also important that we don’t write/direct/act to impress other playwrights, directors or actors. If our prime goal is to one-up other OOB companies or OOB theatre-makers — unless they genuinely “wow” you — I suspect our work will suffer greatly.

I for one care more about the response and opinions of non-theatre-people after shows, perhaps because a.) They’re less timid about giving me their opinion, and b.) They can’t resort to jargon (i.e., they have to talk about their emotional response rather than show off how educated they are). For some reason (and again, I don’t know why this is), Nosedive’s biggest fans are people who admittedly hate theatre.

“I want people to see my play ‘cause they want to, not ‘cause they owe it to their friends.”
—Mac Rogers

Two colleagues of mine (Ben Branson and Randy Anderson of Stages 5150) suggested that we continue to see each others’ shows, even if we don’t like them. I don’t know if I agree with this. First of all, if you’re not a fan of Nosedive’s plays, I’m not a sadist, and don’t like the idea of seeing you inflict pain upon yourself by showing up show after show, consistently bored or disappointed (not that we won’t take your money, mind you). Second, if I see a company’s show, and despise it, I’m not rushing out to see their next project. Why would I want to do that to myself? Plus, wouldn’t that be a bit, y’know, false? I don’t want to give this company the (false) impression that I’m a fan!

Not that this idea doesn’t have merit. The idea behind it is to build and maintain longer-lasting critical relationships with theatre companies; to keep attending shows, being open-minded, and telling them openly your likes and — more importantly — dislikes about the company’s work. That way, perhaps more open dialogue can occur in the OOB world.

I still think it sounds a little bit too much like Charlie Brown with the football, Or just a torturous endurance test.

Now of course all of this is sounding excessively bitchy and unduly harsh. The reason why I bring this all up is that, when Nosedive started, we felt like we were producing in a vacuum. Now that we’ve been more integrated within other OOB theatre companies, I for one feel like I’m in more of a vacuum. I guess this is because when you become aware of how many companies there are, it’s simply overwhelming. Too overwhelming to maintain any sense of community; you don’t even know where to begin.

The good news is that there are splinter cells of genuine community forming within the Dish, and forming within OOB theatre (hey, I just made reference to the opinions of three other theatre-makers). Not big ones, but very small alliances and honest interactions within (say) two or three companies that occur naturally and organically.

Maybe that’s where a real sense of community can grow from.

Wavin’ His Penis at Traffic,

James “Village Idiot” Comtois

October 28, 2004

Part IV: The cutting of theatre coverage in the press — Responses and options — Conclusion and final thoughts


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