You might think that a conversation that was, at least in part, fodder for an article titled “Theatre is in freefall” would have left me depressed and submitting resumes for corporate jobs. So, why am I energized and excited about the future? First of all, I always adore big picture conversations with smart people like Peter. But the sustained inspiration springs from the clarity that our discussion brought to the crux of the problem and what troubled theatres can do about it.
I’ve had tremendous positive feedback from some of my recent posts like “Excuse Me, Why do you exist?” and “The Reckoning is Here” but I’ve also heard that leaders are having a hard time translating them into their own situation…like a writer staring at a blank page not knowing where to start. My conversation with Peter reminded me of a crucial lens that might help. We, as arts organizations, have become overwhelmingly transactional with our donors and transactional relationships do not built strong ties. A relational approach is what is at the foundation of the suggestions in my previous posts. And that relational approach must be built to your community or it is just window dressing.
During the pandemic shutdown, many organizations used “the pause” to look inwardly and grapple with longstanding issues in the realms of equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. The industry as a whole was confronted by the very real issues and valid demands outlined in the We See You White American Theatre document. This was (and is) vital work that is still in its infancy in many theatres. You know what we didn’t do? Take our audiences along with us. We spent years in a transactional relationship with those who gathered in our theatres, tied ourselves in knots to figure out how to keep the transactions happening while our patrons were confined to their homes, and isolated further to do foundational organizational (and industry) health work. Then, we spent all the SVOG money trying to prove that “we’re back” with programming that combined old favorites with new work (“risky,” “challenging”) that, in many cases, blindsided our audiences…because we went on a journey without them. It is little surprise we find ourselves here now.
So, what do we do? The industry is collapsing and it feels like, as one friend put it, “as a society, we just don’t value the arts anymore.” I think that is because the arts haven’t valued us. It is a toxic relationship wherein theatres exchange money for a ticket without any deeper community connection and then sit in conference rooms bemoaning, “why don’t they appreciate us?” Instead, how about we look relationally? The organizations that are making it right now are doing just that; here are just a few examples of what I’ve seen:
- Barter Theatre has been raising the voices of Appalachian playwrights for years, community stories that deserve to be heard. In 2022 they expanded the program to highlight the Black experience in Appalachia with Black Stories Black Voices, an authentic and mission-centric approach to the desire to broaden the signal they are boosting and invite new communities into their theatres.
- Historic Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge, VA has built deep relationships with the quilting community in their region through quilting retreats and has the opportunity to consider what other tight-knit groups could benefit from specific programming to build stronger relationships and introduce others to their interest.
- Virginia Stage Company has a strong partnership with Norfolk State University, an HBCU, that supports the students, the theatre, and all the communities surrounding both.
What do all these have in common? They are rooted in their community and what their community needs. I ask again, what does your community need? It is our responsibility to ask and figure out how to deliver. Please note I did not say “figure out how to make them think they need what we want to give them.”