In an email exchange, I was recently asked:
What [are] your goals regarding audience engagement [in the theatre] and...how does theatre translate into a more educational role in the community? What does success in each area look like?
Here is my response...
Goals regarding community engagement:
Even though lockdown was a wild and mentally challenging shit storm, it brought me so much clarity. It was the catalyst I needed to leave an unhealthy cycle of subconsciously believing that the commercial theatre was the pinnacle of success (an ingrained belief from early childhood). It wasn't until I began my degree and started to learn about "The Arts" from a macro perspective that I realized I was fed up with the theatre because it wasn't serving ME and doubly fed up with myself because I had an expectation that it SHOULD serve me (not the community or greater good or anything else for that matter). I mean, for what?!?
I believe theatre to be the greatest tool we have for community-wide self-reflection and growth. And yet, in the face of capitalism, we have turned the theatre into an elitist past time where the barriers to entry are not only financial but cultural.
When talking about how to engage communities, I think most are coming at it from the wrong way. Through some work on decolonization, I learned that the simplest thing organizations can do is offer their resources (reversing the cycle of taking/hoarding/colonizing; reversing the cycle of "Development"). I think most organizations (white-led, white-run, white-funded) are constantly creating "new" programs in an attempt to bring "new" audiences into the theatre under the impression that the organization understands the needs of the underserved (or yet to be served) communities. The real underlying and self-serving intention of this work is to foster new ticket buyers to create return visitors and ultimately, supporters in order to meet a monetary goal. Instead of supporting this tired and inefficient practice, the work I would like to be a part of entails reaching out to under-served communities and asking "How can we help YOU?" "We have all of these resources, are they of interest to you? If so, how can we assist your actual needs?"
If this goes well, then the real work begins. The organization and the theatre as a whole will have to shift and evolve to fulfill the needs of the communities and constituencies they serve. What is the theatre then? Whose stories are being told? How are they told? With and by whom? I think then, the TheatER can become a physical center for all folks to convene and discuss societal issues through storytelling and the TheatRE takes a more important role as a community mediator and empathy educator.
With the above in mind (Theatre as societal changer, community mediator, empathy educator), the idea of "Theatre Education" explodes outward into endless possibilities of exploring and learning and understanding the intersectional human experience (sociology, empathy, wellness, policy, self-awareness, breathing, living, loving). With this being the new framework for theatre education; a community wide curriculum in existing, how does a theatre forward this work in every facet of its "existing" organization? The mission must be rooted in collective learning and accountability so that all aspects of administration and production serve as an educational trial-and-error practice in living, breathing, convening and including and growing. The theatre shouldn't simply share anti-racist practices on its stages, the theatre must be an anti-racist practice.
Success in these areas:
Has anyone yet to be successful in these areas? I don't know. I know change doesn't happen overnight. The reframing of the organizational mindset is where we start to make forward movement. Success is setting standards for the organization and sticking to them. It's being accountable to its under-served constituencies. It's transparency. It's offering resources continuously until those resources can be of service. It's sharing space. It's collectively breathing. I don't have a complete answer to your question yet.