Firing Up the Dialogue
Theatres can benefit by partnering with social-service organizations on relevant shows—as long as expectations are clear
By Eric Grode
Strike up partnerships with area social-service organizations for post-show talks and more.
Find what each group can offer the other beyond mailing lists.
Partnerships can serve as a sort of seal of approval.
Involvement can backfire if the organizations have unreal expectations about artistic control.
Build upon existing relationships. Line up partnerships further in advance to deepen involvement.
When Arkansas Repertory Theatre premiered The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock, in 2007, producing artistic director Bob Hupp expected to see some familiar faces in the audience. Two years in the making, the show culled nearly 100 interviews, many with people who'd been around 50 years earlier to witness the landmark desegregation of the city's Central High. Several of those interviewed about this contentious event, a pivotal episode in the Civil Rights Movement, were scheduled to attend.
"We felt like we were not equipped to handle what might be some volatile post-show discussions," Hupp remembers, and, indeed, the theatre ended up partnering with Just Communities of Arkansas, a social-service organization dedicated to supporting diversity in the area. Members of JCA helped coach theatre staff beforehand and played an active role during the actual discussions; the result, Hupp says, were "intense discussions that some nights were longer than the show itself."
Having members of some community or professional group take a seat alongside the artists for post-show discussions has become a de rigueur part of theatregoing in many communities, particularly for productions with any sort of civic or social content. But more and more theatres have found themselves reaching out to local organizations in an even more substantial way. From expanding the subscriber base, to dramaturgical guidance, to targeted audience outreach (the kind that looks great on a grant application), these partnerships offer theatre organizations any number of advantages, with minimal downside—provided the ground rules have been spelled out well in advance.
"Finding the right partnership can be just as important as finding the right lighting designer," believes Faye M. Price, whose two job titles show just how interwoven these arrangements can be. In addition to serving as co-artistic producing director of the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury House Theatre, Price is also the center director of the Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center. At least her commute between the two jobs is manageable: The two organizations share the same address. In other words, involvement with the community is literally built into the theatre's makeup.
Some shows lend themselves better than others to partnerships, and Hupp notes that the brainstorming process can begin more than a year before a show premieres. In fact, Arkansas Rep's 2001 production of Wit stemmed directly from conversations the theatre had had with the medical community a year earlier. Medical professionals ended up participating in post-show talkbacks at every performance, a trend Hupp hopes to continue next year with the company's production of Next to Normal.
Theatre companies that focus on a specific demographic may find it easier to find like-minded service organizations. This was the case when East West Players, a leading Asian-American troupe based in Los Angeles, presented Paul Kikuchi's Wrinkles earlier this year. The play, about an elderly Japanese man who scandalizes the grown daughter with whom he lives, had particular resonance for East West's audience, says Tim Dang, EWP's producing artistic director.
"In Asian households, many adult children take care of their parents at home," Dang explains. "There are many generations under one roof, which poses potential challenges." East West ended up teaming with Keiro Senior HealthCare, the largest health care provider serving the Japanese-American population, whose mandate includes offering services and counseling to adult children with elderly family members in their household.
All of the theatre companies surveyed here made it clear that the collaborative process does not extend to what transpires on stage. As Dang made clear, "We're the professionals when it comes to the art."
Given this dynamic, theatres run the risk of inviting an unwelcome spotlight on their own work if the collaborating organizations don't approve of the final product. Arkansas Rep invited members of the faith community to participate in its 2004 production of God's Man in Texas, a comedy set in a megachurch. "We knew some groups would take issue with the content," Hupp says, "and that's a risk we were willing to take. The more common thing was having preachers stand in their pulpits and tell their congregations to see the play.
"Sometimes it can get messy," Hupp continues, "and that's fine. I would rather be part of that conversation than have it happen without our involvement. I'm still going to do the show regardless of what they think. And they're going to have their opinions regardless of what I think. So why not get all of us talking about it together?"
A similarly charged discussion took place when Pillsbury House produced Blackbird, a play about a young woman who reconnects with the man with whom she had sex when she was 12. "Both parties feel they were in a relationship, which is a provocative point of view," Price notes. As it happens, Cordelia Anderson, a member of the theatre's advisory board, is a national authority on sexual violence; Price showed Anderson the script and asked her, "At the end, do you think producing this would do more good than harm?" After she said yes, the theatre enlisted the help of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which took part in discussions but also worked with the actors to assess their experiences with victims as well as victimizers.
In terms of proximity to prospective partners, Sojourn Theatre is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Pillsbury House. A nomadic company that creates each show on an ad hoc basis (its members are scattered in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Portland, Ore., where it is technically based), Sojourn is less able to forge longstanding alliances with any one group. Still, the roots it puts down with various collaborating organizations can be deep, says artistic director Michael Rohd.
Take Sojourn's most recent production, Finding Penelope, performed in March at Luther Manor, a senior living community in Wauwatosa, Wisc. The play, one component of Sojourn's multiyear Penelope Project, united Manor residents and Sojourn company members with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee's Center on Age & Community as well as the school's theatre department.
Partnering over time is a luxury for most subscription houses, but Rohd believes the core benefits of teamwork pertain in the short or the long run. "Real collaboration ultimately has to do with a shared discussion of what my assets are, what your assets are, and what we can learn from each other," he reasons. "These relationships help us contextualize both the work and the community."
Eric Grode is the author of Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation, recently released by Running Press.blog comments powered by Disqus
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