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Nathan Thomas
Theatre In The Community
   Community In The Theatre 
And Community Theatre:
   (They Ain’t All The Same)
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June 2012

Guthrie, Oklahoma taught me about changing attitudes toward history.

If you haven't been to the Sooner State recently, Guthrie served as the Territorial Capitol.  Folks intended Guthrie to be the state capital.  You've not heard about Guthrie because the first governor, Charles Haskell, was of one political party.  The major newspaper was run by a member of the other party.  Haskell said he'd fix that and move the capital.  Or so the story goes.  Reality, of course, was messier and more humdrum and took more time than the story.

But it makes for a good story.

Guthrie's downtown buildings up and down Oklahoma and Harrison avenues showcase some breathtaking examples of Victorian architecture.  Starting as a capital city, folks hired actual architects – like Joseph Foucart – to design the buildings.  But the capital left.  The Depression came and went.  World War II came and went.  And in the post-war years, who wanted to look at a bunch of old fashioned Victorian buildings?

Consequently, new owners put bright, new aluminum facades on their buildings.  Fortunately, the new facades were just attached on front of the old facades, providing a kind of protective surface.  Later, in the late 1970s it became the fashion to like old things again. So, off came the aluminum facades.

Today tourists come to Guthrie to see a solid collection of Victorian architecture.

The moral of this story is that throughout history people have had different relationships with their own histories.  Some folks, like the ancient Egyptians, seem to have wanted to achieve a kind of historical stasis century after century.  Other cultures seem to have wanted nothing to do with their own past – looking forward to the future instead.

The United States of America finds itself once again in the crosshairs of choice.  Where will we look?  Will we look forward?  Will we look back?  And what does each look mean?

Recently Mr. Obama created a stir by declaring that he affirmed his approval of loving, same sex couples having the same right to marriage that heterosexual couples have had.  That a president affirming loving families caused anything resembling a stir shows how weird we are as a nation.

Immediately some of my evangelical brothers and sisters spoke out about marriage being a relationship between one man and one woman.  I simply ask my colleagues to read about the domestic life of Jacob (nee' Israel) and King David – arguably two men who served the Lord and prospered by the Lord in turn.  Suffice to say if we look to the Bible for advice on this issue, we're immediately in the polygamous realm of our Mormon brothers and sisters.  But let that pass.

Ultimately we always come back to the family.

Families are enormously complicated.  Love is hard.  Families are hard.  If you didn't love those people, you could just walk away and feel nothing.  But you don't walk away.  You stay.  And you work through the troubles and the issues.  And love makes the happiness more than worth the troubles.  And if sundering becomes necessary, the detaching process hurts all the more.

Pretty much everyone at every time and every place knows these truths. Obligation to family and the extended family that makes up your tribe have been part of human nature as long as there have been humans.  People who break from the tribe have always been considered unusual and strange.

Who is us?  How do we identify we?  In an ancient part of our brains we know that we are meant to identify with our tribe.

Plays ranging from Antigone to Long Day's Journey Into Night rely on this central, fundamental understanding of human nature.  It makes no difference if the play was written 2500 years ago or yesterday, humans remain stubbornly human.

Then there is the extended family.  It may not be far-fetched to suppose that in a tribal structure of ancient times that early settlements grew out of the combinations of extended families.

'Community' (as a word or concept) serves many purposes for many speakers.  A government policy official might speak of the "community of nations."  A professional journal might write of the "community of lawyers."  Politicians certainly speak of strengthening our communities.  Some of our readers might work in a community theater. Although community exists not as a static concept, commonalties exist between these usages.   

Each of these communities survives through the same obligations of person to tribe.  But as the lines of connection become more tenuous, the tension between individual and community gains more tension.  What are the needs of the individual compared to the needs of the community?  We see this when a big time athlete leaves one town for another with the promise of a bigger salary.

At the core of each usage of "community" is an appeal to loosen the tension between the individual and the group -- an appeal to deal with any existing conflicts between the desires of the individual and the group.  For example, nations may war with nations, but the 'community of nations' seems to imply a tacit desire that each individual nation within that community will work to further the common goals of the group to the betterment of each individual nation and the group.

Community creation, like any task of making, is not always an easy task. The earliest and most basic community we call 'family' is not always easy.  But, as with successful family relationships, the process of building or strengthening successful community relationships can be rewarding both for the group *and* the group's members.

Shared experience builds communities.  A romantic couple builds a link, however tenuous and of whatever nature, and starts a new group.   The families tied by their shared experiences and history make a tribe.  Friends and co-workers hunt for mastodon in ancient days or for the Smythe account tomorrow.   

They win, and they lose.   

But they build the bonds that make community. Soon, communities of all kinds spring up – from tribes and families to Star Trek conventions.   

Sometimes our large, heterogeneous, diverse, polyglot society seems beyond the building of communities.  Today the exurban worker sleeps, cocooned in a McMansion in a gated community like the hundreds of other strangers each in their McMansions and drives to work in an office block that's separated from anything other than other exurban office blocks.  The worker sits in a cubicle or (if awfully lucky) a real office separated from other workers.  The workers stop by the mega-mart and buy groceries from a high school kid who's also a stranger, and go home to sleep.

This is why we need the arts.

The arts provide many of the shared experiences through which people can build or strengthen community.  Music, naturally, can provide a certain kind of shared experience for many.  But the narrative arts embodied in the theater, film and video have a special place in providing experiences by providing tangible stories, by showing tangible relationships, by portraying a wealth of human experience.   

We live in a nation today where we need more science and engineering people. Every day another report comes down the pipeline of how this school or that town don't have time in the school day nor the money to continue the arts program.  I agree we need more scientists.  The USA needs more folks who can do the math well.     

But, more than ever, we need to remind our children and ourselves that we are all human.  Every one of us is human.  And the arts provide that shared communal experience.

Guthrie, Oklahoma has been the home of the Pollard Theatre since 1987.  I left town, and they opened a theatre.  I've had that effect on folks from time to time.  In a sense, the Pollard is the best of what a community theatre should be. The Pollard is a professional theatre. The actors and staff get paid. But it is a community theatre in the sense that it is a theatre that exists within a community for its residents and its guests.

In theatre we create hierarchies.  A kind of pecking order exists.  Broadway actors have more cachet than the actors who work in, say, Kansas City.  So within the theatrical community we start to find ways to create tensions between those who've "made" it and those who haven't.  Is the Broadway production necessarily better than the Pollard production? Who gets to say?

Regardless the location, the audience wants to have an authentic, shared experience with us as artists and with each other as an audience.  The arts strengthen the bonds between individuals.  By experiencing our human-ness together artists and audience alike share the common experience of being human together.  The experience of being human.  In our hunt for new and better technologies and solutions to our technological problems – we must remember the reason for all that work in the first place.  We are humans.  In a community.  Together.

That's what the arts can do.  And that's why we need them. Everywhere.  Regularly. Cradle to grave.

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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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June 2012

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