The world is a mess and everything is terrible. Thankfully, community theaters and other local theatre organizations are uniquely suited for helping those in their community and for chipping away at the inequality heaped onto marginalized people. By using influence in local spheres change attitudes, opinions, and realities, and directly assist the communities and patrons they serve, theatre organizations can become genuine, active forces for good.
If your theatrical institution has ever performed Hairspray, or The Laramie Project, or Les Mis, or Ragtime, or Newsies, or Almost, Maine, or Cabaret, or Urinetown, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Hair, or She Kills Monsters, or Miss Saigon, or Rent, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Billy Elliot, or West Side Story, or Fun Home, or South Pacific, or Once on This Island, or any other musical about poverty, racism, homophobia, or confronting general bigotry and inequality, and you have profited off of or otherwise benefited from that work, then it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t be hypocritical theater: you cannot profit from these works while not ensuring enactment of their anti-bigotry themes and messages in your real-world actions. While performing these works is already important on its own, ensuring their messages are adopted in your organization’s daily activities is far more crucial.
Do you want your organization to be a benefit to the community who buys tickets? Hopefully. Do you want your community to be vibrant, safe, and inclusive? You should. Do you only want to be a purveyor of entertainment, or do you want to actually talk the talk, walk the walk, and make some real change with your own hands?
This might sound utterly idealistic, but I believe it’s not only possible– I believe it’s so possible any theatre organization that neglects even modest attempts to uphold these virtues is not worth its ticket prices.
So how can we, as theatre creators, directors, and administrators begin taking strides in the right direction? Here are 10 ideas.
1. Pledge to be a purveyor of education and guidance… not only entertainment
As I mentioned, performing works that deal with difficult themes is an important task every theatre organization must take on. In fact, when you really look at the plots of many plays and musicals, it’s nearly impossible to find good shows that don’t touch upon some important issue. Therefore, assuming your theatrical season isn’t entirely sterile, every theatre group can do this.
Step one, then, is to ensure your theatrical season isn’t sterile. If you’re exclusively performing mindless fluff with no important takeaways for the audience or community as a whole, consider making some programming changes. Being relevant and meaningful will serve you better.
When performing works about themes like race, religion, sexuality, gender, mental health, poverty or inequality, bigotry, addiction, or any other meaningful subject, you become, in a small sense, an organization of education. We can take it a step further.
That’s step two: Ensure you perform these works accurately, respectfully, and tastefully. Aim to educate (without proselytizing) both your casts and audiences. If possible, hold talkbacks about pertinent issues, or invite guest speakers to discuss the show’s context. Get creative! It’s important you find ways to not only perform informative works, but also use your resources to educate your community on a deeper level.
2. Empower local youth and impoverished, marginalized, and other struggling people
Ensure marginalized groups have a place in your organization, including but definitely never limited to “audience member.” This means ensuring your productions are accessible to the underprivileged, disabled, or differently abled. For instance, if possible, consider enacting a system of cheap rush ticketing or other ticket discounting. You might start designating special “accessible performances” which will include less abrasive lighting and sound cues, ASL translation, or closed captioning. While not every measure will be attainable for every organization, my main point stands: serving all of your community is a must.
Further, ensure these people can involve themselves more thoroughly in your organization if they so desire. Especially encourage underprivileged and marginalized people to join your casts, production teams, volunteer groups, or administrative councils where applicable. Especially encourage unique, diverse individuals to direct, choreograph, and design your shows!
3. Uplift silenced voices
In a similar vein to the previous point, become a megaphone for the voices of those who go unheard. Ensure marginalized voices are represented in your organization as well as your programming choices.
Seek to produce shows created by marginalized people, even and especially when these do not directly pertain to issues of marginalization. A common mistake in organizations run by white people is to feature works by (for example) people of color only when those works are directly about or relate to racism. Marginalized people have experiences that aren’t bigotry, too! If you only ever perform works by marginalized people about the issues they face, you’re only telling part of their story.
Finally, uplift marginalized voices not just on stage, but in your community. As an organization, make an effort to visibly, vocally support local businesses or organizations run by people of color, as well as businesses and organizations that assist impoverish and marginalized people.
3. Keep your ear to the voices of your community, and be engaging even while being entertaining
Analyze and make use of the attitutdes in your community. If your community is racist or otherwise bigoted, know you (yes, YOU!) have work to do, and engage appropriately. Perhaps more crucially, listen to what local queer folk and POC are saying– about your programming, about the state of theatre worldwide, about society and the world itself– and use these messages to be creatively relevant and meaningful. Your attentiveness will be appreciated.
Ensure you keep up these efforts even when your primary goal is entertainment. Yes, I’ve already established that theatre should be more than entertaining. However, there’s nothing wrong with being entertaining. Hopefully, every theater is! And no matter how dire your activism is, everyone needs the release and morale boost of pure entertainment now and then. The value of a safe, inclusive source of entertainment really can’t be overstated.
Just remember, if the entertainment you provide is not inclusive, it serves your community no benefit, and may have the opposite intended effect altogether.
4. Foster community connections and become a community center rather than simply a theatre business
One issue throttling American society is the belief that every man is an island. We all suffer when we isolate ourselves and fight against each other rather than our enemies! Therefore, one of the most important things your organization (any organization, for that matter) can do to help us all is help create a caring, connected community.
Many school and community theatre organizations are already towing this line. Theatre goes so naturally hand-in-hand with community service and education that it only makes sense that theatre organizations should step up in this regard!
Yet, on the surface, this might seem hard for a theatre business to achieve. Unless you’re performing or otherwise assisting the production, the intercommunicating at a performance should be pretty minimal. The audience shouldn’t be talking at all!
This is where events like classes, dinners, after school programs, talkbacks, and discussion groups come into play. Anything you can do to encourage people to talk to and get to know each other is of benefit! You might also consider setting up mutual aid groups that run food, clothing, or other types of supply drives and distribution events. As many theatre groups rely on significant volunteer labor, this is an excellent way to give back, and you may find many interested workers among your volunteer cadres.
If you are only profiting off of your community without offering them assistance, your theatrical productions are not serving them as well as you think. Pledge to be active in your activism rather than putting on a few shows about racism and thinking your work is complete! Engage in outreach constantly so that you may become a centerpiece of your community rather than another business taking their money.
5. Ensure not everything you do is monetized
In other words, have some stuff for free sometimes.
Yes, all organizations need to make money. No, you should obviously not go out of business to attempt to offer free programming. However, hosting some free activities ensure the impoverished and financially insecure in your community can enjoy your organization’s work.
If you don’t think a totally free event is attainable to your organization, consider hosting an event that is “pay what you want.” Inevitably, some people will be very generous, whereas others with less financial means can contribute as able. You could also open the option for patrons to donate an amount to “sponsor” a participant in an activity. This way, you can still make the same amount per participant, while those without means can still participate.
6. Be an outspoken activist and a relentless support network
As an organization, never “talk less, smile more.” By staying silent on issues of oppression, you assist oppressors. Be vocal always, and assist those who are also vocal.
As an organization, you intrinsically must understand the concept that many people can do what one alone cannot. Organizations are only powerful as a result of the work of many people. Therefore, uplifting allies in and around your community is a necessity.
Ensure your efforts are relentless. Do not rest on your laurels or feel like your work is ever complete. There is always work to be done!
7. Give bigots no quarter in your organization
Especially at the highest levels of your organization. Bigoted board members, leaders, or other administrative figures should be expelled immediately. If they do not agree that an organization as dependent on community support as a theater should support their community members in turn, they are not an ally of your organization. Further, they tarnish and may impede any prospects of anti-bigotry all other members of your group may pursue.
The same is true for all bigots in your organization. It should be made clear that your theater will not be home to nor support those who would harm or disrespect marginalized members of your community.
If you allow bigots in your ranks, you cannot be an anti-bigoted organization. Weigh your priorities accordingly.
10. Encourage others to follow your lead
Though they may have a huge impact on their immediate community and localities, one theater group can’t change the world. To do that, you’ll need help!
That’s why you must always encourage others to continue the work you are beginning. Help others establish community-serving organizations, even if they’re not related to theatre at all, and support as allies other theaters who share altruistic values.
By working together, we can all do something great. That’s the basic idea of theatre– and it’s how we can start to solve the problems of the world, as well!