Community Definition and Community Theater
This paper considers the historical and cultural developments of a community, and what that means for the theater located within it.
How do we define a “community”? This is neither easy nor trivial, particularly if we want to find a way to draw that community together to become involved in a community-based theater. Do we define a community by geographical location? Common religion? Common language? Cultural heritage? Common history? Political ideology? Social outlook? If we want to involve the community in the theater, we have to understand what the community consists of.
This paper will examine culture and history, which are two of the many factors that make communities possible; we also want to look at how they sustain the communities they create.
II General Comments
Theaters and the theatrical experience are common to all people; I can’t think of a country or culture that doesn’t have a theatrical tradition, even if it’s only a shaman telling stories. The idea of someone getting up and giving information to others in the form of plays, songs, recitals, dance, stories, poems—in other words, by a method that requires one person or persons to perform before others, is universal. Perhaps the question that we should consider is what type of historical and cultural constructs would lead to the formation of a community in which theater is important.
III Community as an Historical Construct
One source describes “community” as an evolutionary process that is closely tied to the concept of citizenship. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, citizenship has been an integral and important part of community. “Citizenship” in this context means more than simply being born in a specific place, it means actually taking an active part in public life, being aware of the issues and taking part in governance. This democratic model that began in Greece was less apparent in the Roman Empire; in fact, “Greece gave us participatory citizen democracy, Rome gave us universal citizenship.” (“Historical Development of Citizenship and Community,” PG). That is, the Greeks were expected to take part in their government, whereas the Romans extended citizenship to the people in the Empire. “The idea of Alexander the Great, to create a brotherhood of mankind, became a reality in the Roman Empire. One did not have to be born in Rome to become a citizen, as was the requirement in Athens. Outsiders were welcome and able to receive the high honor of becoming Roman citizens.”
Christianity changed this concept of duty to the state into duty to self and the church community. (This is not the type of community we have in mind, though.) As Christianity grew in importance, the church began to take over the duties and responsibilities previously performed by private citizens, and there was a decline in the education level of the general public. Democracy too began to decline and true democracy vanished until the French and American revolutions. (“Historical Development of Citizenship and Community,” PG).
Two principal schools of thought carried community forward: Renaissance and civic humanity. The Renaissance idea was for a balanced and unchanging republic; the civic humanist idea was based on property rights and the acquisition of property. We can follow the development of the idea of citizenship and community through various forms of government (representative democracy, participatory democracy, etc.), but I think we may be getting rather far afield. This document defines community thusly:
“This sharing of the power is the key principle of Thayer’s “Essence of Community.” He identifies the problem in terms of the “professional-citizen dichotomy.” Each party separates from the other because of either status, expertise, and/or roles. If, on the other hand, citizens were considered professional citizens, the status and role may be erased. The issue at hand becomes the place from which the participants begin to deliberate and reach consensus or some conclusions. Mansbridge believes that it is this consensus building process that focuses attention on the different arguments and places the onus on those participants to see the whole picture. The highest act of citizenship is involvement.” (“Historical Development of Citizenship and Community,” PG).
In short, then, a historical definition of community suggests that the citizens of any community must be involved in their own governance. This, then, would suggest that only entities that have some sort of government qualify as communities; towns, cities, countries, counties—these would be communities. But are there communities without government that are also recognized as discrete units? The answer is definitely “yes” (the community of “Star Trek” fans, for example); and that means that the historical approach is not sufficient to explain all communities. We need to look at the cultural aspects as well.
IV Community as a Cultural Construct
Common sense would tell us that people who have similar interests can be considered a community. Movie buffs, railroad fans, writers—people who share a common interest can be said to form a community. What is the relationship between a community and its culture? Here’s one definition, and I think it’s fairly widely accepted:
“Culture is a complicated word that has many different usages. Also, there are differing opinions about how culture should be defined. Most people would generally agree that culture is a set of customs, beliefs, rules, behaviors, and identities that constitute a “system” or “way of living” for a particular people. Although we might refine that definition, the common view is that “culture” is a system of living that connects people to their surrounding world.” (“Borders of Community,” PG).
We may feel that we belong to the “American” culture as defined by national policies, politics, society and ideology, but at the same time we may also be part of a culture that has narrower boundaries such as race, class, sexual orientation or social status. Our culture gives us the ideas we find acceptable, the beliefs we live by—and that nebulous thing known as “taste.” It’s our culture that tells us that we should laugh at this and gasp at that; that such an act is indecent while this one is not; it’s our culture that comes into play when we decide what is suitable entertainment for us and our families.
V Implications for Community Theater
How do we relate these ideas of community to the theater? The historical view tells us that a “community” has a government, and that in turns implies a finite geographical area: communities do not go on forever; there are boundaries where they run up against other communities. In order to serve this geographical community, then, the theater manager will want to do a basic demographic study to see who makes up this community. The basic reason for doing such a study is economic: the theater is a wonderful cultural resource, but it also has to make money. It’s useless to put on plays that no one will see, so the management needs to know what their potential audience base is.
There are dozens of examples, but let’s just consider a few. Theater tickets are expensive, so the management will want to know where the more affluent neighborhoods are, and target most of their advertising there.
Theater can be demanding physically. People may have to park and walk, sit for long periods of time, drive at night, or even stand for performances (and you thought “standing room only” was just a saying). Therefore, the management will probably not want to target those segments of the population that are elderly or infirm as heavily as other demographic groups, though certainly no segment should be excluded.
Theater is also a marvelous educational experience, so the management will need to consider whether – and how – to reach students. All theaters have student prices, but some also have special programs that teach students about acting or production, and management will want to know where the students are so it can reach them.
All of these activities are based upon the idea of community as a geographical area. But the type of plays presented is dependent upon an entirely different idea of community: that of a cohesive cultural group.
As we’ve seen, culture is extremely difficult to define, but I think that viewing culture as a set of customs and beliefs that constitute a system of living for a particular group of people is workable when we try to apply it to a community theater.
In order to have a successful theater, we must draw both our players and our audience from the surrounding community. That community will be a certain geographical area, but within that area are other divisions, cultural ones, that we must consider (any major city’s “Chinatown” is a good example of a discrete cultural community within a geographical community).
The geographical community is actually less important, because generally speaking, there comes a point at which it’s simply too far for the patron to come to the theater, unless of course he’s wealthy. So we know that we are only concerned with potential audience members who live within “X” miles of us. The question is, How to appeal to them? This is where culture comes in.
It won’t do to stage a production rife with anti-Semitism in a Jewish community; nor would a smart manager mount a play that bashes Mexican immigrants (if such a thing exists) in a Hispanic community. A conservative audience that bristles at the mere idea of homosexuality is going to walk out on “The Boys in the Band” and won’t come to see “Rent” on a bet.
Still, the history and culture of a community keep it vital, by giving its members a sense of continuity, and by bringing them into contact with others who share their beliefs and values. It’s the job of the theater management to discover what the cultures are that are geographically near the theater, and from there, decide if he or she will try to present only the plays that appeal to that group; or if they want to challenge the audience by presenting something new. Community theater tends toward “chestnuts,” mostly I think because there is a certain comfort level for both the audience and the performers—who are non-Equity and may not really even be interested in acting—in doing a familiar piece. Everybody knows where the jokes are, and everybody laughs. There’s nothing wrong with simply having fun, but if the theater management wants to grow at all, that will not be enough. It’s when they decide to try to expand the repertoire that they must understand the community they serve.
Community theater is first and foremost, great fun. It gives stage-struck kids (and adults) an opportunity to ham it up in front of their friends, and see what it might be like to make a living as an actor. Backstage is also a great learning experience for those who wonder about it. But even though community theater is a far cry from Broadway, performers, directors and other theater personnel want to succeed. If they are to do so, they have to be aware of the history and culture of their neighbors; they have to know their community.
“Borders of Community.” [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 30 Apr 2003. http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/bordertexts/chapters/framing/chiii.html
“Historical Development of Citizenship and Community.” [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 29 Apr 2003. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-031599-173954/unrestricted/etd4.pdf