Read below to learn more about why I believe in the importance of community-based theatre, particularly in my part of the world.
Statement of Place
When I was very young, I knew my home was the whole of the universe. I loved walking with bare feet to the vibration of the grasshopper’s song in brown green grass that grew up over my head in the summertime and helping my father pull apart hay bales with gloved hands to toss in the snow for the horses in the winter. At any moment, I could stand back and take in the full view of the Bighorn Mountains that curved around my backyard off in the distance, in perfect asymmetrical balance.
Then my worldview began to grow beyond my mountains, always standing steady to the south, and I learned somehow that my home was meant just to be a jumping off point. Most young people leave my hometown— and usually the entire state of Wyoming—by the time they reach their twenties.
Once I had flown far away from Wyoming to the Hudson Valley of New York, I looked back with a longing I had not expected to feel. I realized that, though I thought I was leaving Wyoming behind me, I was still rooted in my homeplace. Wyoming tugged on me through my college years, inspiring me to study the myth and history of the American West.
I moved to Germany to continue investigating the allure of the American West, as an academic, from an even greater distance—perhaps personally testing the strength of my ties to my homeplace, wondering what length of time and space might break the bond.
But none did. The sense I have of my homeplace, whether I refer to it as the American West or Wyoming or the log house at the end of Darlington Road, is defined by a profound feeling of rootedness. This rootedness for me is a mixture of joy, groundedness, and duty as a result of a legacy founded on a complicated history.
If ‘sense of place’ is the making of meaning that occurs when people interact with their surroundings, then sense of place is just as much a reflection of the individuals and communities that foster it as it is an effect of the characteristics of the place itself.
The memories I have of growing up in Wyoming are real—so is the love I feel for that place. But that’s not to say that some of what makes up those memories and that love is not founded on some amount of mythology.
Nostalgia is a powerful force in that remembering, and therein recreating, experience can alter perception of a time and place in order to be able to look back on it with fondness. The truth is that the sense I have of my homeplace is not all truth. There are contradictions in the ways that sense of place develops in people.
*The above statement is composed of excerpts from my Master’s Thesis, “Roots of Our Welcome: Deepening Relationships to Food and Place Through Storytelling and Applied Theatre.”
Statement of Purpose
In his search for a regional grassroots theatre movement in the United States, Robert Gard explained in his book Community Theatre: Idea and Achievement that he hoped “that theatre should become a necessity in American life in terms of art fulfillment and not merely remain a community frill to be turned on and off for purposes of provided recreation or exercises in efficiency and management.” However, community theater in its current state is largely characterized as amateur theater made simply for the love of theater itself.
In her book Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States, Jan Cohen-Cruz explains, “Community theater is enacted by people who neither generate the material, shape it, work with professional guidance, nor apply it beyond an entertainment frame. There need not be any particular resonance between the play and that place and those people.”
Despite the current condition of community theater as a hobby in most places, it has its roots in the Little Theatre movement, which sprang to life after the turn of the Twentieth Century as rural and urban communities adjusted to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, one of which was the stark separation between work and leisure-time.
Little theatres were sites of local creativity and excitement. But by the 1950s, Gard bemoaned the direction, in which he saw so many small community theatres heading: “The first little theatres regarded themselves as cultural institutions, but in these days culture seems to be a by-product of a movement grown largely avocational in its objectives.”
It is important, at this point, to consider the reasons that community theatre should do more than entertain. What is the potential function and purpose of theater and art within the social ecosystem of a small-town?
For starters, the answer to that question can begin to be found in the origins of the Little Theatre movement. Gard wrote, “The original ideas of the founders of Community Theatre included the words ‘joy, creative, native, something in and above ourselves, fearlessness, high standards, freedom from mediocrity.’”
This same desire is connected to more contemporary designations, like what Jan Cohen-Cruz calls community-based performance. She explains, “Community-based performance is in the great tradition of art integrated into people’s lives, expressing and bestowing meaning.” Cohen-Cruz also specifies that community-based performance “values what is right there…[it] could only be made by a particular group of performers for a particular community context.”
If theater has the potential to inspire joy, creativity, and help people define what makes their community valuable, it can also be used as a tool for education.
Paulo Freire famously outlined in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed a kind of education, which he called “co-intentional,” that allows students and teachers to collaborate on an equal plane in order to understand and transform the world together.
Augusto Boal later developed theatrical tools that he found to be effective in empowering audiences in the same way Freire’s pedagogy sought to empower students. He broadly explored his methods in his book Theatre of the Oppressed.
Evidence of the potential of theater as an educational tool can be found in many cultures and countries. But theater has been held up by some as having a particular role in small American towns. In the early Twentieth Century, Percy MacKaye argued for theater as a tool for empowering citizens in a democracy.
MacKaye described in The Playhouse and the Play: And Other Addresses Concerning the Theatre and Democracy in America that he hoped through his writing to “clear the ground for the upbuilding–not in one city only but in all our greater American communities–of a permanently endowed theatrical institution, dedicated solely to dramatic art as a civic agency in the democracy: a civic theatre for the people.”
In small towns and cities alike, MacKaye envisioned that American democracy could be strengthened by communal self-expression through theater across the country. He wrote, “For true democracy is vitally concerned with beauty, and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship. When each is true to itself, there is no disruption of interests.” If a democracy is to function at its fullest potential, it needs education that is just and accessible to the people.
But just as a democracy needs education, it also needs art, because all three institutions are manifestations of the same principle–which is that people are brought closer to freedom when that freedom is on their own terms, according to their own design. This kind of freedom can only be realized and understood through acts of self-expression and self-representation.
At a time when the Little Theatre movement was growing, Percy MacKaye wrote that the cause of education is “the cause of how to be happy wisely”–and followed up by asking–“Is not this equally the legitimate cause of the theatre?”
Freedom and happiness have a precarious relationship to each other, especially in the American mythos. But if freedom can be linked at all to feelings of joy, then theater is potentially a marvelous pathway towards that destination–as is a mindful connection to one’s place in the world. Robert Gard wrote in Grassroots Theatre: A Search for Regional Arts in America, “The knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy in people’s lives.”
As a community-based theatre artist, I work to represent the particularities of place and people in my work and to bring participants closer to understanding themselves, the world, and their roles within it.
*The above statement has been written using excerpts from my report on an independent study that I completed in Summer 2018. The title of the report is “Back to the Local: Returning to Rural Spaces and Applying Theatre through Community-Based Performance.”
Statement of Pedagogy
Being an educator is about relationship building, and I believe strong relationships require respect, trust, clarity of expectation, and willingness to adjust. At the beginning of my career, when I worked in an elementary school as a Drama enrichment teacher and Special Education Classroom Assistant, I had to learn how to clearly establish high expectations for my young students. Then, I had to know how to hold my students to those expectations. I needed to have acute knowledge not only of my students’ limitations, but also of their unique abilities.
Working with high school students in the American Theater Company Youth Ensemble taught me the importance of building trust and balancing between extreme positions. I learned to simultaneously hold students to high expectations while adjusting expectations when absolutely necessary. The experience of mentoring that group of fourteen young people also taught me that transparency and relinquishing total control helps to build trust and empower students–but that anti-oppressive leadership still requires the willingness and vision to guide, advise, and make decisions.
Now, when I work with students and participants of various ages in classrooms and workshops, I am reminded how often young people are regarded as lacking in something, which is also sometimes true of adult learners–and even entire rural communities. Culture and knowledge are alike in that they do not exist without and they are not created elsewhere.
When I facilitate or teach, I begin sessions and classes with questions and activities to assess where my students are starting with a concept or topic. I listen carefully for offerings that I can emphasize or dig deeper into so that the students become the co-teachers with me and for each other. This approach ensures that the different kinds of knowledge are prioritized and that multiple voices are heard. It also strengthens feelings of competency, connection, and value.
Teachers are often concerned with identifying the skills that students will gain through a planned course–which is important. But I believe it is equally important for teachers to understand what skills their students already possess at the beginning. Understanding the assets of students–and the communities, to which those students belong–enables educators, learners, and communities at-large to celebrate and leverage existing strengths while building new ones. Asset-based thinking in teaching and cultural development promotes the idea that students are not voids to be filled, rather that they are generators of creativity and powerful agents in their own lives and the lives of those around them.
When I approach a group of students for the first time, I make sure to check any assumptions I have made and remain open to the possibility–really, the inevitability–of surprise. The surprises that pop up in a classroom can feel like a kind of magic. The unexpected making of connections between new and old knowledge, ideas, or people is not only present in an exciting classroom, but it is also a hallmark of theater. I consider theater to be the ultimate artform, encompassing the full capability of the human mind and body–from the human ability to produce beautiful sounds, make stunning shapes in movement on stage and in color on a canvas, and incite moments of humor and thoughtfulness through language.
The multimodal nature of creating theater lends itself to asset-based, student-centered, and multidisciplinary learning. The skill set that it takes to be a theatermaker is applicable to artists, tradespeople, citizens, and professionals of all kinds. This is why I love teaching theatrical skills and directing theatrical productions as much as I love facilitating applied theater workshops. Community-based theater is valuable as an artform and as a means of transferring different kinds of knowledge.
At the heart of my approach to teaching and mentorship is a persistent commitment to upholding the dignity of my students, my colleagues, and myself. Like any great endeavor, education does not happen in a vacuum, and it is not unilateral. Teachers need students just like students need teachers. This symbiotic relationship is enhanced, I have found, when the power and responsibility of the teacher is carefully exercised with compassion and intentionality rather than intimidation. As Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy emphasizes, students need to be centered as active agents in their own learning, on a level plane with their teachers. Furthermore, as an educator, I need reciprocal support among my fellow educators and myself in order for everyone to continue to grow and be ever better. Education is a communal activity.