Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Obligatory Community Post

I was going to do an post about the Lydia Diamond article from the NYT a few weeks back and then tie it into some of the conversation bouncing around about community...but then, basically, I lost interest about a third of the way through.

Here's what I think about community:

A) You define it for yourself. If "community" for you has geographical limits, cool. if it has to do with lifestyle choices, background, race, fine by me. Whatever you feel connected to, whatever you want to connect to, whoever you're trying to reach, that's all fine by me.

B) But you don't get to define it for anyone else. You don't get to tell me that my community isn't a community because it's not defined by geographic bounds or it's too homogeneous or heterogeneous or whatever. If my community is theatre people, and that's the audience I want, that's my lookout. It doesn't mean my theatre is less valid than yours.

C) THEATRE IS A COMMUNITY ACTIVITY. Period. I can not stress this enough. It's made by community, it's produced by community, it's enjoyed by community. The big question is what community is it for? I firmly believe that theatre is an instructive art. It is meant to teach us something about life, about our life, about the way life should be, about the lives we are or should be leading. I don't mean this is the simplistic didactic sense of finger-wagging morality. I mean it in the big picture, "hold a mirror up to nature" sense. We reflect and amplify life. Why? To educate a community.

One of the plays I saw this weekend (and you can pretty easily guess which one) was very much about the inner workings and existence of wealthy, well-to-do, literate upper middle-class white people who live in Manhattan. In the end, it carried a message meant for that community, that segment of the population. It may not hit other populations in the bull's-eye and I don't think that the playwright cared particularly about that. He had something to say to those people. And he said it.

We have this way of talking about our community as though all we should be doing is venerating them. Sometimes we scold. Sometimes we mock. Sometimes we spew venom and say "how dare you live this way?" But we should always know who we're talking to. Some of the plays I write are meant for white audiences. Some of the plays I write are meant for black audiences. I don't speak to them the same way, about the same things. Some are meant for mixed audiences. Sometimes I know this going in. Sometimes I figure it out later. But that's part of the artist's intention. Not all messages are meant for everyone. There are dog-whistles, codewords, shibboleths a-plenty. That's okay. Writers have been doing that for centuries. Making work that's universal is never a matter of losing touch with yourself or your community. It's about connecting to the human places in you and in your community. And knowing who you're talking to.

21 comments:

Scott Walters said...

I totally agree about knowing who you are talking to -- something that it is very difficult to do with many of our current systems of marketing, which isn't focused. I'm curious: how to you treat the plays you write for white audiences differently than for African-American audiences? Do you send them to different theatres? Do you let the theatres know who they are "for"?

As far a A is concerned, predictably I disagree. There has been a lot of research done into the concept of community, and I have only read some of it, but everything I've read makes its first order of business a definition of community. Not all of the studies define it identically, and there are some changes being wrought by, for instance, on-line communities, but overall there tends to be a bedrock definition. We can't just take a term that has a history or research behind it and relativize it out of existence because we find it inconvenient. When you do, you end up with C, in which the "community" is used to mean "people." A group of individual is not a community, it is a group of individuals. Words mean things, and we need to respect that fact.

99 said...

To your question, part of how I treat them differently is in the actual writing: the subject matter, the final lesson. The other part is in terms of where I am to have them produced, what audience I seek out. Not every play is meant to play in every house, in a lot of different ways. And the audience that I want seeing it is different, depending on the play.

Onto the notion of "community," no one is just talking about a "group of people." What exactly do you object to? What definition of "community" am I violating? I'm making it my first order of business, but my definition doesn't (apparently) line up with yours. Personally, I define community as a group of people bound together by a common factor. That factor can change and most people are part of several communities. I myself am part of several, sometimes conflicting communities. What am I violating by defining some of them differently than you define yours.

This is really what I was talking about when I was talking about engagement vs. debate. You seem to need my definition of community to match yours before we can begin to discuss anything. Even when, as you point out in your comment, definitions vary. It's maddening, to be honest.

ukejackson said...
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ukejackson said...
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99 said...

Um...So? I'm from the suburbs of New York where community means if your neighbor's lawn needs mowing, you mow it. I live in New York City where community means that when one of my neighbors is assaulted, I spread the word and get the police to respond. I'm part of the theatre community which means that if my friend's theatre is holding a benefit, I come out and throw in a couple of bucks. I'm part of the black community which means that when a black man in Texas is discriminated against, I write a letter or protest in the streets of New York. I'm also part of a multicultural community so I felt pride when I voted to elect a white president in 1992.

Community does not only equal "small town where everyone knows each other." It means a lot of levels of human interaction and connection. And a play can be aimed at any part of any community.

I don't trust any definition of community that excludes any part of my life. I have many, many communities and telling me that I don't is not an actual argument.

99 said...

And I do have an online community where if something good happens to a friend a publicize it.

If we go around, drawing distinctions and saying "This isn't a community," all we're doing is denying people their connections. What good is that doing?

macrogers said...

Scott, what is the overall bedrock definition of community? If you've already written about this, do you mind linking?

Uke, how does your definition of community apply to the making of theater?

ukejackson said...
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Scott Walters said...

Wikipedia is a good place to start. They note that there is not agreement about a definition (which is not the same as saying a word is meaningless, or open to any definition we might want to give it). Here is the traditional definition; "a group of interacting people living in a common location. The word is often used to refer to a group that is organized around common values and social cohesion within a shared geographical location, generally in social units larger than a household. The word can also refer to the national community or global community."

So: 1) interaction; 2) common location; 3) shared values; 4) social cohesion; 5) larger than a household.

99 -- it isn't that we have to agree on the definition 100%, but we have to agree that there IS a definition (at least that there are things that fall outside that definition), and that our definition should recognize that there has been a long conversation and much research prior to our conversation.

However, I think the actual issue isn't about the definition of "community," but by the fact that I put greater value on a community that is defined as a function of geography rather than individual choice. That is a value statement on my part. Would I say that doing plays for your friends isn't a "community"? No -- it fits the definition offered above. So does a gated community in a wealthy suburb. I tend to see more value in a heterogeneous group that is not created by choice. And that is partly a response to those who would call a rural community "homogeneous" simply because they think it is all white (as I've said before, there are many vectors of diversity, and there are few places that are homogenous -- unless, like a gated community, they are chosen).

The fact is that I have, in the past, encouraged people to create theatre for their friends, and then expand the audience through those friends. But drawing a equivalency between this chosen community and a community drawn together randomly through geography is simply inaccurate. That is my only point, made to draw a distinction between those who would erase that distinction as a way of devaluing small and rural communities.

ukejackson said...

Apologies for the waste of band width. My interactive communication skills are lacking at the moment. Another time, another conversation. Thanks.

99 said...

But Scott, you're also valuing one group that's united by geographic proximity over another. And ignoring the whole notion of moving to a place as a matter of choice to find people who share your values. The way you're defining it, it's as though the people who live in rural areas are all born, live their lives, make their work and see theatre all in one area. We both know that's not true. People move, by choice, sometimes by circumstance to rural areas. People move to urban areas, sometimes by choice.

Let's just be clear: I don't know a single NY theatre artist that is proudly doing shows meant just for "their friends," a homogeneous group completely self-selected that all look alike. Can you point me to a single person who is actively doing that? A major concern, particularly for smaller companies, is that the cost of outreach and marketing is so high that sometimes it winds up being their friends, but that's never the intention. All theatre companies are reaching out to a community. It may be the community that you or I deem as most in need, but it's still a community. The theatre community in New York is a community, brought together by a number of shared circumstances, values and experiences, but covering a wide swath of people.

Communities aren't always just random, either in cities or in rural areas, or exurbs.

I understand the concern that, on more than one occasion, many of us city-dwellers stereotype rural areas. But the reverse is true: our communities aren't all upper-middle class, privileged, degree-holding aesthetes. There are a lot of communities, even within the theatre community, but very much within the geographic location that is New York. And it's not all created by choice in order to play on Broadway.

Scott Walters said...

I think we are largely in agreement, to be honest.

By the way, I a not valuing one group OVER another, but rather valuing them AS MUCH AS another, which is perceived as being a slap against urban areas because we are SUPPOSED to value urban communities MORE than others. (It never ceases to amaze me how personally affronted some Nylachians get if you suggest that the artistic sun doesn't rise and set in the 100- zip code).

I agree that people in our society choose their communities (or, in the case of job offers, they are chosen by communities). It goes one step further when a gated community creates rules that homogenize the populace -- I think we'd both agree that this isn't such a good thing. I happen to think that when artists huddle together too much, they create an intellectual gated community that works against the creative health that is created by different viewpoints.

I'm not for monocultures in agriculture or in human culture -- polyculture is stronger, and more resistant to disease.

99 said...

You're right; I think we are largely in agreement. And I do absolutely agree that insularity is an issue to be addressed in any community that huddles too close together and something that artists need to deal with.

But this isn't just knee-jerk hometown defense. If what happens in NYC (which, by the by, does contain, in Manhattan alone, about 50 100+ zip codes) is the equivalent of what happens in Salisbury, NC, then it's equal. If artists are performing "just for their friends" in NYC and that's bad, then artists performing "just for their friends" in Salisbury is also bad. I don't need the sun to rise and set on the Empire State Building. But I do need for what's bad in New York to be bad in North Carolina. And what's good in North Carolina to be good in New York.

In terms of art, if the plays going on in those gated communities reinforce the choice to separate, I think that's bad. For me, at the end of the day, really, it's about what the art is saying to the community. If the art can only be understood by chosen members, if critiques from outside are rejected and if it's main purpose is to reinforce the nature of that community, it fails as art. No matter where it is.

In terms of the big picture, we're very much in agreement: our government should be dividing funds equitably amongst those who need it. All communities need art and should have support for that.

But my community, my zip code (10034, in case you're wondering) should have its own art, its own voice, distinct from 10036. And it does. Even when that art happens in 10036.

joshcon80 said...

You live in Inwood? I used to live on 215th St, the northern most street in Manhattan. I'd look out my bedroom window and see the woods and eagles and shit. You could go hiking when it was nice out.

99 said...

Where on 215th? I'm on Seaman and 214th!

Though I actually haven't been in Inwood Park for a while. Winter and all...

DPS said...

Sorry to get into this so late, but I also think that the definition of "community" as being something geographically bound -- though obviously historically accurate -- is becoming less and less true. One of the saving graces of this ol' series of tubes called the internet is that it's making that particular definition of community obsolete (I think for the better, but also for the more confusing.)

RVCBard said...

I've found that communities are not so much identities as they are experiences. I've always been interested in places where communities intersect, both within and outside of individuals. There are some pretty intriguing dynamics involved there that too often get ignored when focusing entirely on one community or the other.

99 said...

You and me both. All the interesting stuff happens in the borders, where things rub against each other and there's friction.

I didn't mean that to come out so porn-y...

RVCBard said...

Bow chicka wow-wow!

joshcon80 said...

99, I can't remember what my address was. Truth be told, I was living in my boss's apartment who lived upstate most of the time. But my bedroom window overlooked the park. it was so, so beautiful.

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