Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Thing About Community

No, not that Community (though I think there might be a post coming about that sometime soon), but the big idea "community." Over here, I wound up touching on some of this stuff, but I wanted to come back to it, especially after a day when I did something that is a bit new for this blog: plugged a couple of shows directly. Honestly, I felt a little weird about it. I did. Maybe it's still some remnants of my old anonymous persona coming out, giving me the finger and calling me a sell-out. Maybe it's pre-emptive fear of the less-commercial ends of the theatre blogosphere doing the same. I don't know. But it got me thinking about how we think about community and how we perceive it. Or at least how I perceive it. Or how I perceive how we perceive it. Or something.

Maybe it's coming from a fractured, blended, more than slightly fucked-up family situation, I don't know, but I've spent a lot of my life looking at communities (which are often just families writ large) and trying to figure out how they work. That's how I come to theatre, how I come to writing, one of the reasons I've always been attracted to large cast, ensemble plays and ensemble theatre companies. The dynamics of people in groups fascinates me. And watching how it translates out here in the theatre blogosphere fascinates me even more, even when it frustrates me.

When I wrote "THEATRE IS A COMMUNITY ACTIVITY," I really meant it. That's what I believe about it. It's formed from communities, for communities. But the thing about that is: if you're not a part of that community, you'll feel excluded.

When I went to see Mr. & Mrs. Fitch (it's open now, so I can talk about it a bit), I certainly enjoyed watching two master actors working with a script full of witty lines and aphorisms on a beautiful set. But I didn't quite feel welcome there. Sure, it was set in a world I recognized: upper class New Yorkers talking about the issues of the day. But that's not really my world. And, in the end, the message of the play was meant for upper class New Yorkers in the media business. Which is definitely not my world. But for those people, that community, the play spoke to them.

Every community has its shibboleths and passwords. (It's okay if you have to look up "shibboleth." I always do.) Secret handshakes. They're not always nefarious or signs of malfeasance. Sometimes they're just high signs and dog whistles and code. Inside jokes. I read a scene from a play of mine at an event recently and a childhood friend of mine was there. In the scene, two old friends are talking and one of them refers to the other's parents by name, Phil and Sarah. When it was over, my friend knew whose parents I was referring to. My plays are full of little things like that, partly because I mine my life (and sometimes my friends' lives) ruthlessly for my plays, but also because...I like doing it. It's a little nod of the head to the people who are important to me. That's also why nearly all of my full-length plays carry a dedication. I see my plays as gifts, things I make and give away to those I care about.'s the thing: it's totally and completely exclusive in a way. If you don't get the inside joke or can't catch the dog whistle reference to my politics or philosophy, you miss it. And if the theatre is full of my friends, my community who I'm writing for, you can find yourself the only person not laughing in a giggling crowd. And that's a shitty place to be.

Like with Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, if you're not the intended audience, you can feel left out. And those feelings are totally valid and worth bringing up to the audience. Sometimes a writer can get blinded by their community, lost in the secret handshakes and codewords. Or you use the wrong password to open the wrong door. It can be complicated business.

Sometimes, I think, we complain about a lack of community when we feel excluded by one (or more). Or when other communities don't seem to making an effort to reach out to ours. I have a friend who works in social services in a heavily Latino neighborhood. She went to a function with people from another unit, all of whom spoke Spanish, and had a grand time talking to each other, in Spanish. My friend doesn't speak Spanish, not at all. She wound feeling hurt and lost. But she also plays on a soccer team, again with mainly native Spanish speakers. She doesn't feel the same disconnect. A community can do more to reach out, certainly. But just because you feel alone, that doesn't mean there isn't a community.

Like that tone that only teenagers can hear, if you're not the intended audience, the message might actually be repellent. It's something for both artist and audience to think about.


Adam807 said...

I mean, it's also possible that M&MF just isn't a very good play.... (And I say that with great love for its author and stars.)

Adam807 said...

I mean, it's also possible that M&MF just isn't a very good play.... (And I say that with great love for its author and stars.)