Is Your Theater a Community or a Clique?

You, you, you, you...and you.
You, you, you, you...and you.
You, you, you, you…oh, and maybe you.

You know the feeling. A heavy, sweeping sadness descends from your shoulders to your heart. Followed by a sharp sensation in your solar plexus that cuts so deeply your feet no longer exist.

They don’t like you.

Maybe it’s because you don’t look the same. Your skin color is a different hue or your fashion style is not conventional. You don’t dress the part. You don’t come from the right place.

Sounds like high school, but it happens in adulthood, too. Your ideas are different. You see things in an alternative way. Maybe you don’t fall into line behind the leaders and, instead, march to your own beat.

A lot of outsiders are attracted to theater. But what happens when those outsiders get together?

Sometimes they create more outsiders.

Community vs. Clique
If there’s one thing many nonprofit theaters thrive on, it’s the leader-follower model. How many theater blogs talk about leadership, what it means to be a leader, how one should lead and how you get to be in that position of power? But have you ever stopped to think how all these leaders need followers?

And have you ever considered the price of being a follower?

Communities are people who have common interests. When the group is a community, you don’t have to leave your individuality at the stage door. You can maintain your ideas, personality and preferences. You don’t have to write in a certain style or surrender your vision. Communities celebrate their relationships and are generous in interacting with newcomers.

Cliques, on the other hand, define their community by whom they exclude. Their golden ticket gives them privilege. Like communities, clique members share a commonality. Maybe they went through a training program together. Or perhaps the gatekeeper is an influential person. Either way, membership has its rewards, through connections, jobs and support.

Sounds like a community, right? The difference is in the behavior. In a clique, good followers take their marching orders from their leaders and are chastised when they deviate from the plan. Individuality is a threat. Soon, your interaction is limited to other members of the group.

Cliques work hard to maintain their power. They spend a portion of the time dismissing others privately or publicly. Criticism isn’t genuine; it comes from a place of personal interest. Members of the clique get a pass from their cohorts. Non-members are ignored or scathingly addressed.

When cliques are in control, the quality of work won’t matter. As a result, good work goes unrecognized. Great plays go unproduced, talented actors sit at home rather than perform onstage. Cliques destroy careers and bankrupt theater companies.

The Price You Pay
No one wants to be on the outside. In an art form that thrives on community, it pays to get along with others. Competition is intense, and anything that gives you an advantage is welcome.

If belonging to a clique grants access, many people are willing to pay the price. That might require you to compliment a kingmaker or stifle your honest opinion.

But you aren’t bringing anything of value to the table. Instead, you are sacrificing yourself to fit in. You will have to adopt the tone, vision and maybe even the thoughts of the leader in order to belong. When you lose yourself, you are no longer an artist.

Communities inspire your inner life; cliques deaden your individual vision and voice. Clique leaders seek control. If that sounds sinister, well, it is. Robbing an artist of herself renders her mute and weak.

When you lose your artistic vision or voice because you gave up so much to become a member of a clique, it can be hard work to get yourself back.

Theater Disguises
In the theater, many cliques masquerade as communities. Feel-good phrases, coupled with grand visions of changing society, are siren songs. There is power in community, and it can feel good to belong, especially if you are searching for an artistic home. So how do you know when you’ve stumbled into a clique rather than a community? Five warning signs:

  1. When you find yourself excluding certain people because that’s what the leaders say or do, implicitly or explicitly.
  2. When you check to see what others say before stating your opinion. “How do we feel?” becomes more important than “How do I feel?”
  3. When a person’s identity is more important than what they are saying.
  4. When you are afraid to disagree with someone because they have power. After all, there might be repercussions if you disagree or criticize leaders or other members of the clique.
  5. When other members stray from the leader’s vision, you feel pressured to ignore or ostracize them.

Sometimes it seems as though cliques are a driving force in theater. For every insider, there’s an outsider. How many theater blogs and discussions are dedicated to insiders? How many artists have walked into an arts organization and felt like an outsider? How many arts leaders have gained influence on the backs of their followers? It’s false power, not based on good work, but on intimidation and pretenses.

And how do cliques impact theater’s problems with race and gender inequality?

Maybe a better working definition of diversity is including people you think you don’t like, but who in reality are simply people not like you.