The State of Community Theater in Trump’s America

In purple states, should progressive arts administrators try and change minds?

community theater
Let's keep telling stories.

Though I’m an artist and administrative director of a nonprofit community theater by trade, I rarely write about the arts for The Clyde Fitch Report; our esteemed founder likes my thoughts on politics for some reason. I get the occasional exception, however and this post is one of them. Last weekend, I attended the National Community Theatre Management Conference, sponsored by the American Association of Community Theatre, in Madison, WI. The conference was elucidating, energizing, exhausting and fascinating. I thought it would be interesting to check in with those of us who bring everyday theater to regular people and see how the social and political atmosphere in the US is affecting everything from our programming to our patronage.

Here’s the good news: In several guided conversations over four days, almost everyone in community theater jobs like mine are confirmed progressives. All of these people are compassionate, articulate and thoughtful human beings. In the interest of full disclosure, I abandoned trying to get people on the record after my first two groups. I did so for two reasons: 1) it was clear that these administrators had concerns about their patrons’ perspectives, and 2) it would be laborious and challenging to engage in an honest, open and freewheeling conversation with the constrictions of copying quotes, names and titles. I take full responsibility for these qualifications and the looseness of the following thoughts.

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Of significant impact to these conversations was learning about the Texas shootings in the middle of a session. This led to a vigorous, eye-opening discussion about our organizations’ active shooter response plans (or lack thereof, in the case of many of us). This inspired many of us to reach out to our fellow community leaders to address this issue upon our return.

So what do people who run a community theater think about where we are as a society? As with all things worth considering, the answer is multifaceted. Pretty much everyone I spoke to was pretty shamelessly liberal. I began the conversation with a question, something akin to “How do we, as people who bring theater to everyday citizens, reflect the social and political climate nowadays?” Some qualifiers:

  1. I defined our job as Shakespeare did: to hold a “mirror up to nature” and reflect the atmosphere of our age;
  2. I asked people how they balanced their responsibilities as artists with representing their patrons (almost viewed as political constituents);
  3. I springboarded the conversation with my own experience on our recent production of Cabaret. Most of my conservative patrons walked out saying, “Hey, this was a great one, Tom!” Most of my liberal patrons walked out saying, “Shit, what do we do now?”

There was a clear distinction in how my patrons in my very purple community took in our production of Cabaret. My favorite interaction was a longtime volunteer and designer who took a long moment and then asked me a question: “So where do we start?”

My only answer was to quote a much-disputed phrase attributed to — ironically — the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Those of us that run theaters in communities that are politically blended have a rough choice to face: Do we reflect the times in our programming, or our interpretation of the same? The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in NYC comes to mind. Of course most of us in the theater lean progressive; but many of our patrons are moderates or conservatives. Is it worth plugging a political agenda when it could cost us subscriptions, our relationship with the press or even, I’ll admit it, our jobs? Do we, as leaders of artistic organizations in politically blended or conflicted communities, have a responsibility to our patrons or to our consciences? I received both answers from those that I talked to.

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Ultimately, most administrators I talked to felt strongly that their role is not to push their own political agenda, and I tend to agree with that perspective in our particular setting. We come from varying organizations, from relatively modest budgets in the low six figures to multimillion-dollar companies — and yes, these are community theaters; some of their budgets made my jaw drop. We recognize that not everyone is of our stripe. An artist’s job, then, is not necessarily to sway someone but rather to ignite debate. Theater is inherently parabolic; we tell a story and we leave it to the audience to take what they glean from it. Some producers reported a dip in sales starting this past January, while others reported a general anxiety in their crowds — all of which they attributed to the result of the 2016 election. We discussed the idea of serving escapism versus addressing society concerns, but no one had a concrete solution. Many expressed a desire to choose programming that could reflect their own personal fears and anxieties but expressed reluctance to take any definitive step. Most community theater producers don’t have the advantage of writing a popular column on a New York Timesrecommended website where they get to rant about their political views, poor devils.

What is the responsibility of the artist in these times? I knew the answer when I was a scrappy producer of indie theater in Manhattan. But I have to admit that the answer is more complicated now that I run a community theater in an extremely purple town in the Midwest. I’m vocally and, to use the word again, shamelessly progressive and most everyone in my community knows this; many of them read this column. But I don’t discuss politics at my theater because I have staff and volunteers of every political persuasion and it’s more important to me that my joint is a big tent and that everyone feels welcome. When I produced theater in NYC, I was pretty much always preaching to the choir: I would argue that that is how, sometimes, you make the choir sing. But here, I have opportunities to possibly change minds, so the question is not just one of responsibility but also of duty. Then again, I have a committee that leads season selection, so programming is ultimately not my decision alone. Of course I would love to do a season of nothing but politically charged propaganda. But when it comes to community theater, I don’t know that that this is either my purpose or my mission.

I absorbed a significant amount from my weekend among peers and rivals. They are smart, compassionate, dedicated and as ridiculously stressed and overworked as I am. They feel the tension in the country and they see it reflected in their patronage. Many feel that their theaters can be a platform to open debate about it; many feel they offer an escape from the stress of the real world. Thankfully, the one thing we all agree on is that stories remain important; it’s something we’ve done as a species all the way back to the dark and misty. Support your local theater and make sure they can keep telling their stories.