Theater has always served two main functions to my way of thinking, one that's process-centered and the other that's product-centered. Humans are by nature mimetic learners, meaning that we learn by deliberately imitating the behavior of others. All theater aspires to bring communities of people together for a ritualized observance and, by extension, education focused on humanity: its practices, drives, interactions. This observance has as its ultimate aim an increase in awareness and depth of views held by the audience and artist alike. The audacious dream is to increase understanding, bringing increased tolerance and ultimately, spreading peace throughout the community served. A production is most successful when it speaks to the needs and conditions of the community it serves (which is not to say that it cannot challenge beliefs nor present idealized visions to which those served can aspire). The degree to which the work can illuminate the community in a novel or unseen way will sometimes serve as an indicator of how quickly or slowly its relevance will be recognized. The best theatre seeks to touch its community on several levels at once: educational, intellectual, sensual and emotional. When it succeeds, it achieves moments of transcendence.
Some examples: When we decided to produce How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about sexual abuse, at Commonweal in Lanesboro in 2002, we spent a great deal of time discussing the sensitive nature of the material and the best way to offer support to our audiences. Every evening we had a post-performance talk back, an audience member volunteered that we had shared Their Story on stage. Amazing by itself. Then, one night, a group of four women sat in the front row, providing comfort to a fifth woman who sat between them, sobbing. When she finally was able to speak, she said, “I thought I was over this, but you’ve helped me to realize that this will always be with me.” This being Lanesboro, the next day, I ran in to her at a local store. I approached her to tell her how truly sorry I was to be a part of bringing her to that realization, but she stopped me, gave me a huge smile and a big hug and said, “No, last night was a great night for me. Thank you.”
We subsequently produced Lonely Planet, the Steven Dietz play about the AIDS crisis. One day, a season ticket holder and devout Christian, stopped me to say, “If this were playing anywhere else, I would never have gone to see it. I would have expected a highly politicized production. But I trusted that you would do the story in a way that would let the people shine through. And you have. I’ve seen it four times and love it!”
The secondary function of performing arts to me is also an instructive function but one more centrally related to process. All performing arts are collaborative in nature. The degree that each artist involved in the creation of the work has a voice and feels ownership will be a strong indicator of the level of artistic excellence that the project will achieve. And, to the degree that the process is made transparent to its community, the community may find itself the beneficiary of an outstanding model of organizational behavior that can have implications in civic, social, religious and all other segments of the community served. The presence of creative performing artists in the community provides a wellspring of creativity and a ready-trained core of citizens capable of lifting the community to heights previously unrealized both in process and outcome.
The presence of our ensemble in Lanesboro aids the creative process in ways large and small. Having worked together for six to 10 years, they have a common vocabulary, a familiarity with place and people that significantly reduces the time spent in the rehearsal room, and a culture and work ethic that easily transmits to newcomers, a sort “lead by example” way of communicating how we work as a company.
This helps in the rehearsal room and also the town. Lanesboro was recently awarded a Town Meeting Initiative grant from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund for four projects: Improved signage, more trees, improved public recycling and improvements to our old home, the St. Mane Theatre. Commonweal Company members were instrumental in designing and implementing the plans for three of these projects; the only one without our participation was the St. Mane Theatre improvement project. The functioning of these teams emerged as strong examples of how we’ve tried to operate through the years.
Company members also serve on the library board, the board of the Chamber of Commerce and the economic development authority boards. We have served on planning and zoning, and one ensemble member was even a member of the city council.
My thoughts on the function of the performing arts are highly tempered by my existence in the theater for the past twenty years. I’m not sure how applicable these are across disciplines, but in my 16 years at Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, I’ve seen theater have a noticeable effect along these lines on a regular basis. ❦