Community! Community! Community!

It’s almost a mantra at this point, but for those that haven’t heard it, theatre is about community. Community can be defined in many ways, from very small groups to something as grand as the community of man. What is it exactly? It’s a collective of people that have something in common, and who need to commune, to speak to each other to learn and grow and create a better tomorrow. How does theatre serve that? There are many ways – sampling life experience, testing of social hypothesis, cathartic opportunities, escapism and entertainment, just to name a few.

Through the centuries, theatre has come to be the mirror for mankind. The uniqueness of theatre over the grander scope of film and television is the intimacy and immediacy of the experience. While watching a film, we can certainly grasp the intimacy of a moment, however we the audience are merely voyeurs. While in a live theatre, as members of the audience we are participants to the moment.  Our presence is essential to complete the communion.

Your response, your feedback can and does make a difference. Why is that important? According to anthropologists, one of the most significant difference between mankind and all other animals is our ability to teach lessons that need not be relearned by subsequent generations. A task may need to  be taught, such as when to sow a particular seed, but which seed of the thousands available are to be sown no longer needs to be examined. By storing knowledge from one generation to the next, we are able to build upon a large stockpile and come up with new ideas.

Ideas are examined and retold with new perspectives, in different lights, and new lessons are learned.  In a dauntless march, theatre professionals grapple with the nature of man and because they have a history to draw from, “ah-ha” moments are born.

So by understanding the nature and purpose of theatre within a community, we grasp the function and respond appropriately. Or do we? Is it enough to just plop down the price of admission, sit through the performance and then applaud or sigh or just move on to the next moment in life? It’s a rhetorical question and in case you haven’t guessed, the answer is a resounding NO! What is missing? Engagement. Be involved, become a part of a community, and exercise being a member. Affect the community.

This is not a call for everyone to leap upon the stage and grapple with the task of portraying Hamlet. This is a call to respond to what you feel when you see an artist make the attempt. When we go to the circus, our attention is riveted upon the high-wire act. We ooh and ahhh and our palms sweat and the drama is palatable, we hope for the act’s success with just a tingle,  anticipating disaster. This is drama, the stakes are high and failure is absolute. So too is any single performance on any given stage. If a play is less, you should speak up. That’s the first step of engagement. Let the artists know whether or not you as a member of the audience were a part of the show. Your response, your feedback can and does make a difference. As the high wire artist is spurred to new extremes by audience reaction, so too are theatre artists prompted to keener effort by your response. And don’t let the response end with applause or boos, carry it to the streets, engage your friends and family with conversation about what you have seen. If you’re not compelled to do so, find another play, the last one let you down.  Every show should spur you to honor and embrace a commitment to humanity. That’s theatre’s purpose.

Now more than ever, theatre needs you to respond. If as an audience we stay calm or mute to what we see, we run a risk of allowing theatre to float to irrelevance. If it is the mirror of our cultures and the repository of our mythologies and folklore, then we are obligated to foster theatre and encourage its  continued growth. The only growth that we can dictate is to spread the word, encourage, cajole, drag the uninitiated to see a show. Let everyone know what you think of the performance, how it affected you, how it changed your life, what insight did it bring …  or if none of these, why.

The health and growth of any community is dependent upon the clarity and effi ciency of its constituents. Each member of the community is responsible for their part to assure prosperity. For theatre as an art form to prosper, you the audience need to step up and take part.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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