A regional theater expert thinks Triangle companies are too insular to thrive. Here’s how they can fix it. | Theater | Indy Week
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A regional theater expert thinks Triangle companies are too insular to thrive. Here’s how they can fix it. 

In February, Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments, a series of monologues on the experiences of people of color with the police, came to Durham's Common Ground Theatre, where I was executive director until last June. The project was a collaboration between several theater groups across the Triangle. We weren't collaborating in order to win recognition, but rather because we knew our individual skills and our companies' unique strengths would enrich the production and foster discussion in a wider community.

But most local theater shows, including the ones I supported at Common Ground, don't have that level of community building at the center. With rare exceptions over the past 25 years, theaters and artists in the Triangle have not been interconnected with one another or their communities. The region is home to more than 40 active companies, but there's little focus on building a foundation to support the art form as a whole. Lack of communication and community access are the underlying reasons why Triangle theaters are not finding the kind of audiences or critical success they say they want.

When Triangle ArtWorks conducted a needs survey for local theater companies in 2014, the top response was some variant of "communication": between theaters, with audiences, to artists. Despite annual growth in the number of producers over the past 25 years, audiences and funding remain stagnant. I hear the lament from theater producers: Why don't more people attend theater the way they do concerts; why isn't there more professional (that is, full-time wage) theater; why can't we get more press coverage?

In my time at Common Ground, I observed that local theaters and companies are too focused on short-term project management and the funding they need to put on their next show. Relationship building takes time and effort, yet artists, who are focused on the art itself, run most companies here. Without a long-term outlook on the health of the local field, the Triangle theater scene will always lack the robust support needed to achieve wider appreciation.

Theaters pay lip service to a tax-exempt organization's mandate of community service but often rest on the "quality" argument: Technical expertise drives quality product. But "an aesthetic that dismisses the value of hands-on artistic expression is one that runs the risk of spiraling toward irrelevance," argues Doug Borwick in his book, Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the United States. While most Triangle theaters have been somewhat successful in finding enough patrons to keep making shows, they have not shown any serious inclination to embrace the broader community by inviting them to participate, in the way poetry readings and spoken-word performances are often open to the public.

Communication is sorely lacking among Triangle theaters. The Women's Voices Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., came about because the artistic leaders of the area's "Big 7" theaters have lunch together once a month. For a too-brief time in the early 1990s, a communication network existed within the Triangle theater scene. The Triangle Network of Theatres brought together companies and artists with the mission of increasing dialogue and public awareness. But without a dedicated staff, the network fell apart, and local theater reverted to artists doing their best to create and promote by themselves.

In July 2014, local theater artists gathered to discuss the state of the field with the help of Triangle ArtWorks. Again, after much talking, nothing happened, because no one championed the kind of network-building that was needed. For the most part, artistic directors are not full-time paid employees of their organizations in the Triangle. As is true for most of our area's artists, they live middle-class lives and rely on other means to pay their bills, such as spouses or jobs outside of the arts. That means less time to build the relationships necessary to support full-time paid work, a negative reinforcement loop.

Better internal and external communication could simply amount to regular conversations among theaters about season selections, technical jobs and auditions, show calendars for audiences and educational opportunities, either professional or in schools.

Making theaters more accessible would also help foster community. Accessibility is a loaded term, especially among performing arts nonprofits. But I'm talking about the public perception that not just anyone can attend or join in the creation of local theater. There is no true ensemble company theater in the Triangle; PlayMakers Repertory Company comes closest. There are only a handful of actual community theaters (Raleigh Little Theater, Cary Players, North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre). The rest fall in between, tending to pick the same artists for most shows and holding season auditions that don't always garner diverse attendance or create opportunities for community involvement.

Then there's cost. Discussing it in the realm of nonprofit theater is like handling a live snake: You can't charge too much because you may get bitten asking for donations; you can't charge too little because the perception of value decreases. For the final show in its University Mall home, Deep Dish Theater Company charged $30, more than PlayMakers' average price. While the value of the show was adequately reflected in the price, it drove away potential audiences, including other theater artists. But no one bats an eye at paying more than $60 for seats at Carolina Performing Arts. The cost reflects the perceived value. Contributors—whether ticket buyers, taxpayers through government funding or foundations—want to know their money is well spent.

Accessibility also hinges on public relations. Last season, through a happy coincidence, many Raleigh theaters were able to jointly market their Shakespeare shows with financial support from the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau. While tourists do not make up more than a handful of local theater's patrons, that kind of marketing power drives awareness. It doesn't take the place of community building, though. A lot of theater artists wish they had more advertising dollars and time or that they could garner more free publicity in local media, but general audiences don't go see something just because of an ad or a calendar listing. They attend because someone they trust (a friend, a participant, a critic) told them it's worth their time.

To that end, local theater needs to broaden its audience, and companies could benefit from more board members. The boards of Burning Coal Theatre Company and Theatre in the Park are both dominated by participating artists; Manbites Dog Theater has only six board members. Do the boards of the Justice Theater Project or NRACT adequately reflect their communities, missions and needs? Raleigh Little Theatre and NC Theatre each have dozens of board members from a broad cross section of their communities and a few internal artistic representatives. The community support they enjoy reflects this breadth of executive oversight. More isn't always better, but more diverse ideas can reach a broader audience.

If you are a theater artist thinking, "I want to keep producing my art with my friends," by all means, go right ahead! Your work is important; it has an audience and has value in the cultural health of the region. Just don't clamor for greater visibility and community engagement (or tax exemption) if you're functioning like an after-school theater club.

Only when Triangle theaters stop treating productions like one-offs and embrace the interconnected network they could be part of will companies and artists begin to achieve broader recognition and financial stability. Dance artists in Durham recognized this need when they formed Durham Independent Dance Artists in 2014, which has turned an archipelago of independent productions into a curated season that has resulted in many sold-out houses and increased press coverage. Local theaters, faced with similar challenges, might benefit from a similar innovation.

The Stoneleaf Festival—a short-lived project of the North Carolina Theatre Conference, the organization that purportedly supports independent theater across the state—had the mission to bring local artists together in front of a wider audience. It's been 10 years since Stoneleaf happened. What could have been a new beginning for regional theater is instead a lovely memory. What will it take for something collective to take hold? Artistic expression is not opposed to social engagement; the Triangle's theater companies and artists need to find the intersection of the two to sell their product and change the world.

After 12 years designing and managing in Triangle theaters, Devra Thomas was executive director of Common Ground Theatre from January 2014 to June 2015, when she relocated to Morehead City with her family. She is an arts systems analyst with a graduate degree in arts administration and is currently writing Mushrooms on a Log: 25 Years of Theater in the Triangle. This article appeared in print with the headline "Stage Fright."

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