Thursday, March 8, 2007

Theater as Ecosystem

In one of the most inspiring sessions of the Institute, Ben Cameron talked about the state of theater and theater funding in this country. He also delved into the sociology of theater. Over the coming few weeks, I'll quote a lot from him and others as a foundation for talking about theater here in Lansing. So much of what was said there has ties back here.

Ben Cameron said:

Things have changed. We have to get rid of the hierarchy in theater. It used to be that if you were the biggest budget theater, you won. Now it is an ecosystem. Everyone needs each other. The non-profit can’t survive without the commercial theater which can’t survive without the community theaters. 90 percent of theaters operate with $1 million or less; 70% with less than $500,000.

This was an image that spoke volumes to me and described Lansing so well. Trying to rank local theaters by budget size is an outdated mode of thinking that fails to take into consideration the individual missions of each theater group and the niches that they fill. Any time you lose a theater, the entire theater community loses. Likewise, the more theaters that exist, the more vibrancy everyone has and the more likely it is that all will survive.

Icarus Falling and Peppermint Creek have the freedom to explore surreal and hard-hitting shows in part because Lansing Civic Players is providing audiences with the traditional fare that they demand. BoarsHead can pull actors from Michigan State University's theater program. All-of-Us Children's Express and Riverwalk Theater support each other with family programming. There are webs of support all through the community, some of them intentional and others that merely exist.

I still mourn the loss of Bath Community Theatre Guild in part because there is no one else doing what they did for either Bath as a community or the Lansing-area theaters. They're a group that supported drama and theater within the schools: maintaining the space, directing the high school shows, putting on daytime productions for Bath classes, providing theater opportunities for students in the schools, and offering educational support for arts in the classroom. They also acted as a feeder for many of the Lansing theater groups. Every show had someone new to theater in it. First-time directors experimented in Bath before taking their shows to other stages.

Every group has a purpose and all of them make Lansing a richer a place, a community worth living in.

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