Saturday, October 24, 2009

BoarsHead and Stormfield: Not or

Earlier this week, the founding artistic director of BoarsHead, John Peakes, sent a letter to the editor at the Lansing State Journal. It encouraged people to support the new theater that Kristine Thatcher is forming, Stormfield. It also encouraged people to pull their support away from BoarsHead.

The first part of that call is something I can completely get behind. I was thrilled to hear that Kristine would be staying in our community and continuing to bring in the works that made BoarsHead an exciting place to attend during her tenure. She will be filling a niche that true theater lovers can appreciate--producing those works that prove the art is still alive, evolving, and relevant. She'll be introducing us to works as a way of finding out whether they are worth loving.

The second part of John's advice is far more problematic. Yes, I understand the anger at how Kristine was treated. Yes, I understand that such a move reveals frightening things about the artistic direction of the oldest professional theater in the region. I also fear that they've chosen stagnation over necessary risk-taking. However, neither do I think it would be healthy for anyone in the arts if BoarsHead were to fail.

Forget about the personality conflicts for a few minutes. Let's look at things philosophically:

Theater as an eco-system

I've written about this idea so much in this blog that I'm sure my long time readers are sick of it. It bears repeating in reference to this issue. John's email assumes an either/or attitude--that we must choose one theater over the other to support. It's a model of competition. Yet, theaters are non-profit for a good reason and not just because they aren't financial cash cows. They exist to serve a purpose in the community. They enrich the community and the people who live in it, improving their quality of life.

Each theater company in the Greater Lansing area serves a purpose and an overlapping audience. While resources may be finite, live theater has not begun to reach the limits of those resources, particularly when it comes to audience members (and, if we are going to be cynical, the financial resources that accompany those audience members). I've had the good fortune to attend theater at all of the local theater companies. Yes, there is an overlapping audience, but each new group also brings new people to theater. As the years pass, you start to see those new audience members at other theater productions.

In other words, each group creates its own audience and brings more people to the wonder and miracle of live theater. Even with all of the productions that take place in the Lansing area, they are still a fraction of the number of movies that come out each year--yet you don't hear people making a call for fewer movies. There are few people who will ever try to see every movie that comes out and there are even fewer people who will see every live production that comes out. However, the play that one person has no interest in will appeal to someone else.

The more theater we have, the more people are able and willing to make theater a normal part of their lives. We have already reached the point in Lansing that you can see theater every single weekend. This is essential for a society that increasingly does things spontaneously--making decisions about their entertainment choices not a year in advance, but an hour in advance. Also, the more theater we have, the more passionate people become involved and passion is contagious.

If we want a healthy theater community, we can only benefit from trading the competition model for the ecosystem model. We can recognize that every theater has something to contribute and all of them support each other in a myriad of ways.

Both BoarsHead and Stormfield have committed themselves to different types of theater work. Those works will appeal to different people--albeit there will definitely be overlapping audiences. There is sufficient room in this community for both types of work. Indeed, having both types of work is going to make each of the other more successful because people will become increasingly aware of the diversity of theater offerings. Rarely will someone decide they don't like all movies because they don't like the horror genre. Yet, you will hear people write off all of live theater because they think the few shows that they've seen represent the entire spectrum.

BoarsHead as Employer

Aside from the artistic element of theater, there is another reason that the Lansing theater community would not benefit from the failure of BoarsHead. It remains the largest professional non-profit theater in the area, providing more artistic support and artistic jobs than other theaters in the area. Even with film incentives making it somewhat easier, it is still an extremely difficult path to make your living in the theater arts.

Yes, I understand John's anger at those who made the decision that they did about Kristine. But more people would suffer if BoarsHead went under than just those people. In fact, those people would probably suffer the least. There are people who rely on BoarsHead for their living. There are those who rely on BoarsHead as an important supplement to their income. It continues to offer an important educational service to the community.

No one will benefit from the failure of BoarsHead.

Let's not make our choice one of Stormfield OR BoarsHead. Let's make it a choice of Stormfield AND BoarsHead.

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