Local Theatre

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Although many do not recognize it, local theatre is the cornerstone of the dramatic arts. (By local theatre, I mean what people watch in their own towns.) While metropolitan centers like New York City exert influence, what really counts is the theatre that people see. A theatrical production is often unavailable either in print, film, or other media: it is experienced only by those who gather to see it; and, since most individuals stay close to home, close to home matters. While famous plays have impact, the effect is diffuse when compared to print-centered writing or to film. The effect of non-local theatre works only along the lines of a “trickle-down” influence, rather than the direct impact of other forms: people read a story, but read about a theatrical production.

Given the importance of local theatre, one would think that such performance would be thriving — unfortunately, it is not. This is especially true for local playwriting. Because local theatres have no obligation to present new, local work, they typically turn to renditions of familiar plays that audiences have seen before. While productions of such plays may be comfortable for audiences and for the theatre makers involved, they create minimal opportunities for local dramatists. Though most regions of the country — even far-out, rural places — have some local theatre, they do not often have local dramatic writing. Such a situation hurts local writers and theatre as a whole by inhibiting regional diversity in a form that, of necessity, must be regional.

For this reason, playwriting instructors must not only be writers, but also theatre artists. Specifically, they must act as producers, arranging shows and making them occur. It is not enough to ask students to stuff their plays into envelopes, send them to faraway theatres, and hope for the best: instead, the instructor must ensure local performance opportunities. Print publication is unlikely for beginning dramatists. Because of the pre-eminence of live production, playwrights have far fewer opportunities for print publication than do poets and other writers. Production at distant theatres is similarly unlikely. Most theatres that produce new work already have relationships with playwrights-in-residence and are unlikely to assist beginning authors who live far away. These theatres tend to prefer local writers because proximity makes for an easier working relationship. Instructors can collaborate with existing local theatre companies; but, most often, the instructor will have to run his or her own “production company” — whether it’s something as simple as a series of public readings or as innovative as a podcast/videocast theatre.

Plays must be performed — there is no other medium for them — and, like it or not, the playwriting instructor must be on the front lines of performance.

How do you incorporate performance/production in the playwriting classroom?

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on July 26, 2012.]] 

About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.