It’s been quite a week for theater headlines.
The on-going fallout from the non-revelation that Scott Rudin is an absolute terror has been taking up most of the air in the room, sparking numerous reactions, reactions to reactions, and reactions to non-reactions. It’s the latest weight on the back of an industry decimated by the pandemic, while also facing pressure to re-examine itself through the lens of racial equity. But in between all that, there was this charming article in last week’s New York Times about groups of friends gathering to read scripts over zoom or in person, just for the funsies of it all.
We have here two ends of the vast spectrum of what it means to make theater: on one extreme end is the gathering together of like minds for a common purpose and to share in the act of emotional communion; on the other end is an industry defined by various bureaucratic structures like real estate deals and unions.
I grew up in an Evangelical church in California. It wasn’t a megachurch like Hillsong, but it was big enough to merit three Sunday morning services along with evening services on Sundays and Saturdays, two parking lots connected with shuttle buses, and a Christmas musical with killer special effects. The services ran like clockwork, and the theology was ironclad: no to gays, no to female pastors, yes to mission trip photos featuring black and brown kids, Jews deserved the Holocaust (literally the talking point of a sermon once.) The older I got, the more I realized just how much it was not the place for me, but at the same time my brain was fighting against that sense of belonging that comes with prolonged exposure to a ritualized environment.
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I began seeking out a new church in earnest. Finding queer-friendly options was the easy part, but I kept fussing over the community aspect. I would go to a church, and like the people, but had a really hard time connecting. To be honest, I just didn’t trust them. Why should I? I had spent years surrounding by upbeat and eager faces who were convinced I was going to hell. Who knows what darkness was lurking in these underneath the welcoming handshakes of the passing of the peace?
Like theater, church can be defined in the loosest of terms as the gathering together of like minds for a common purpose and to share in the act of emotional communion. I consider friends gathering for Bible study to be an expression of church. At the opposite end, church is also an organizational concept defined by ideological power structures which in turn inform policy. Those policies then attract a certain kind of people, who coalesce into what becomes a congregation, which is then rebranded as “community” in order to reinforce said power structure.
The theater industry is a power structure. And like many conservative churches, it uses the concept of community as a tool to maintain power. The mentality of “there’s no people like show people” or “the show must go on” glamorizes unjust labor practices, promising emotional rewards in exchange for inclusion within the system. Playbill’s Broadway Community Project is just an org chart of employees and their bosses in web format. I once worked with an industry influencer whose mantra was to focus on positivity; to me she had all the authenticity of a suburban church wife.
I do believe there is true community in the theater, but that it is so deeply intertwined with and informed by the power structure so as to be nearly indistinguishable. It has taken a pandemic to really see the difference: the industry of it all ground to a halt, but the community kept going. Industry falters in the face of turmoil; community rises despite it.
I left the industry this past September after a nearly 20-year career. In the time between leaving my last job and starting my new one, I had a small existential crisis when I realized that I had always viewed theater through the lens of a career. I enjoyed it as an art form but at the back of my head I was always looking for the next rung on the ladder. Now that I was untethered from all of that I felt strangely adrift. Being employed by a Fancy Theater does not community make.
And so I find myself interrogating the same question I faced when looking for a new church: how do you leave a power structure and find community when the only path to community you have ever known has been through a power structure?
I don’t have any answers other than: slowly. I still haven’t found a new church, but I do have a handful of people whose spiritual perspectives and ideals inspire me. These interactions are small but meaningful (translation: I follow people on Twitter and when they say something I connect with I hit like or RT) and it’s a moment of affirmation I didn’t have before and makes me more confident in my choices.
As for theater, well, still figuring out that one. In the meantime, who wants to get together on the lawn in Central Park and read the script to All About Eve? I’ll bring the snacks.