18 March 2018

Community Performances (civic theater) as social fabric measurement

balcony view of stage at Grand Rapids Civic Theater (Michigan)

One after another the city of Grand Rapids is venue to locally produced stage productions of high quality and wide range of styles and subjects. Before the announcement about switching digital devices to silent or turning them off and the opening scene unfolding with the curtain's rise, one of the leaders for volunteer services and management spoke briefly about audience members committing to season subscription; in effect pre-paying for 6 performances, thus bankrolling the enterprise up-front to meet costs, rather than paying at the ticket gate, one show at a time. She gave a few numbers to capture the attention of audience members who respond to the persuasive logic of numbers: 700 volunteers operate behind the scenes, at the seating areas, in concessions and ticket counter, and in the costumes as actors, not to mention set construction and movement. Only the administrative staff, (union?) musicians, and cleaners are paid. Other costs are performance rights, venue costs for rehearsal and performances, printing of programs and publicity efforts. In the lobby areas are some frames scenes of past productions, along with donor recognition displays with hundreds of names at the various levels of contribution, including individual and corporate sponsors.

The experience of buying a ticket, searching for seating area and being guided the rest of the way by an usher, then sitting down in comfortable but compact theater seats for 3 hours of live entertainment, relieved for a 15 minute intermission, is very pleasant. Certainly the experience on the stage and backstage or in the orchestra pit will be a little more anxious, since there is so much to coordinate: singing, lighting, musical cue and accompaniment, audio mixing and balancing the individual speaking or singing roles (each one WiFi mic'ed) in proportion to the orchestra; sound effects, costumes changed and sets moved, props accounted for and everything placed on tape marks on the stage according to plan. There is make-up and vocal warm-up, last minute changes, repairs or adjustments. Then the movements of the players on the stage, their direction of gaze, their enunciation, and sense of timing with each other  --all this must fit into the complex and delicate threads that form the drama.

The whole thing begins long before the opening night when the subject or title is selected and rights purchased, then the casting and rehearsing, considerations of costume, set design and lighting and sound design, musicians or audio recorded track, publicity, etc all must be taken into account. At last the performance nights arrive and all must be at-ready for each one. The crew and cast come to the venue from the home or workplace (day-job) and perform the piece, then clean-up and go home to rest. The whole magical dance of materials, text, timing, and audience response exists for a matter of weeks and then is gone forever, remaining only as memories of melody, dramatic tension that resolves, or maybe a character that is brought to life with some of the lines spoken that linger in the ear of the audience.

In the days before recorded entertainment, live music and live theater was the pinnacle of cultural stimulation for mind and heart. New ideas were put into the words of characters or the complications of plot. New fashions were on display. New language and social standards were celebrated or tested or criticized. But in the amplified, supercharged sights and sounds today, the theatrical space seems to pale, even as it trumps recorded art with the face to face presence and authenticity it requires. And so it seems that civic theater is a 'canary in a coal mine' for showing the health of a city or town. It takes a lot of effort and imagination to bring all the elements together in public performance. So a place that can sustain live theater, and to some extent live music, does seem to enjoy social fabric that is living and breathing.

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