- Performing Communities: Grassroots Ensemble Theaters Deeply Rooted in Eight U.S. Communities
Bill Rauch, former artistic director and co-founder of Cornerstone Theater Company, describes Cornerstone’s approach to community-based performance as reliant on a “[m]ultiplicity of viewpoints” (74). In many respects, Robert Leonard and Ann Kilkelly’s text, Performing Communities: Grassroots Ensemble Theaters Deeply Rooted in Eight U.S. Communities, models that emphasis on multiplicity in its approach. Although Leonard and Kilkelly are the primary authors of the study, the book describes and analyzes the work of six additional field researchers who visited the companies and conducted interviews with ensemble members as well as with community participants. This collection of voices comes together within Performing Communities. The result is an ambitious exploration into the histories, techniques, and challenges of eight community-based theatre companies in the United States.
Performing Communities functions as a summary of findings from a much larger research project that grew out of the theatre arts department at Virginia Tech University. Leonard, Kilkelly, and six others conducted their research through site visits and interviews during 2000–2001. Guiding their work were three overarching questions: What is the meaning of community-based performance to its participants? What are the results for those involved? What techniques proved successful? The eight companies included in the study represent a broad spectrum of geographic regions; they also differ in terms of size, approach, and longevity. Included are Carpetbag Theater Company, Cornerstone Theater Company, The Dell’Arte Company, Jump-Start Performance Co., Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Teatro Pregones, Roadside Theater, and Wagonburner Theater Troop. What unites these disparate groups is their focus on the exchange between ensemble members and their respective communities, the primacy of place in all their performances, and the imperative of high production values. In order to dismiss any preconceptions of amateurism, the authors emphasize the professional standards to which each company adheres. At the same time, the authors strive to disassemble hierarchies that position community-based performance as somehow inferior to performance modes that solely involve trained theatre professionals.
The book is divided into separate sections for each theatre company that are introduced with evocative chapter titles culled from quotes by the interview subjects. The descriptions of each company were written by either Kilkelly or Leonard based upon the research notes and interview transcripts provided by the site visitors. This sense of remove from the material detracts at times from the qualitative nature of the project, attributing an almost false sense of objectivity to the work. The one exception to this methodology was the section on Roadside Theater, which was both researched and written by Kilkelly. The assumption would be that the chapter written directly by the site visitor would be the most detailed; strangely, this chapter is the most spare of the book, creating the sense that it is not as thorough as previous chapters. Following the summary of each company, an excerpt from one of their performance texts appears. These cuttings serve as nice complements to the summaries, enabling the reader to gather a greater sense of detail in terms of the respective companies’ subject matter and techniques. In addition to the summary and excerpt, each of the eight chapters contains a chart that includes information on the company’s facilities, annual budget, ensemble demographics, community partnerships, and mission statement. These charts are useful in that they address some of the pragmatics of operation that are not always included within the chapters. Since chapters were written by two separate authors, based on the research of six additional researchers, each one is necessarily unique in its structure and individual approach. The charts then enable a more uniform comparison among the companies included in the study. One photograph appears in each chapter, and additional photo galleries for each company are available on the companion web site (< www.performingcommunities.com >).
Along with the photo galleries, the companion...