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Theater 32.2 (2002) 77-80
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Around the World with Eugene Van Erven
Community Theater: Global Perspectives by Eugene van Erven 2001: Routledge
Eugene van Erven's Community Theater: Global Perspectives illustrates both the difficulties and the rewards involved in creating community theater, an art form that, as he says, "operates on the cutting edge between performing arts and sociocultural intervention." Van Erven argues that the international academic community, while embracing intercultural and postcolonial issues, has examined the work of internationally recognized artists but neglected the field of community theater, which attempts to give artistic voice to ordinary individuals from marginalized groups by engaging them directly in the artistic process. He seeks to fill this gap by providing a model for studying community theater that includes documenting and assessing the process of creation as well as the product and its effect on spectators and participants. Van Erven takes his cue from Australia's Sneja Gunew in supporting a new criterion for excellence in this kind of work, one that goes beyond pure aesthetic form to include cultural content and social relevance. In the end, his study makes a strong case for assessing community theater as a serious art form, while advocating increased financial support and artistic recognition of community theater projects globally.
The book centers on six case studies of community theater projects from around the world: the Philippines, the Netherlands, the United States, Costa Rica, Kenya, and Australia. Each study begins with what van Erven [End Page 77] calls a brief "sociocultural impression" of the area in which the community theater project is taking place, a history of community theater and related theater practices in the area, and background on the group and community creating the theater piece. Then van Erven offers day-by-day or, for longer projects, week-by-week accounts of the particular piece as it takes shape. Each chapter ends with a description of the performance that emerged as it was presented to its intended community and an evaluation of the project based on interviews with spectators and participants. Van Erven chooses this methodical approach to help the reader appreciate each project within its proper sociocultural context. This method, though at times programmatic, gives structure to the recording of a process that is often fraught with unforeseen problems and blessed with serendipitous events.
Van Erven's documentation honestly records many of the challenges of this difficult art, in which practitioners working with nonprofessionals from different communities attempt to create plays dealing with controversial personal and social issues on a small budget. Unlike productions in which directors ask actors to leave their personal problems at the door, community theater's purpose is to use theater as a way of engaging with the lives of those involved. However, directors (or "facilitators," as they are often called in community theater) must simultaneously juggle personal and social issues with other artistic concerns. Marlies Haustwurst of the Netherlands' Stut Theater recalls working on their 1994 production of The Day and the Night, based on the shared concerns of women in the Dutch, Moroccan, and Turkish communities. The development process came to a standstill when the husband of one of the Moroccan women forced her to quit because he felt that his friends would consider his wife a whore for being involved in theater. For Tears in the Rain, the Stut Theater project van Erven witnessed, similar problems arose in trying to find participants from the Moroccan community.
Sally Gordon, heavily influenced by Robert Alexander's work with Living Stage and now running her own projects through the Hathaway Family Resource Center in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, faces a different set of cultural issues. Although she has done work with "at risk" youth in the community, she feels that this work is "doomed to fail, because it is impossible to break down gang rivalries." In Gordon's Saquen la sopa ya! (the project van Erven documents), one improvisation leads a participant to a tearful disclosure of an incestuous relationship in her own family. True to her...