Thoughts from Ben Noll, northwest DC resident and community volunteer:
Gentrification is kind of an ironic thing to discuss in a theater, a venue typically reserved for the wealthy, educated elite that often perpetuate it. As an activities coordinator for a group of homeless men and women with medical needs, I have had the honor of accompanying many of my patients to their first-ever live theater experience. At first I was surprised; with the variety of programs in the District providing free or extremely low-cost theater it would appear the the arts are accessible to all people. Cost, it seems, is not the only barrier that divides theater from the wider community. For many of the individuals I work with, attending a play never even crossed their minds as something to do with their time. No matter how hard we try to address critical issues in enlightening, thought-provoking ways on stage, there is little gain if the same people keep filling the seats. All the talk-backs in the world cannot account for over-representation from a narrow sampling of the socio-economic diversity that exists in the communities we wish to impact.
Of course, what is on stage is very important. “Clybourne Park” is an incredible opportunity to converse about race relations, gentrification, and other issues that affect the daily lives of our communities primarily because it’s hysterical and completely entertaining. Surely only the same folks will continue walking through the doors if their expectations of a stuffy, elitist theater are confirmed by what they see on stage. This production has broad populist appeal because it raises difficult questions without alienating those who may have differing perspectives…and, did I mention, it’s hilarious!?!
What you want audiences to do after they leave the theater is another extremely important question that I haven’t thought through completely yet. “Clybourne Park” is a show that demands to be discussed and that few who see it will be able to hold their tongues about around the water-coolers (or blogs, or tweets, or wherever people ruminate over such things these days) post-show. Theater provides a wonderful venue for exposing the things we don’t tend to talk about in casual conversation, creating a space for dialogue that can challenge assumptions and promote real change in ideology and action.
Nevertheless, my experiences with the clients I work with keeps me returning to the first question; how do you get the community through the door? You may have a perfect production and a decisive outline for engaging audiences after the curtain falls, but if nobody feels compelled to come in the first place, you might as well have saved your time (and money!). Woolly has done a great job so far of making theater accessible to the community; donations to local non-profit organizations, discount programs for young adults, and Pay What You Can performances all create a space for people without the means to attend the theater. I still think there is a lot of work to do to truly make the theater accessible to the entire community, however, and this takes much more creativity. In its early days, theater was a means for popular entertainment; a cathartic community gathering. Like the Clybourne Park neighborhood, though, the theater has become gentrified and there are no easy solutions as to how we re-integrate those who have been pushed out. How do you think we can re-fashion the theater to make it not only economically but ideologically accessible to the entire community, thereby creating a space for conversation and change that includes everybody?