Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Community Theater vs. Indie Theater

Marissa Skudlarek is back and attempts to tackle that mixture of love-hate, pride-frustration, glory-despair that characterizes a life in the Indie Theater world. By the way, this is our 200th post! Hurray!

At my office, outside of my cubicle, I’ve hung a folder containing postcards that advertise the 2012 San Francisco Olympians Festival, along with a colorful sign that says “Like Theater? Take a postcard and talk to me!”

Last week, one of my co-workers took me up on that offer. “Oh, I see what this is, it’s community theater,” she said.

Indie theater,” I said pointedly.

“You’re like my sister-in-law, she does community theater. She’s going to be in Lend Me a Tenor. Now you, what role are you playing in this?”

I’m used to correcting people who assume that I’m an actor, not a playwright. But I’m not as skilled at explaining how I see a big difference between indie theater and community theater, and therefore I embrace the former term and recoil from the latter. Everything I could think to say sounded dismissive of my co-worker’s sister-in-law and the work that she does.

I try to be a kind, understanding, positive person. I do not want to be an intellectual snob who heaps reflexive scorn upon the community theaters of this world, which, after all, provide millions of Americans with their only exposure to live theater. We must remember that amateurs are thus called because they do what they do out of love (amo, amas, amat), and in the case of community theater, they love both the art and the community. I myself, as a child, spent lots of time at a community theater that did Crazy for You and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and I still value those memories.

But still, the two terms have different associations in my mind, and probably yours as well. Indie theater is Kickstarter campaigns and “devised movement work” and epater les bourgeois; community theater is… well, it’s Lend Me a Tenor. Which is a work of pure farce, intentionally no more than an after-dinner entertainment. It’s old-fashioned and nostalgic: written in the 1980s, in a style that imitates the boulevard farces of the 1930s. Examine it more closely and you’ll see it promotes some problematic racial and sexual attitudes: the two female leads spend the play running around in their underwear, and the entire plot is based on the idea that if two white men are both wearing blackface, it’s impossible to tell them apart.

So maybe it’s all right to scorn Lend Me a Tenor because it’s just not the kind of play that I think needs to be produced all over America. But then how do I do that without scorning the theaters that produce Lend Me a Tenor or the audiences who enjoy it? It’s a form of hating the sin and loving the sinner. Which is itself a problematic attitude.

And maybe, by drawing a distinction between “indie theater” and “community theater,” I’m only fooling myself – maybe we all are. By and large, we indie-theater folks are not getting paid, and we do it out of love. Indie-theater productions can be clumsy and cheap; they can be devoid of intellectual content; they can promote sexist or racist attitudes just as bad as those of Lend Me a Tenor. To an outside observer like my co-worker, any theater made by non-professionals is community theater, and all our protests that we do “indie theater” just make us look like we’re up on an unjustified high horse. We use the term “indie” because it makes us sound cool and alternative and hipster-ish. (And if you’re Stuart Bousel, you spell it “indy” so that it also makes you think of Indiana Jones, the coolest archaeology nerd ever.) In other words, we feel the need to distinguish ourselves from those rubes who parade across the stages of community theaters in small-town America.  But what if we weren’t so concerned with looking cool? What if, instead, we focused more on forging an honest connection with our audiences — dare I say it, with our community?

So I’m working on feeling a kinship to other practitioners of my artform, rather than drawing distinctions between myself and them. Today, Halloween, I wore a costume to work – a suffragette outfit that I pulled together out of vintage finds, craft-store supplies, and my own closet. In the mailroom, I ran into the co-worker with the Lend Me a Tenor sister-in-law, the one who thinks that what I do is community theater.

“Did you get that out of your costume closet?” she asked upon seeing my outfit.

“Well, I had some of the items already, but I had to get the skirt at a thrift store—”

“I thought you would’ve borrowed it from the costume closet at your theater.”

“Well, we don’t really have a costume closet. It’s indie theater. We rent space. We don’t have our own facility.”

“Really. You know my sister-in-law, the one who does community theater? They have a costume closet. Great big one. All kinds of clothes… plus old trunks, suitcases…”

“I’m sure that’s lovely,” I said, and meant it with all my heart. “But we don’t have that luxury.”

And just like that, community theater didn’t sound so bad after all.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. In this community we call the World Wide Web, you can find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @marissaskud.

13 comments on “Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Community Theater vs. Indie Theater

  1. We “indie theatre” folk don’t do “dinner theatre”; we can’t afford to guarantee every audience member a meal.

    • For me, the distinction between the two is that indie theatre tends to nurture the original work of emerging writers & performing artists.
      Indie/Indy theatre is often experimental. Regardless of “quality”, however we may define that, the act of experimenting often results in transformation/change=growth. Indie theatre is why LIVE theatre is still alive. It is a lovely petrie dish of art!
      In SF, it feels like a natural stepping stone from academia into “professional” (i.e. union) theatre, (which community theater could, but tends not to, be). I assert that you’ll find more ambition & excitement at a local Indy production (well or ill) than at most community productions, because of this tendency.
      This is not to say that there aren’t talented performers and directors (and designers and technicians!) at community theaters–often drawn by the influx of dollars from the particular (suburban) location. Yeah, real estate.
      Their object is simply different–probably less risky, possibly better funded, still nurturing artistically and socially, but perhaps, not as emotionally, aesthetically, or intellectually challenging.

      There are exceptions that prove the rule–Dahlia Vidor & Vallejo Shakes. Community–but in the best sense–because it’s building a bridge that previously didn’t exist.The social interaction there, bringing art to an artistically impoverished community, is at least equally valid–and also a sort of experiment.
      IMHO.
      Too much coffee strikes again 🙂
      Thanks for the stimulating blog!

      • Thanks for your comment, Valerie! I did want to get something in there about how “indie” theater, as opposed to “community” theater, often does place more of an emphasis on experimentation and innovation in all areas (writing, design, direction, performing). Which is another reason to characterize something like the Olympians Festival as “indie” rather than “community” — even as we also pride ourselves on the community of writers, directors, actors, and visual artists that the Festival brings together.

  2. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: As the guy who says “Indy” Theater, I think the problem is often really the distinction on the other side, i.e. putting too much importance on “professional” theater, as if it’s somehow intrinsically better when really all it is, is better paid (maybe- most those people have day jobs too) and often unionized (maybe- there are more and more non-union, professional theaters every day). I agree with Valerie, the art form has really been kept alive as an artistic medium (and not just an entertainment or community one) by indy theater- though art can happen anywhere, of course, it’s really about a value system behind the work that is done, and while community theater does it for the community (and by the way, I never use the word “amateur” to describe unpaid theater productions) and “professional” theater always seems more concerned with making money than anything else, indy theater is supposed to be, ideally, about the art form first- content driven, risk taking, personal, etc. In this sense, I like to compare the Indy Theater world to the Indie Film world, and wish we could find a term for Big Box Theater (hey- maybe that’s it!) that connoted the same thing as “Industry” or “Hollywood” in the film world, and wasn’t “Professional,” as I (and I think most people) see that as judgement on the work and the people doing it, rather than as an assessment of the budget.

    The truth is- sloppy work, empty work, exists on every level of the perceived ladder (and it’s worth noting- I’m pretty sure that ladder is a lie), and well done, impactful work exists on every level as well, and anyone who has seen a bad Broadway show or been in a black box one of those nights that pure magic happens, knows this. The individuals in question are what make something “good” or “meaningful”, in addition to all those ephemeral things that have to come together to create just one night of good theater, regardless of the talent, commitment and budget involved. The other distinctions are things we made up because we like to categorize and we particularly like to do it around money and in this country, especially, we are big on Industry, and so have created an Industry for everything- including the Arts. The problem with big “I” Industry is it creates perceived ladders to climb, promotes hierarchies and conformity across the board, and tends to be concerned with financial matters over artistic ones because the “Industry” starts mattering more than the product or the people who make it (just as the Union starts to matter more than the Individual), and so all the effort goes to keeping the Industry alive, not the Art, and if you don’t believe me you should look at the season of most regional theaters out there- there’s a whole lot of Lend Me a Tenor (or the current equivalent) on that level too.

    The fact is, almost all the great artists in history were or started as “Indie” or whatever they called it that meant “outside the system”. I doubt most of them truly cared if they were ever perceived as “professional”, since we know most of them didn’t care what they got paid, and thank God they didn’t stop making art because they didn’t “make it into the professional world”, which has always really meant just being popularly adored and patronized, in one way or another. I believe strongly that Artists of any medium should be paid well for what they do (or at least be paid something, if well isn’t an option), but it kind of blows my mind when I hear people “give up” pursuing the Arts because they don’t get paid well, or don’t feel they ever will, because it’s like, is that seriously what appealed to you about doing this? The potential to make money? No one should ever commit their life to anything for that reason. I want to watch the work of an artist who is in it for the cash as much as I want to be operated on by a heart surgeon who went into medicine because it pays well and not because they want to save lives- or be taught by a teacher who just likes having summers off, for that matter. By all means, we should aspire to a level where we can sustain ourselves from our passions- but our passions should not be determined by our purses, and all the weight and importance placed by so many Theater Artists on the “Professional Theater” world strikes me as completely missing the point of why this is worth doing in the first place.

    These days, when people ask me what kind of theater I do, I’m working at saying (as someone who has done Community, Indy and “Professional” theater), “I do theater I really believe in” as a response, rather than something that immediately implies judgement passed on myself or other people. Because I’m sure the folks on the Community level believe in what they do, and I hope the folks on the “Professional” level do, but the most important part is that I, as an Artist, believe in what I do with my time and energy and money, and when I tell people I do it proudly and not in some kind of half-assed, mildly embarrassed tone (which is just as bad as the somewhat patronizing tone Marissa is probably afraid she uses when responding to the Community Theater question). I’m proud of the work that I did in the Big Box and the Small Box, and I hope all of us are proud of the work we do and are doing it for the right reasons.

    And for the record, I use the term “Indy” rather than “Indie” because putting on a show in the Black Box world is always an adventure- and I am a bad-ass fucking treasure hunter who hates snakes.

    • What Stuart said–especially about ‘Industry’ and its effects on our art form. grrr!
      @ charles– what better dinner than the inexpensive, delightfully variable selections @ Theatre Pub, any given night, right? plus that little tingle of excitement at possibly becoming part of the action…

    • Lots to unpack here, Stuart! “Big box theater” is a great term for indie rebels like ourselves to use when describing big professional companies. And I agree that fame and money are fleeting, and cheap, and bad reasons to make art. “Our passions should not be determined by our purses” — great turn of phrase!

      At the same time, I think that your claim “almost all the great artists in history were or started as “Indie” or whatever they called it that meant “outside the system”” is a bit of a sweeping generalization. I mean, Shakespeare wrote his plays under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain and the King! And there are plenty of other examples like that, of very skilled artists who learned and performed their craft via working within the system, not outside of it. If ALL of the great artists were indeed “indie,” the indie theater world would have much more prestige than it does.

      Furthermore, if you’re an artist and you really believe in the work you’re doing, you may start wanting it to reach as many as people as possible — and thus look to join the System in order to get a larger audience. It’s not a desire for fame/celebrity per se, more a desire not to languish in obscurity, and to have that work, which you are so proud of, be recognized. (Not accusing YOU, Stuart, of doing this — just saying that “really believing in one’s work” may cause someone to seek to become “professional” rather than “indie.”) Again, I’m seeking to understand the interchange between the professional-theater and indie-theater worlds, as well as the indie-theater and community-theater worlds. Because they do flow into each other. The wall is porous.

      • sftheaterpub says:

        Stuart here:

        Marissa- please note I said, “almost all”, not “all”, and that I was talking about artists in general in that statement, not just playwrights, making the parameters of the statement larger and more inclusive.

        Also, I’m also not sure we can really conflate the system of royal patronage with the modern day Industry, particularly the Theater Industry. I would even suggest the system of patronage had more in common with today’s independent producers than it does with today’s regional theater system, which strikes me as holding a position more similar to what the church (which used to be the sole patron of the Arts) once held. Bear in mind, the system of Royal (read: secular) Patronage was once, in fact, the new “indie”- bucking the system when progressively secular monarchs needed to put various bishops and cardinals in their place. One fantastic way to do it was to commission some art, and use it as an attack or propaganda. It’s also worth noting that almost any Western Art from women, homosexuals and non-whites until the last century was basically “indie”, since by and large members of these groups who made Art or literature or theater were doing so in private, or in salons, and that which was published, performed or exhibited was often done so by small presses, underground societies and amongst fringe groups of one kind or another.

        That said, I’m gonna stand by the idea that most of the innovative, great artists and thinkers usually made their work outside the system, if not for their whole career, than for a portion of it. And the reason indie theater doesn’t have the same prestige, perhaps, as commercial theater (which is perhaps the best term we could use), has less to do with its innate value or who is and who isn’t an indie artist, and more to do with assets, marketing, politics and the part where it’s only in the last century (really, since the 1950’s in this country) we’ve had a need (as in there has been a recognizable artistic movement) to start classifying some theater productions as “indie” anyway, and in that century we’ve seen theater in general diminish in prestige. Certainly indie music, film, literature and art have had no problem establishing themselves as viable movements in themselves, but one could argue it’s also because unlike theater, a lot of people really care about music, film, literature, art. It’s not an argument I like, but I think it does have some statistical proof that makes it hard not to see the merit.

        That said, I agree that you will find many names on both the indie and the commercial rosters (I’ve done work in both worlds, for instance), though personally I believe we are entering an age where indie theater, micro-theater, fringe theater, or whatever you want to call it is, in fact, going to achieve a new level of prestige and importance, perhaps even dominance as we see more and more regional theaters fold and fail. MFA programs have started teaching their students how to start their own companies for a reason- namely because they’re admitting it might be the only chance they have to work.

        And I certainly agree that believing in your work entails a desire to have it seen by a larger audience, and I think we all look to the Industry (a term I prefer over “system,” as I think it’s more accurate in this instance) as a possible way to get our work out there to a wider audience and for some of us, it really and truly is and that’s wonderful. But for many of us it’s not an option, or it turns out it is an option but with tremendous compromise (recognizing that “tremendous” is a relative term) either to our work or the values we bring to our process. Many artists, many writers, choose to go indie/self-produce/self-publish because they want to retain artistic control of their work, to realize their vision without having to factor in the Industry’s wants and needs, or the pressure of budget determined by outsiders, etc. Many people who “make it” in the Industry, often do so, and then leave so they can do the work they actually want to do. I don’t mean to imply that the Industry is always in direct opposition to realizing artistic goals, but I’m also not the first person to suggest that the Industry also can be incredibly stifling and homogenizing, and that for some people, while they want that work they are so proud of to be recognized, they also want to make sure that work is, in fact, their work, the work they wanted to do, the way they wanted to do it. What it comes down to is this: yes there are many good things and bad things about the indie world, and the same is true of the Industry. There is no version of this story where you don’t pay a price to be an Artist.

        Which is why it really comes down what price you prefer to pay, and that just means, it comes down to how someone wants to work, and what we all want at any given moment in our lives- how we define words like “success” and “professional”- recognizing, of course, those definitions will change, and change again. In the end, for me at least, it’s not so much a question of “will I reach as many people as possible?” so much as, “will I reach the right people?” And as I get older, my definition of who the right people are has become progressively less about quantity and more about the quality of the experience, on my end and theirs. I guess I just don’t ever think of myself as “languishing in obscurity” and I feel rather sorry for anybody who does, but if it’s a choice between reaching one person but doing it with something truly mine, and reaching thousands with something that maybe I started but was slowly taken away from me and turned into something else with my name on it… well, I choose option A. Luckily, I think life rarely presents us with a decision so dire, but I do think most artists struggle with some version of this at some point in their careers and when they do… well, that’s when the indie world suddenly seems not only like the best option, but the only option. I mean, we may not have a place to store costumes, but if you can find some scraps and know how to sew, we’ll let you make whatever costume you want. You know, kind of like how you get to say whatever you want on this indie theater blog of ours.

        By the way, if you have never read it, I recommend Robert Patrick’s “Temple Slave”, which is a “novel”, but really a very thinly veiled first person account of the creation and rise of the Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway scene that is arguably the birthplace of the indie theater movement in this country. It’s a beautiful book, and much of it discusses why people do indie theater, why they choose to stay there or return there even after they make it, and why the Art and the world needs indie theater.

        And please also note, I’m only use “indie” and not “indy” for the benefit of whoever else might be reading this. 🙂

  3. Great piece (funny, too)!

    Agree with a lot of these comments, especially Stuart’s observation “The truth is- sloppy work, empty work, exists on every level of the perceived ladder (and it’s worth noting- I’m pretty sure that ladder is a lie)”.

    Additionally, I think it is vital to independent theatre’s future to maintain a distinction between professional and union. I think “professional” is best used to describe “that which happens at the highest level of the profession”. This sometimes applies to union shows, but is certainly not always the case. The most “professional” shows I have been involved with, in fact, have been non-union.

    For me what makes a theatrical production of any kind professional is the work ethic, focus, respect, and commitment to the art form and the project.

    • Definitely agree that we should distinguish between “union” theater and “professional” theater, though that’s not an easy distinction to get the general public to make. My dad has been known to say things like “And the actors were Equity, so of course they were the best in the business!” And I have to explain to him that that ain’t necessarily so.

  4. FIRST to Val: no argument here.

    TO THE TOPIC AT HAND: As far as the further comments of working within the system vs. working without, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes by one of my artistic heroes, Francis Ford Coppola:

    “If you ever want to know who’s running the world, look and see who’s hiring the artists, because then you’ll know who’s in power. And, ofcourse, we could look in the past when it was The Vatican or what-have-you. Today… the corporations are hiring the artists to advertising and ‘the great employer of artists’ tends to be advertising and advertising agencies.

    I see a world in which the artists are no long employed by who’s in power, but rather really share the power with the other aspects of society.”

    He goes on with that idea in the full transcript. One of the many reasons Coppola has always been an inspiration to me is because he truly knows how to work both in- and outside the system. He worked his way into the system due to his Theatre talents being recognised, leading to him winning the Best Screenplay Oscar for “Patton”. He created his own company, American Zoetrope, but their first piece, George Lucas’ “THX-1138”, was a failure that nearly sank the company. He rebounded with THE MOST BLATANTLY commerical project he was offered: a studio film based on Mario Puzo best-selling novel. He rode the success of that to make two more studio pieces: a sequel to the best-seller and an original piece about a paranoid wire-tapper. He ended the ’70s with an self-financed film about Viet Nam that he was sure would be a failure.

    His is a great example of how the binary “System = bad/Indie = good” thinking is ridiculously myopic if you have any plans to be any kind of WORKING artist. He’s made indie stuff that was horrible and studio work that was groundbreaking and indisputably artistic (and vice versa). As Stuart and Marissa have both pointed out: working within The System will require an amount of compromise so as to cater to The System’s goals, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be genuinely artistic. Alternately, working outside of it gives you artistic freedom, but there’s no security – every project may be your last.

    As we all strive to balance artistic intent with the necessity to maintain a livlihood, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of turning down an opportunity just because it doesn’t represent some form of, for lack of a better term, “purity”. At that point we run the risk of being just as dismissive as someone in power who would disregard our indie work at face value.

  5. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart again: Agreed, Charles, and I think we’re all saying some version of the same, at this point. My original response to Marissa’s article was simply to point out that as we can make the mistake of disparaging community theater, we can similarly make the mistake of romanticizing/glamorizing the Industry.

    Something one my artistic idols, Tilda Swinton, once said is that it’s a trap to think of yourself as only an indie film actress, or only a Hollywood starlet, or only a British actress or only an American actress, for that matter. The truth is, we all make choices based on a myriad of reasons but those reasons come down to deciding, for ourselves, what the “best opportunity is”. For her, she tends to pick her film based on who is working on them and whether or not she feels she will have good conversations with those people, learn from them and enjoy her time on and off-set. If I had to pick a criteria, mine would probably be something similar, as I want to be surrounded by smart people doing interesting things with all their heart behind it and some lofty ideals to boot.

    But I get that’s not for everybody, and the truth is many of my idols have ultimately chosen one side or the other. My admiration for them has never been contingent on which side they chose, but rather why they chose it and then the nature of the work they did there. Many of my favorite artists have never found a way to make their art fill sustain them and I recognize that by some people’s standards, that means they have “failed” or aren’t “professional”. Personally, I think the people who have those standards are valuing the wrong thing, but that’s because my values are different. Doesn’t mean we can’t get along or work together, and most importantly it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean we can’t respect the good work one another does or the choices one another has made.

  6. […] definition of “professional actor” is nebulous. Loyal readers of this blog have read Stuart’s stab at defining it in the comments section of a previous SF Theatre Pub article by Marissa Skudlarek (who makes her own good points). Melissa Hillman talked about her proposed […]

  7. […] of color . It’s thriving in places, even when you can’t find it. It’s refusing live or die by outdated definitions of what it is or […]

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