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.