Saturday, January 21, 2012

New Challenge, Old Mandate (or Theatre for the Poor)

I was challenged in the last 24 hours by something two artists mentioned about artists and poverty. Their words, ruminating in my mind, along with some others that have been swimming there for awhile and some words about the poor that I read in the book of Job today, provoked a new question in me:

What does it mean to CREATE THEATRE FOR THE POOR? More broadly, one could ask what it would take to create ART for the poor, but being a theatre artist myself, I would like to focus the question on the theatrical world. Before trying to answer the question of what it means or even how to create theatre for the poor, I would like to present some foundations for WHY this kind of theatre-making is necessary.

Much of what I am about to say is based on the teachings of Jesus and a Biblical worldview, but I welcome others to engage in this exploration who are not of that mindset, as this should be fairly universal. If you prefer to skip over the Bible verses related to the poor, you may scroll down a bit for further exploration.

So, WHY should we create theatre for the poor?

1. God cares about the poor. There are countless examples throughout history of God's deep concern and advocacy for the poor.

Psalm 82:3 says, "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed."

Psalm 140:12 says, "I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor."

Isaiah 41:17 says, "The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them."

In Luke 6:20-21 Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh."

There is so much more I could list here, but allow me to proceed to the next point.

2. Loving the Poor is at the very core of loving and living like God. It is one of his highest priorities.

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." -James 1:27.

"Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" -Is. 58:66

3. In loving Jesus, we are loving the poor. If we are excluding the poor from our theatre, are we not at some level excluding Jesus?

"The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’- Matthew 25:40

Look at his response to others in Matthew 25:44-45. “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

4. Jesus emptied himself of his riches to pour it out on all of us, the poor in spirit. And his mission had the poor and outcast its center.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read... "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD... Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Rather than load you down with a barrage of Bible verses, I would like to unpack some of my thinking on this in the form of questions I am ruminating.

Given that live theatre is typically more expensive to go see than watching a movie, are we as theatre artists really making theatre accessible to the poor among us? Sure, we have industry tickets which help the poor amongst our own kind (other actors, designers, stage managers, etc.), but what of those outside of our artistic community who lack the means to pay the ticket prices often necessary for a decent show?

I think of Broadway, or Vegas shows from Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group. Or I think of local groups (specific theatres I will not mention here) who charge $20.00 or more to go see one of their productions. And I am not faulting them for this. It takes money to create good work. But then what does that mean for the patrons we are allowing to come see our work? The socio-economic factors automatically rule out a good deal of the community who is just deserving and perhaps even more in need of good theatre than the rest of us who typically get to see it. How do we solve this problem?

I was moved by a scene from the movie "Finding Neverland" years ago, in which Johnny Depp's character, J.M. Barry, asks one of his associates to find as many children as he can from off of the streets to fill the seats of his theatre for the opening of "Peter Pan." It seemed that Barry was purposely integrating these children, "the least of these" so to speak, with the well-to-do adult audience members in order to create a theatrical experience that would be richer for BOTH parties. The children were delighted by the story and an entertainment form that they might not have otherwise gotten to experience, and the adults in the room were likewise invited into an experience that they would not have enjoyed otherwise; the pure joy of being child-like. The children in this audience were actually helping to inform how the adults in the room could freely respond to the action taking place on stage. As a result of this genius combination, the well-to-do audience members got it. They were able to laugh and engage in the play along with their "lesser" counter-parts. And in those moments, they were able to find a common ground, whether conscious of it or not.

Now, I am not suggesting that we always put children and adults together in the audience as a way to create a magical theatrical experience (though you would be surprised at what this combination can do even in this day and age). Rather, I think the scene from "Finding Neverland" serves as a wonderful image of the benefit that can come in serving more than one audience type, the haves and the have-nots. And I dare to say that as we do so more and more, we will find that the have-nots are really the "haves" in some respect, offering so much more to the larger community than what we might expect.

So this begs the question. How are we to create theatre for the poor? Does this mean that we eliminate ticket prices altogether? Or make ticket prices so low that even the poorest of the poor will not have a hard time scrounging up the extra change needed to get a seat? How might this affect the production quality of the work being presented? Should theatre for the poor be limited to poor quality theatre? If the rich of the world (which I suggest are you and I reading this) are privy to stellar entertainment experiences, should the poor receive anything less? If we are accustomed to a nice Italian dinner every now and then, should the poor's experience be relegated to out-of-the-box Mac 'N Cheese, just because it's cheaper?

I don't know what the solution is. But I am committed to finding out. I hope to find others who are willing to explore this with me. I would love to create Cirque du Soleil quality work that anyone can access, poor or not. It will take something miraculous and radical, I am sure. Sounds to me like an adventure worth pursuing!