What Makes Local Theatre Local?

There’s been growing interest in the theatre community, both at large and in DC, in local theatre and local playwrights.  As a native DC playwright myself, I stand to gain from the increasing attention.  But I do wonder just what “local” really means in these discussions, because the matter of “local”-ness in theatre is essentially one of a community deciding to confer certain benefits and traits to a group.  The community is deciding both what those benefits and traits are, and who the group members are.

Proponents of local theatre and playwrights argue that it is economically, artistically, and spiritually healthy to have more localness in the production chain: more local creators, actors, issues = better.  No one argues that 100% local would be ‘best,’ but everyone on this side of the issue (including, I should note, myself, since this critique might suggest otherwise) seems to feel that we would benefit from having more localness than we do now.

To consider the questions of artistic and spiritual health first, and economics second.  Part of the good of arts, particularly storytelling arts like theatre, is that they can help a person or a community understand itself better.  Therefore, it is certainly true that having theatre which is locally relevant is important.

But it is not conclusively true that the locational source of the theatre is the only thing that determines the local value of that theatre.

For the most part, if the story being told and the issues being addressed are extremely and specifically local – for instance, a DC play about DC voting rights or Marion Barry or something – then, yes, the closer nearby the creators and producers live, the more relevant and accurate the play will be.  But a community only needs so much of extremely specific work like this.

In general, the kinds of stories that, for instance, DC needs or wants could just as easily be written by a playwright from Philadelphia, or podunk anywheresville, or Nairobi.  We can think of a community as having a number of needs which it wants addressed in its theatre: a variety of issues, themes, genres, outlooks, portrayals.  These needs can be arranged into a “scale” of relevance, with the needs relevant only to members of that community at the “near” end, and the needs relevant to any human being anywhere at the “far” end.

DC’s scale might thus progress (to give just a few examples) from voting rights, Beltway politics, Marion Barry, etc., at the near end, through issues like white flight and recovery from the ’68 riots (particularly meaningful to, but not unique to, the District), on through even broader issues like urban life (important in any city) and the legacy of the Civil War (regionally important), to issues of American national relevance, issues of Western civilizational relevance and at last, at the far end, universally relevant issues like love, regret, family.

Every play ever written, to some degree, reaches to the far end of this scale in some way.  But how “close in” on the scale each goes varies.  A play about family might come, in its specificity, only to the national or regional level – a generic play about a dysfunctional home will, after all, still be presented through the prism of its culture – but not all the way in to the city or neighborhood level.  By the same token, however, this means a given playwright from the depressed areas of Los Angeles might have write something more relevant to DC than a playwright from the Eastern Shore.  Moving farther and farther away in actual, physical location only decreases the likelihood that the playwright will be able to write plays with a high degree of local relevance.

So we can see that any attempt to define and delineate what counts as “local” in DC theatres is potentially limiting.

Again, no one is advocating that non-local theatre be eliminated.  There will be always be Shakespeare (especially in DC) to address many of those issues at the far end of the localness scale (and at certain times a given Shakespeare production might even work on a super-local level), but what is important is which theatre gets included and marked as local theatre.

Why?  Because we are starting to apply certain benefits and traits to “local” theatre.

Local festivals – as, hopefully, they start to crop up more – give greater opportunities to local writers.  (At the moment, this is simply correcting for a dearth of such opportunities.)  Any successful production branded as local may also earn a certain amount of pride from the part of the community, and may acquire additional status if plays from that location are considered hot items elsewhere.

The reason I started thinking about this is because I have seen many plays and readings by local writers over the past couple years, and because I was recently engaged in helping to define “local” for the Beltway Drama Series.   The plays I’ve seen written by local writers, in almost every case outside of Active Cultures, have not been especially local in relevance.  These plays have been plays on the universal, cultural or national level which happened to be written by DC metro residents — plays about death, war, myth, class, America; broad farces and puzzle-box mysteries.  No Marion Barry in sight.

So is it truly natural to say that a DC-local play is only one written by a playwright from the DC area, meaning the counties considered part of the DC metro area?  (Or the DC-Baltimore metro area?)  Is it, when DC-local-written plays are not DC-local in character?

It seems to reduce the argument for the artistic value of local theatre to almost nothing if the plays written by local writers are not local in character.  (And certainly, if many many New York-New York plays are any indication, it is quite possible to write a significant body of work which is very high in localness.)  Under those lines, it’s hard not to argue, for instance, that a play by a Norwegian put on by entirely local actors and creators at tiny No Rules or Spooky Action Theatre isn’t, in a sense, better for the local community or more local than a play by a Northern Virginia playwright at Arena which is otherwise put on almost entirely by New York and international artists.

Thus we come back to the economic question.  If there is not, actually, any artistically inherent value in the physical location of the playwright (just an increased likelihood of relevance), then only economic and pragmatic arguments are good arguments for focusing on physically-local writers.  It is definitely financially healthy for a community if the arts money stays in the area.  And of course, better work can come from simply having the playwright physically able to interact with colleagues year-round and face-to-face.  Keeping things in town, so to speak, is clearly good for everyone.  But is that specific enough?  Would a Frederick or between-Richmond-and-DC writer not count as local enough, if his or her money is not really ending up in DC?

Who gets included?

I recognize that, in a way, with much of the deck still stacked against local work however it is defined, it’s a bit early to start making such critiques.  And of course this isn’t a zero-sum game by any means.  However, I do think we have to decide, as we go about defining this local movement, just which aspects of localness and locality we want to focus on — if we can’t focus on them all — and just what benefits go to who, and why.

*I can’t think of a better word for “degree of how local in character something is,” because “locality” of course means something else.



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