Sister Cities, Sister Theatre Scenes

Why don’t the theatre scenes in individual cities set up sister-city type relationships?

There could be a theatre venue in each city of a sister-city pair that is specifically devoted to importing works from the other city.  There could be a generalized initiative to get local theatres in both cities to pay special attention to each other when seeking new works and talent, and to share resources.  Something like a Venn diagramming of two scenes, if you will, similar to an exchange program.

(Arrangements like this do happen already on occasion, when a festival of some sort occurs celebrating the theatre of a particular foreign place.  So it’s not without precedent.  I’m just talking about a more permanent, two-way collaboration, extending beyond just one or two big theatre venues.)

Why?  What’s the good in this?

I believe that theatre’s future lies in exploiting its unique ability to be truly local, direct, personal and current.

What could be better for a local theatre scene than to 1) make its local character an exportable quality, 2) increase its stature and recognition worldwide by demonstrating that its local-character works can find an audience in other places, 3) honing that local character and the skills of its artists by testing them abroad, and 4) injecting the local scene with fresh ideas from other places and warding off insularity?

It seems like it would be the best mix of the globalized world and the local one.

We currently, of course, import theatre like crazy.  In places like New York and Chicago, there is both import and export, but here in D.C. and in many other places, it’s almost all inward-bound, with a smattering of the locally-developed.  What exporting that does happen to any place other than NYC is highly random and nonrepresentative of the scene as a whole – an isolated playwright winning a contest here, a university connection there. 

The purpose, with a sister-city setup, would be not just to give places like D.C. a guaranteed opportunity to export, but to create something like a stream that makes the import-export dynamic more meaningful. 

What might the local scene look like, then?

Not that D.C. or any other scene should stop hunting and picking for desired imports from both major factories like London or from anywhere else, but that having a couple specific, strong connections with infrastructure and mutual recognition would be an additional part of the artistic economy.  Something like this, in any given city’s scene:

***A CAULDRON of locally-grown theatre – a large amount
***A STEADY, FOCUSED STREAM of sister-city import and export  – a small amount
***A POROUS BORDER allowing scattered, occasional international hits and traveling works into the local scene (technically including everything from Fringe to Shakespeare) – a medium to large amount, but scattered & random 

The sister-city stream (a two-way flow) functions like a high-speed artistic rail from one hub to another.  By comparison, the porous border (which D.C. and all other theatre scenes have already) is more like a set of roadways leading into and out of the city – travel-able, but not direct.

What might the global scene look like, then?

Currently, the setup for theatre, in the U.S. and worldwide (Western theatre, at least), seems to be this: there are major theatres scattered throughout the nations in various large cities plus massive concentrations in New York, London, Paris, etc.  The bigwig theatre practitioners in any city outside of those hubs tries to keep up with the worldwide (Western/English-speaking) scene, attending conferences, listening to the blogosphere, reading the magazines and newspapers.  Random connections are made between theatres in different cities, different countries, or individuals around the world, the way Studio Theatre here in D.C. adopted Enda Walsh for a time. Occasionally a play like Bright New Boise gets anointed out of the regional system and passed around all the major regional theatres.  Otherwise, the hubs generate most of the new theatre work by drawing in the talent and then spitting it back out.  Sort of like this, if you excuse my crude drawing:

Theater in America - Everything Through NYC (plus a little Chicago etc)

It all flows in, for the most part, to NYC, and then flows back out – or it just stays where it is.  (I tried drawing in occasional random connections between small cities, but it just became illegible.  Just imagine that they’re too infrequent and brief to show up on this map.)  You could make a similar (crude) map internationally, with London, Edinburgh, etc as additional scoop-’em-up hubs.

We do have some theatre networks that connect many big regional theatres (plus, you know, the Internet).  Those networks are good things, no doubt – but they aren’t the end-all-be-all of making connections outside of New York.  A generalized, broad network will provide maximized exposure, meritocracy and communication at the potential expense of encouraging homogeny, monoculture and fad-following – essentially making something else that looks like NYC does on the map, except virtual instead of tied to one place.  

Yet if there were narrow, focused, strong pipelines between individual cities, then the smaller, more local, and more idiosyncratic up-and-coming artworks and artists would get an accessible, diverse entryway into the broader marketplace:

Theatre Map With Green Pipelines Between Sister Cities

I didn’t mean to leave Santa Fe out of the picture, but you get the idea.  NYC still sucks a lot of the talent in and spits out a lot of the work, and there are still virtual networks, but there are also strong connections crisscrossing the country between various regional theatre scenes.  (You could theoretically “slide” into any city and then “ride” its strong connections around the nation.)

And that’s the important thing here.  The sister city network is supplemental to the existing system.  I’m not saying “tear down the oligarchy of New York City!”  There is a great deal to be said in favor of having central hubs where talent can pool – that kind of environment creates great art, without a doubt.  But it’s of a different kind than the kind that comes from strong local scenes – and a set of sister-theatre-scene pipelines would help those local scenes define themselves, announce themselves and learn from each other.

How might this get started and operate?

D.C. is both a good and an unusual example for how this might work, because of our preponderance of embassies and internationals.  D.C. might be served well with a sister relationship with a major German theatre city via our Goethe Institut, and with another regional-non-exporting theatre city in the U.S. like Minneapolis or San Francisco, and maybe one more, maybe one of D.C.’s actual sister cities abroad. 

I think all it would take for such an arrangement to become an Actual Thing would be for a sizeable enough number of artmakers in two theatre scenes simply saying, collectively, “yeah, let’s do each other’s work and share each other’s talent,” facilitated by one or two dedicated ambassadors on each side.  The ambassadors would ideally be people of some status in their theatre communities – critics, major producers, whomever – so that a large enough number of theatremakers in each city actually pay attention and engage. 

Probably, the initiative would start with the ambassadors, instead of the communities.  Two ambassadors – one in each city, both with some clout – decide this should be an Actual Thing, and they start talking to their local theatremakers, and soon enough productions start happening.  The key is that the ambassadors talk to everyone – a narrow, one-theatre-company-to-another connection wouldn’t work.

An ambassador in City One could send the best and brightest standouts from their hometown to an ambassador in City Two, who then shops those imports around to the local theatres, big and small, and vice versa, leading to (to pull a wild number from the air) perhaps a half-dozen imported productions/scripts each season.  Perhaps an ambassador in City Two could even host travelling producers from City One to audition actors, directors and designers interested in working in City One; or, the ambassador in City Two could help travelling actors etc from City One to find auditions and opportunities when they travel to the city.  Sort of a mutually favored leg-up for out-of-towners in both cities. 

Locality and Time, Restrictions and Considerations

It may be that the two scenes would have to be of more or less equal strength and prestige.  Or, it may be that connecting a small scene with a large one would produce very interesting and mutually beneficial results – like if, say, D.C. connected to Cedar Rapids or, I dunno, Flagstaff.

It may be that these arrangements would work best over limited periods of time.  In a city like D.C., I think people from places other than Germany would start to get upset if D.C. only had an international sister-theatre relationship with Munich.  An arrangement would need a year or two to gear up and then a couple years to be fruitful, at least, and then it could be closed out and the connection switched to somewhere else. 

Theoretically, there could be no limit to the number of sister-relationships, as long as enterprising organizers can convince enough folk in both places to engage; pragmatically, however, the upper limit would be where the local theatre practitioners start to feel crowded and pressured to make too much of their work connected to another city.  In a city like D.C. with 100 or so theatre companies, if, for a sister connection to work, there needs to be, oh, a dozen import/export production exchanges each year, then that would mean we in D.C. could have roughly four sisters.  That would approximately equal each local company having one imported production (script, full production, whatever) every two years, not too overwhelming a number.  Three would probably be more manageable, of course; I’m just guessing at numbers here.

Or, to avoid those questions of prejudice and stagnance that might come with international engagements, perhaps only national ones should be maintained over any long term.  I doubt anyone from Boston or Tulsa would complain too loudly if only D.C. and Minneapolis had an ongoing relationship the way people would start to (rightfully) get upset if our only foreign connection was to Europe — particularly if Boston and Tulsa had a connection of their own.  There’s not that sense of exclusion if it’s all within America, because a handful of national sister relationships create that stream of talent and artwork flowing around the country – D.C. to  Minneapolis, Minneapolis to Miami, Miami to Denver, Denver to Boston, Boston to Tulsa, and so on, back to D.C. and thus in a continuous, but manageable, cycle.

Focus vs. Breadth and Conclusion

What I’m arguing for here is the notion that, in our globalized world, we lose something if we let our borders be excessively hazy.  Economies of scale apply to exporting/importing too, so trying to build up the local scene and then export it TO THE WORLD will produce hazy and random results.  Focusing import/export resources onto a couple key partnerships, however, improves all the import/export functions, even to places outside the partnerships, because they can just plug in to the strong structure of that sister connection. 

Local scenes.  Strong partnerships.  An open world.  It’s a triple stack recipe for powerful art that can actually mean something to its audience and reach every audience it would be meaningful to.

…Of course, we’re a long way from having local scenes that function as wholes, so this is a bit of a pipe dream (pun intended).  Or maybe putting the cart before the horse, and developing the pipelines to other cities, would actually help build those local scenes in the first place.  I don’t know.

Just a thought.

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2 comments

  1. […] Companies I Want to Form: 1 of 3 What About Food Truck Theatre? Why Doesn’t Theatre Advertise? Sister Cities, Sister Theatre Scenes Theatre Companies I Want to Form: 2 of 3 What About 10-Minute Play Parties (and More)? Idea for a […]

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I don’t think that I’ve ever discovered sister cities.

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