Over the next two weeks I will explore Robert Gard’s 1955’s classic book, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. In it he writes eloquently about the role of place and community in the theatre and in our lives–themes that continue to resonate. Reading his book 58 years after it was first published, I can’t help but wonder, what are ways Gard is offering us a blueprint for making art now?
Calling all artistic wanderers: Robert Gard wants you! He wants you to make art about the place where you live. He asks that you travel, preferably by foot, around your state. Drink in the landscape. Listen to the stories and the way people tell them. But, Gard warns, don’t wander so far that you can’t find your way back again. The point is to always return and put what you’ve learned into your art. Find ways of empowering others, too, to share their plays or poetry or paintings. If all goes according to Gard’s plan, before you know it, you will live in a place where the arts co-exist with everything else. Where they are as much a part of country life as taking stock of this year’s wheat crop.
Sound far-fetched? It is–and it isn’t. Robert Gard was a playwright, teacher and administrator back in the 1930s-1970s who took his own advice. With help from the Rockefeller Foundation and teaching positions at several universities, he did precisely this kind of community work in the arts. He describes his journey in Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. Part memoir, part meditation on fostering the arts within communities, Gard describes at length his work in Upstate New York, Alberta, and, especially, in Wisconsin between the 1930s and 1950s.
Gard’s search for an alternative way of life though the arts was set in motion after experiencing of the twin catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a college student in Kansas. He writes:
If the power, the drive, the call that had sent my father forth from Cumberland County, Illinois, to Kansas was now somehow responsible for young and old wandering futilely through the depression, then, indeed, I thought, we must seek a new, inward expansiveness that would enrich us, not so much in silver and gold but in our whole soul and feeling (12).
For Gard, this new, inward expansiveness would find its expression in a new way of doing theatre. It would be a theatre rooted in place, drawing on the location’s history and tradition. The area residents would make up the company of playwrights, actors, directors, crew, and audience. It would be a theatre for the people, by the people and about the people. A notion tied closely with his own democratic ideals and, as Gard alluded to by recalling his father’s experience, it would be a theatre that drew on the same restlessness and idealism that propelled immigrants to leave the old ways of living behind them and strike out for new horizons in America. It would be a grassroots theatre filled with the frontier spirit and the same desire to build a home of one’s own.
In her introduction to Grassroots Theater, Maryo Gard Ewell, calls her father’s book a “spiritual autobiography” (xvii). Though surprising, I don’t think her label is far off. Gard reports on a couple mountaintop epiphanies–one coming during his early career in New York, one much later in Wisconsin. Both concern his vision for what theatre can and should be and may serve as a model today.
After attending a cliché-riddled “rural life” play at a county fair written by a urban playwright, Gard felt both disgusted at what he had seen and overwhelmed by the authentic, overlooked stories that swirled around him as he sat in the fair’s theatre tent. As he looked out over Butternut Valley in Morris, New York later that day, he recalled that:
…suddenly my spirit was filled and lifted with a clear knowledge…. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of their happiness and sorrow, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials (33).
For Gard, it is all about finding ways of amplifying the voices singing of America. While working on his PhD in Ithaca, New York, Gard came into contact with Cornell professor, A.M. Drummond. A champion of regionalism and the Little Theatre movement himself, Drummond assigned Gard to go out into the countryside, meet its people, record their stories and discover how a landscape can shape the culture. Drummond believed that community theatre could be a way people made sense of their community (19).
This last idea is one that I believe holds tremendous power. Since moving to Richmond, Indiana in 2005, I have been involved in a handful of plays at our gem of a community theatre, Richmond Civic Theatre (RCT). In doing so, I have met people from all walks of life–many of them born and raised in Richmond. People, I think it’s safe to say, I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Without community theatre, my life here would feel drained of color and texture and fun–and I doubt that I would understand Richmond half as well as I do.
At RCT, I have gotten to play a mysterious murderer, a New York dilettante, a blind woman from an Irish village, an Oakie matriarch, and a misguided Shakespearean king. I have been able to inhabit the stories and lives of others in ways that thrilled me down to my toes. While the experience of acting in these disparate plays–three of which were written on the other side of the Atlantic–has not directly helped me understand what life is like in an east-central Indiana town, indirectly they have. There is the knowledge that can only come from experiencing a tech rehearsal together, not to mention the joys of a standing ovation, late night breakfasts at the only restaurant still open after a show, or stuffing sweat-soaked costumes into trash bags for a trip to the dry cleaners. These are the moment I learn about where I live and the people I share a hometown with.
Still, I wonder: are we cheating ourselves out of something more by not engaging with our peculiar heritage or addressing head-on the local issues that cause us to lose sleep at night? Are we denying theatre its exquisite power of urgent relevancy by choosing to perform familiar plays in familiar ways? What if, like Gard urges, we were to approach community theatre as the way to make sense of where we lived? To celebrate it, sure. Poke fun at it, lament it, to assert: this is where we have our being, where we love and lose and laugh.
What would theatre look like at a place like that?
Stay tuned for more thoughts on Gard next week. In the meantime, please give the following writing prompt a whirl.
Writing Prompt: Over the next 7 days, keep a look for out for random acts of creativity. Attend a poetry reading, listen to a busker playing guitar, or watch for a gaggle of kids putting on an impromptu play. Maybe the creative act you notice isn’t even performed by a human, but by a bird or a towering sycamore tree or the moon. Record the details of what you notice. How does it impact the environment around you?
Wanna pick up a copy of Gard’s book for yourself? Here’s the information you’ll need:
Gard, Robert E. Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Print.
About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted midweek. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.