Where You Are Planted, pt. 2

Here is part two of my exploration of 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?

Throughout Robert Gard’s explorations of theatre in New York, Alberta, and Wisconsin, one thing became increasingly clear: “mediocre standards may be the single greatest drawback to the spread of the living theatre idea as a force in community life” (204). He didn’t say it to be a snob: his understanding of the audience’s experience was paramount to the overall success of a playwriting program. In order to guard against mediocrity, Gard proposed a model of continuing education, feedback, and the recruitment of the best artists and teachers possible.

This vision later expanded with an eye toward sustainability. As he sat at Sugar Bush Hill in Wisconsin some twenty years later, he had a second epiphany that I think is relevant today. In that moment, he realized:

The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theatre departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present at least little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater… (250).

Gard goes on to outline what this might look like: home-grown artists working within their own communities. “What is needed is more idealistic wandering, more work, more ideas, the marshalling of more force for the cultural arts…. It may mean, eventually, a whole new concept of the university in which the backstage [i.e., the continuing education movement] becomes the forestage” (252).

In order for it to work, Gard argues that potential leaders need to be supported and cultivated. Decentralize the arts power structure (i.e., expand it beyond the coasts, seek local funding, collaborate with state universities, and do not rely solely on professional theatres in urban areas) while empowering artists to provide leadership within their own communities. What would this look like in today’s climate? What organizations are already following this model–and how is it working for them and their audiences?

Gard’s observation that the university is producing more theatre artists than can find work within the professional theatre (or the university!) makes me wonder, what if every BFA and MFA program included the kind of community training Gard describes? What if every student, for example, was required to bring his or her gifts into the community in whatever ways were specific and appropriate for the artist?

While Gard was working toward an ideal of the arts in our culture, he was also working against another tendency–that of a depersonalized, mass-produced consumer culture and how it affects audience. It is here that we can again learn from Gard; we are not in such a dissimilar place now. The Occupy Movement may have faded, but the growing clamor over the disparity between rich and poor has not. The great civil conflict of our time may be one of equal access. Class economics expose this gap and show the increasingly destructive differences in people’s access to quality education, health care, meaningful employment and–not insignificantly–the arts. So much of this is determined by where a person lives. Rust belt or sun belt, bible belt or beltway, each geographical location has an enormous impact on what we have access to and to whom.

Perhaps this is why I find the ideas of Gard especially germane in helping artists find ways of doing their art within their community, for their community, and–explicitly or not–about their community. Gard’s vision takes its cue from how we choose to answer the question: who is our audience? The answer depends on who is doing the asking, of course. For Gard, the arts are for you and me and everyone around us. It is the company who chooses the audience it keeps.

Gard concludes Grassroots Theater with this observation:

Whatever the results, the drive, the restless seeking, the searching into dim corners is the great thing. The sproutings of artistic expression, the coming to life in a thousand places, the places where people strive honestly for the spark of an art impulse, are my satisfactions and the results of my search (252).

One shouldn’t overlook the “drive, the restless seeking,” or what others may call passion. For Gard, it is the artist’s greatest strength and, as his daughter notes over forty years later, it is more important than a particular skill or technique. Picking up on her father’s use of the word “drive, she writes:

To what extent is your work only your skills, rather than the drive in your soul? What are your own big ideas, those ideas so terrifyingly pure to you that you are sometimes afraid to say them even to yourself?… Write them down. Dare to say them to someone….

And then, armed anew with your place, your people, your culture, your chronology, create your own ‘Grassroots Theater.’

Through your life, give new life.

Reflect. Burn. Speak. Act. Create (Ewell xxvi).

What she and her father describe is a lifetime’s worth of work but also the work of a lifetime. And there is no better time to start than now.

back stage at the warner theatre

Image: Backstage at the Warner Theatre by Christopher Lane Photography, 2011.

Writing Prompt: How does the place where you live feed your art?

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.

You can also download a free pdf copy of the Robert E. Gard Reader: To Change the Face of America, From Writings by Robert E. Gard. Edited by LaMoine MacLaughlin and Maryo Gard Ewell.

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.

Top Image: “Old Theatre Seats,” Mackinac Island, MI by JoeyBLS Photography.


  1. jonathangrahamplaywright

    I’m actually not sure how exactly place informs my art. Lately, I’ve been writing plays that combine the domestic and the fantastic: a play about two young kids and their parents — plus a pea monster; a play set in a suburban refrigerator — with food items that talk; and one more about a mourning a dead grandmother — and a time machine. I think these plays quite obviously come from the mental space I currently inhabit (where I think a lot about being a parent, about aging and loss and about what theater can do that other art forms can’t), but I’m not sure how much they relate to my particular geographical place.

    I am deeply interested in Robert Gard’s focus on the community based art, but I think that in the 21st century, our notions of the “local” are in flux. Could we recreate the working conditions he describes in his book, where “local” people create plays based on “local” lore for “local” audiences? I’m not sure.

    First of all, so many artists (like me) live in places where they are not from, so they create from the margins of communities where they live, and perhaps from memories of the places they used to live and the with dreams of places they hope to go. Artists and there audiences are also immersed in online culture which can be, by turns, global or local, communal or isolated, mass market or grass roots. Through social media, I am in more frequent contact with people I went to school with 20 years ago than people who live in my neighborhood. That’s probably true for potential audience members, too. So what does that mean for my personal sense of the local, and for the audience’s?

    My interest in community based art, then, is actually highly pragmatic. Making theatre requires a community of people who eventually are all in a room together. The local rehearsal room. And I think it is healthy for artists to come to together where they live and collaborate. But the content of the art that is created there may well have its roots in other communities, other physical places or even in virtual worlds.

    I think the “information age” mindset complicates the way contemporary artists think about “grassroots theater.” But I think our fragmented contemporary leaves a void that can be beautifully occupied by in person, collaborative art making. There remain amazing possibilities in the local.

  2. Diane Reynolds

    Hi Jennie,
    I was glad to hear about this book, and especially like the way you tied community art to biggest social justice issue of our time, the huge wealth disparity. It was encouraging to come here after reading an especially discouraging op/ed in the NYT discussing how poorly the US ranks in personal well being. As for where I now live, moving to a small town, a place that still functions without a huge gap between rich and poor, has been revelatory. It’s so different from living in the Balto/Wash suburbs, where I know you lived too, that it’s remarkable to me.

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