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Theatre: Unimportant productions matter as they are the talent pool of theater professionals and more

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Fall 2013

You’re a community theater in Indiana. Does what you do matter? After all, you mostly perform for your friends and family; no one will ever hear of you outside your community, and the level of your work depends strictly on the catch-as-catch-can nature of the local talent. Sometimes you feel that your real function is not theater at all, but providing a venue for people to exercise their inner Borgia in a harmless way.

You’re a  community college theater program in West Virginia. Does what you do matter? After all, you are routinely put in the shade by your own institution’s visiting artist program, the administration clearly cares a great deal more about the intramural sports program, and most of the genuine talent in your area doesn’t attend your school, but instead attends a much larger institution in your state or goes out-of-state altogether.

You’re a drama department in a four-year college somewhere in Texas. Does what you do matter? After all, your BA degree in dramatic arts has to be defended against constant attack by those who believe that the only worthwhile outcome of education is instant employability in such crucially important fields as mortgage processing.

You’re a university drama department in a major theatrical city, such as Chicago, Washington D. C., Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, or New York. Does what you do matter? After all, it’s the professionals who count, right?

You’re a professional theater at the second lowest tier of the Equity Small Professional Theaters contract. Does what you do matter? If you were any good, wouldn’t you be on Broadway, and wouldn’t theater be your day job?

Yes. What you do does matter. Because you are the talent pool.

Those who achieve at the highest level, regardless of their field of endeavor, do not rise from the earth because someone sowed dragon teeth, nor are they magically produced by the wave of someone’s magic wand. Under normal conditions at mid-season, there are exactly 750 major league baseball players: 30 teams, each with a 25-man roster. On that exact same day in mid-season, how many kids are out there playing in Little League? Pop Warner? How many high school and college players are there who just finished up their seasons? How many people are there playing in all the myriad levels of minor-league baseball?

Those people, those kids, those students, those minor-leaguers: they are the talent pool. Without those levels of the sport, those 750 major-leaguers would not be major-leaguers; they would be out making their living in any of hundreds of other ways, because there would be no such thing as major league baseball.

So what you do does matter. In addition to all the other good things you do, such as contributing to the cultural life of your community, providing cultural experiences for your participants, and improving appreciation and understanding of the art, you are also the one who might ignite the spark in someone who doesn’t yet know they have what it takes to rise to the top.

What you do would matter a lot more if the arts did what sports do: provide systematic paths of progress. In most sports, there are organized systems that spot, develop, and promote talented participants, developing them and giving them organized opportunity to move on to the next level. No art form does that. All individual artists, regardless of what form of art they practice,  be it fine or performing, find their way forward on their own, with whatever mentorship or encouragement they happen to encounter.

Fixing that in some fashion would make what you do a whole lot more effective. Instead of swimming aimlessly in a stagnant talent pool, rising artists would have a current to follow; the talent pool would flow rather than sit. I have no idea how that could be managed, but I can’t see how it wouldn’t be a good thing.

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