Tyringham’s Journey to Our Town
I’m beginning to get the distinction between “community theatre” and “community-based theatre,” but the difference is still kind of elusive, so I thought I’d have a conversation with Ann Gallo, who is the originator of the Our Town Tyringham Project. I asked Ann to give me a better understanding of community-based theater, and while I had the opportunity, I asked her several other questions that were on my mind.
Here is what Ann had to say…
For me community-based theatre is one in which theatre empowers, engages and celebrates a specific community. Theatre as an art form provides an artistic environment for communities to enjoy unconditional permission to come together, play and engage with each other in a new way. Not just chatting at the post office or transfer station or even honking when you see a neighbor sweeping their front step. Theatre allows communities to meet and understand themselves in a uniquely creative and safe environment.
Community-based theatre is when the community is the base, the foundation, the driver of the artistic process and vision. It’s not about individuals who can belt a song or memorize endless pages of text. Rather, it is a communal endeavor that succeeds or fails based on the entire community coming together and exchanging ideas. It is a place for members of a community to share an experience in which to grow together and share a common goal, e.g. a play. Community-based theatre thrives on all participants willingly and openly sharing a vision of theatre piece that resonates with who they are and where they are in the moment.
Hopefully the experience and process of putting on a play with likely and unlikely neighbors will reveal hidden talents, realize unfulfilled dreams, make new friendships and even possibly repair broken ones. It is a creative way in which to bring a community together.
This is really different from what most of us think about when we think about theatre and traditional performances. What made you think about doing community-based theatre here; why Tyringham? And of course—why Our Town?
I’ll reverse the order of the questions because that’s in fact how I got to where we are today.
The play Our Town quite literally popped into my head while at a Tyringham Memorial Day service in the cemetery three summers ago. A young Palmer was playing Taps on a knoll, town folk were sprinkled amidst the eclectic head stones, everyone sporting straw hats, canes, military swag, cotton dresses, sun umbrella’s and tiny American flags. Those present represented virtually every family who has lived in Tyringham. To me the connection between Tyringham and Our Town was blatantly obvious.
I then had that outer body experience when my physical body remained on terra firma but my imagination pulled up and away. I realized that I could be literal about the locations in which the action of Wilder’s Our Town takes place. Why not stage the play outdoors, amidst the rolling Berkshire hills, beneath the church’s tree canopy, inside the church and of COURSE, in the town cemetery?! Why build a set when we live in one?
And of course I knew the stories and interactions taking place in Our Town represent similar events that have taken place in Tyringham for centuries. The themes, people, places and situations are completely transferable. And to ask a community to stop and experience those moments through a theatrical production with family, friends, and neighbors—that’s why this project became essential to me. It is an opportunity for the residents of Tyringham to live in the moment as well as reflect on the past. Wilder magnifies sweetly and simultaneously harshly, everyday life. Why not explore this together as a community here in Tyringham?
And finally, coming to your question about doing community-based theatre, well... my past work in communities and with youth, have been headed in this community-based theatre direction. But until now I was unable to identify a community and appropriate vehicle to take the next step. Then, serendipitously, after the Memorial Day service I mentioned, I received an email notice about a workshop in California at the Cornerstone Theatre. Remarkably, that’s all they do; site-specific community-based theatre. I signed up! That weekend intensive solidified my dream to produce Our Town in Tyringham. Finally I was able to articulate and substantiate the concept. I wasn’t crazy. Other theaters were doing the same thing and Cornerstone gave me the ‘permission’ and methodology in which to tackle the Our Town Tyringham Project.
Is it fair to ask then, what is your vision for getting us to the town’s actual production of the play?
My vision to produce Our Town with members of the Tyringham community AND staging it site-specifically is because I love this town. And until now I had not found a way to share this with the community. That moment at Memorial Day when my passion for theatre and Tyringham collided, I knew I had found a way to celebrate with the community what I believe is universally felt by all town residents. Tyringham is a unique, complicated yet pure American town, beloved by all who live here. I wanted to celebrate that through theatre.
How does one get a town/community to participate in a community-based project? This is really at the heart of what community-based theatre is all about. It is about engaging a community in something pointedly meaningful...for example, preserving the Cobble and other important tracts of land in our small town. Everyone rallies, is engaged, cares, and participates to address the issue, at their level, in their own way. It doesn’t matter the role each community member chooses to take. What matters is that we come together and have a unified vision to achieve that goal.
For the Our Town Tyringham Project I knew I had to start with discovering and meeting those who live in our town. I visited every community group I could find including the Hop Brook Club, Council on Aging, Fire Department, Goose Pond Association, Valley Club, Town Selectmen, etc. Did I miss any? That process gave me opportunities to explain how this OT Tyringham project was relevant to our community. At the same time it was an opportunity for folks to ask me questions, give ideas, and most importantly, show excitement and support for this community project.
Simultaneously I recruited a professional director who is a colleague of mine out of Boston. I knew her work, knew her and was completely confident she would be a wonderful fit for working with non-actors/non-tech people in a rural community. That hire was the key to knowing I had a chance at making this project happen.
At our first Community Meeting this past July, my director and I laid out the master plan and concept. About sixteen key town residents showed up. (see Blog #1) It was nerve wracking yet exciting. Great ideas came out of the Q & A after our project intro. In fact we have three events planned over the fall, winter and spring to keep the community engaged and thinking about this project. The first is Movie Night on October 15th where we’ll have a free showing of a TV adaptation of Our Town. Then on February 4th, I hope to find a group of people in the surrounding towns to come together and share stories, real, myths or otherwise, about the playwright, Thornton Wilder. And finally, we will be holding a fireside read-through of the play on March 25, 2017. This will be an opportunity for interested actors and others to read and listen to the play. Plays are meant to be spoken out loud, not just read in a vacuum. It will also be a time for Courtney, my director and I to start thinking about casting. No pressure though ;)
Yes, this is a science experiment for the residents of Tyringham!
That all sounds exciting, embarking on this adventure together as a town. Anything else you’d like to add?
Frankly, I have been having the best time of my life during this initial phase. I’m finally meeting town folk I’ve seen, heard of or waved at for over 15 years. Being a part-timer for so long and finally having the freedom to move here full time, has been an extraordinary experience. Tyringham is small but truly a spectrum of people who support each other mostly and especially when the need arises. We all care about this bucolic little town and my having the chance to bring folks together to talk about this and reaffirm this love is amazing.
I am MOST looking forward to working with the cast and crew of this play, come next June. We all will be surprised on a daily basis seeing what talent has been simmering in this town. But let me say this, it will be a big project and it’s my job to make it effortless for all participants. The primary objective is to make this OT Tyringham Project fun, fun and fun! Let’s live a little, get together, do a play, talk about our town and share it with the community at large!
I think I get it now, Ann. Thank you.
I’m with Ann—and cannot wait to witness and to be a part of this adventure!