Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

A Group Of Communities

Milwaukee Reflected in Chicago 20 Years Ago

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I found myself suffering from the debilitating hazyness of a head cold from hell under the influence of decongestants. And I found myself reading Some Feaks--a 1989 collection of essays by playwright David Mamet. The briefest of the essays was a tiny little love letter to Chicago theatre entitled: A Community of Groups. In it, Mamet praises the fact that Chicago has had a history of developing performance groups—something which delineates Chicago from New York. People existing within the security of a performance group have the opportunity to focus on their craft more than individuals aspiring to stardom and commercial success as found in the glittering spaces in one of the biggest and richest cities in the world. Okay: so it might seem a little overly simplistic, but it works. The idea that Mamet illustrates here is very seductive-- that theatre people in Chicago see the city they perform in not as an adversary (presumably to be conquered for commercial gain) but rather as an extension of their own dream lives. He seems to be saying here that theatre in Chicago is (or was) a community of groups looking to achieve artistic success in and amidst a community of theatrical groups . . . small aggregations of people in similar circumstances who are sympathetic to their goals: other theatre people. It’s a different kind of actualization . . . one that is more interested in achievement in the arts than commercial success.

Okay—so it’s really optimistic, but I see some of what Mamet was expressing about Chicago 20 years ago in Milwaukee now. It’s not a Community of theatrical groups, though . . . it’s a large group of individual communities that don’t directly communicate with each other, but strive for the same kind of artistic actualization Mamet was expressing in the essay. Here in contemporary Milwaukee we have a large group of interconnected and overlapping theatre communities that communicate very indirectly in the shadows at the corners of every stage . . . people work with people who work with people on projects that don't directly relate, but you can bet there are probably less than seven degrees of separation from even the biggest names in local theatre and the most obsucre. Everyone's striving for something beyond the money that is so essential to continue the exploration of stage reality. It’s a group of communities which are all speaking to themselves without speaking directly to each other. There’s a very complex professional social dynamic going on in Milwaukee theatre—maybe with the right kind of finesse, that loose affiliation of theatre communities in and around Milwaukee could fuse into something truly unique. Or maybe I'm still a bit addled from the head cold and  need to reacquaint  myself with the decongestants that are keeping me grounded in reality . . .

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