The Generosity of Community Threatre

Back in the 90’s I was doing community theatre in Austin, TX. For those of you unfamiliar, Austin has a similar vibe to Portland, OR, or at least it did in the mid 90’s. It was hipster before hipster has a label and the theatre in Austin reflected the proudly weird spirit of the city. Most of the community theatre was self-proclaimed “avant garde” or experimental. I distinctly remember an all-female version of Romeo & Juliet, a musical version of The Panopticon and a heavily pluralistic version of Godspell that included Buddah, Allah and a labyrinth that everyone was encouraged to walk at the end of the show. It was a really cool place to do theatre.

One show I was lucky enough to be involved with was called Flame Failure. The premise was that the book of ultimate knowledge had been found and it would grant the reader god-like intelligence. The person who found this book was a triple agent work for three different groups; a secret government agency, an organized crime syndicate and a fringe techno-cyber cult.  It had a cast of 24 people (with no more than 9 in one episode) all of which died by the end of the last show.

The story was told in one hour segments each month for an entire year. 2016-09-19-10-49-41This meant that every month a new set had to be built. One month it was a bookstore with tons of shelves and books, next month was a junkyard that needed a huge climbable trash heap in the middle. Some of the sets had balconies, some had ramps, one was basically a giant cage.

With all of the death in the shows, there was a lot of fighting which meant that fight choreography had to be designed and practiced and blood packs needed to be made. While the costumes were often based on street clothes, they usually needed to be altered in some way. There was one character who suffered severe burns to their face and so a latex mask had to be made. Each month there was a new light design which meant that the lights needed to be reset every month.

This was a huge production.

Flame Failure was the brainchild of a young man fresh out of college. He and a few of his friends moved from Pennsylvania to Austin and much like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney decided, “let’s put on a show!” However instead of singing and dancing there was fighting and blood packs. And they did it all with exactly zero dollars. Pretty neat trick, huh, pulling off a major undertaking with no seed capital. You might wonder how they were able to manage such a feat.

Simple, they really wanted to.

They did some work with local theatres in the area to establish some contacts. When those contacts were established, they asked if they could use some of the space that the company was using for storage to put on a show. It was an original script, so no royalties needed to be paid. When they needed props for the show, they would go dumpster diving to find what they needed. Any money they made from ticket sales was invested back into the show.

The first few episodes caught the attention of a few critics and soon people started to volunteer their services, wanting to be a part of such an ambitious project. A budding light designer volunteered his services and a few of the more well know actors in Austin asked if they could be in an episode. By closing night of the last episode the audience was packed with people, almost all of them having contributed to the show in some way.

If they would have used their heads, these young men from Pennsylvania should have never even attempted this show. If they would have laid out all of the things that they needed to produce the first few shows and added up the amount of time and money needed, they would have realized that this project was too much for a bunch of 20 somethings with no cash or connections.

But they didn’t use their heads, they used their hearts. Their love for this project was their first priority. The how came second.

There is a term that gets thrown around a lot in church administrator circles: Culture of Generosity. This is more than an attempt to get members to give more, it is a way of rethinking how we act in the world. Many people operate out of a culture of scarcity, basing what they can do by the assets they have. It’s a very safe approach, with only a moderate chance of failure. If the risk is too high it will not be acted upon, no matter how great the reward may be.

A Culture of Generosity is motivated by its goals and then asks what is needed to accomplish the goal. Assets are a means of accomplishing a goal, they do not dictate the goal. Generosity thinking is risky and failure happens. However, failure does not stop the dream in a culture of generosity, they are part of the process, teaching us how to better accomplish our dream. The dream is too powerful to be stymied by mistakes.

Flame Failure is a great example of a culture of generosity. A small core of people had a dream they were passionate about, so much so that they were willing to go through dumpsters to make it happen. Their passion inspired others around them to buy into the dream by not just watching the show, but by putting their own time, talents and treasure into it. At the end of the run, this show no longer belonged to the four young men who started it, but to the 50 -75 people who all invested in the dream in some way.

2016-09-17 14.36.03.jpg            Congregations talk a lot about money. How much is the budget this year? What programs are in dire need of funding? What percentages of pledges haven’t been turned in? These are all important question that help with the most basic of operations of the church, but what moves a church forward is not the budget, but the dream of the congregation. This Saturday, Bob Smith led a workshop and asked what they wanted for UUFP within 3 years. We have posted their dreams in the common area of the church. You are invited to add your dreams to the list (post-it notes will be provided so you can share).

2016-09-17 14.36.06.jpg Dream big UUFP! What is it you want for this congregation more than anything? A building that can seat 250? A solid mentorship relationship with the youth in Youngsmill and the Aqueduct? A large community hub that hosts a weekly dinner and offers adult education classes in topics from Humanist History to The Basics of Household Finance? The most important questions a congregation can ask itself are about its dreams, its vision and its calling. So dream big!

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2 Responses to The Generosity of Community Threatre

  1. Lehni says:

    This is a great reminder and a helpful viewpoint after the leadership class. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Robert M Smith says:

    The vision only points the way. Next comes all the work that it takes for all of us to go forward.

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