I began my life as a Theatre Practitioner at the age of 8, when I joined a professional children’s theatre company in my hometown of Auburn, NY. At that tender age I was hooked. 40+ years later, Theatre is deeply embedded in my bones. “Why Theatre?” There was no other option. It is my life’s work—my avocation. Long story short? It’s what I do.
I know first-hand that Theatre has enormous power for social and personal change. For 25 years I have worked in dozens of neighborhoods throughout NYC, in schools and community venues, as well as in my own theatre space, with artists from all walks of life. Theatre makes a difference under any circumstance. It can have a small impact on a few people in a particular time and place; or it can create a universal outcry for human rights and social justice.
This has always been the role of theatre. In the most repressive regimes, theatre artists have been on the front lines of resistance. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to the life work of Vaclev Havel, there are role models aplenty that attest to the WHY of theatre.
My company is named “New Perspectives” for a reason. Our mission is to develop and amplify unheard voices, re-visit the classics for contemporary audiences, and use theatre to strengthen communities in need. For 20 years the mission hasn’t changed, when often it would have been easier and much more lucrative to ignore it. When times are tough and it feels like NPTC will never break through budget and industry barriers, it seems that we must be doing something wrong—that we’ve made fundamental mistakes. And yet, the impact on our constituents is measurable and consistent. So, what’s up with that? I recently learned the answer.
In a panel convened for NPTC’s Women’s Work project, Harriet Fraad did a masterful job of explaining how the struggles of independent theatre artists are bound up in the financialization of all aspects of society. She introduced the concept of “emotional labor” (i.e., the care of children and elderly parents, mentoring, community service, the ARTS) and the fact that it is not VALUED in the marketplace.
As NPTC participated in ART/N.Y.’s Theatres Leading Change Initiative as well as other convenings on the state of independent theatre over the last few years, it became clear that the existing non-profit institutional model no longer works for small theatres (if it ever really did). Too many theatre artists have been toiling under false assumptions for a generation. We’ve been forced onto a ladder that we did not construct, and have been vainly scrambling to climb it for a long while.
But there is a silver lining. Once artists reject the status quo, we are free to refocus time and attention on the WORK; to make a virtue out of the lack of material resources and to stop apologizing for it. Small NYC theatres are certainly not alone in being overlooked and under-valued. There are thousands of artists working around the globe without frills—the bells and whistles deemed so necessary in commercial theatre. They are LABORING every day—sometimes at great personal risk, almost always anonymously and at significant personal sacrifice—to do what The Market will never be able to—bring a little enlightenment to their communities; challenge the status quo and advocate for justice; empower each individual to find their voice; salve emotional wounds through testament and transformation; shine a light on the forces that undermine collective progress; and continue to chronicle the human journey and guide its path.
No one will make a billion dollars doing this work. No one will pay very much to make sure that it gets done (unless of course there is a celebrity attached.) But this is the very definition of emotional labor, and why the bulk of theatre creation has always been at the “fringe”. It’s okay that it is. Until we get a world that values what truly matters, Theatre is more necessary than ever.
Note to all those on the fringe: let’s collaborate!
Melody Brooks is the founder and artistic director of the New Perspectives Theatre Company, an award-winning company created in 1991 as a multi-racial ensemble dedicated to using theatre as an agent for positive social change. She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and a co-founder of 50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists, as well as an educator and non-profit management consultant. She is currently an advisor to the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre new play development Lab.