Words Matter (The Power of Naming)

Kate Foy of Groundling (and Toowoomba! I just like saying Toowoomba!) has been asking nicely all over the internet for about a year what exactly people mean when they call themselves an “indie” theatre company. I’ve talked with her in roughly 492 different venues about it, but discovered that I never had answered it here where I might be held accountable for it.

I did talk about labeling in a post a year ago but didn’t really get into why I choose that label that I do.

I like specificity. I’m not always good at it but I like it. To that end I would prefer that words retain their meaning. Unfortunately I don’t get a vote. Language remains transient and I have to move with  it.

Further, art resists labeling at the best of times.

The two together makes specificity difficult in this case.

Cambiare Productions is technically an itinerant semi-professional community theatre operated by amateurs.

I however can’t use those words because they are each freighted with cultural meaning apart from their definitions.

The amateur/professional divide is intended to be solely about the money, but “amateur” comes with baggage about the expectations of low quality as does “community theatre” as skewered by Waiting for Guffman.

Semi-professional and “Pro-Am” are still really vague. Which part of the machine is the “semi” part? The quality or the money? If I have to explain the label to you it’s not of much use as a label. It’s just a conversation starter.

So I choose “indie” or “independent” theatre, not because it’s technically correct (independent of what?), but because it accurately conveys what we are to people who are interested. People know what an indie musician is or an indie film. They have no preconceived notion of lower quality, simply less money, meaning it probably has a rawness to it. It also implies up and coming, which I hold to be the case.

Garage Theatre would also work if it weren’t a place in my house where I don’t let people go as the corpse of Orestes is still strewn about it.

Do you have a better one word label for “I don’t have your resources yet, but I know what I’m doing and I’m on my way”?

  • “So I choose “indie” or “independent” theatre, not because it’s technically correct (independent of what?), but because it accurately conveys what we are to people who are interested. People know what an indie musician is or an indie film. They have no preconceived notion of lower quality, simply less money, meaning it probably has a rawness to it. It also implies up and coming, which I hold to be the case.” Well put.

    “Emerging theatre”?

    Maybe not.

  • I consider “professional” to be produced by people who went to theatre school, people who are pursuing a career in theatre, people to whom the craft is not just a hobby or a pass time. It's pretty broad, and it covers many “community” and “indie” productions, whether people are getting paid or not.

    “Independant” is a whole other can of worms. In Canada, in my observation, it seems to have to do both with the level of corporate, and governmental sponsorships. Independent companies may have operating grants, and may get corporate sponsorships in the guise of donations and program ads, but not in the sense of sponsoring spaces, or seasons.

  • See. I'm not against that… but emerging to what? And in the case of small theatre when does that end?

    And If I'm still an “emerging” theatremaker at 75 please put me down.

  • Nannette, thanks for stopping by!

    The tricky thing here is: You are absolutely right.
    But for me in terms of labelling what I do, I needed to shorten up the explanation.

    If we have time to have a conversation I'll say indie theatre, but that's simply because that's how I think of it now (I used to say “small theatre” but I didn't like the diminutive) but I get to be more specific.

    But in terms of the quick descriptor or the “elevator pitch” version you have to cut it down to as few words as possible.

  • djloehr

    We go by “professional” here, partly to stay distinct from the various community theatre groups that pop up, flame out and vanish each year. But our actors and designers all have degrees in theatre, most if not all make their living from theatre work or teaching theatre, and all get paid.

    We do get grief for not being “open” for auditions to the general community. To which we say, okay, can you close your business for two weeks to go perform halfway across the country? Or a month? No? Can you learn all of your lines and not hold a script for the entire run of the show? (I've seen that happen out here.) No? Okay, well, you've just answered whether we audition or not. This is not our hobby, this is our work.

    It's also helped perception in the larger theatre world. The label allows major regional theatres to take us seriously, and the work then bears out that trust.

  • I still prefer “Fringe Theater” but I'm freaking old.

  • I still prefer “Fringe Theater” but I'm freaking old.

  • I would call us that, but I think it would probably really annoy those who are making actual Fringe theatre. I don't mind appropriating a little street cred, but I have respect for the true Fringe.

  • nickkeenan

    Hmm. “Garage theatre” made me think of how “Alternative” music (Alternative to what, now that it's the majority of new music?) has successfully branded itself by embracing a variety of specific genres. You've got “Grunge” theatre and “Death Metal” theatre and “Emo” theatre and “Freaky Folk” theatre

    Does more specificity, rather than less, encourage greater participation and appreciation of this medium? The variety is certainly there. And exploration of genre (rather than lumping small-venue itinerant theater into a single label) encourages the values we hold to be self-evident: Risk-taking, tribe-gathering, New-work-trumpeting, community-driven, independantly-curated kinds of work. This is artisanal, small-batch theatre.

    Point VERY well taken about “Emerging,” Ian. The more I explore the model of small-venue theater, the more I'm starting to believe that the small venue is the end, the goal. We are emerging to financial sustainability, if anything, but the work just needs to build a following to make that happen.

    I have seen “professional” “semi-pro” and “community” primarily used as labels by audience members (and, sadly, intermittently working union hacks who need to defend their financial position with labels – keep in mind I'm saying this as a proud union member) who want to ghettoize theaters on that basis. I'd avoid them like the plague… and I think “independant” may unfortunately support the frame of that ghettoization rather than encouraging patrons to evaluate theater based on delectable traits instead of price tag.

  • nickkeenan

    Hmm. “Garage theatre” made me think of how “Alternative” music (Alternative to what, now that it's the majority of new music?) has successfully branded itself by embracing a variety of specific genres. You've got “Grunge” theatre and “Death Metal” theatre and “Emo” theatre and “Freaky Folk” theatre

    Does more specificity, rather than less, encourage greater participation and appreciation of this medium? The variety is certainly there. And exploration of genre (rather than lumping small-venue itinerant theater into a single label) encourages the values we hold to be self-evident: Risk-taking, tribe-gathering, New-work-trumpeting, community-driven, independantly-curated kinds of work. This is artisanal, small-batch theatre.

    Point VERY well taken about “Emerging,” Ian. The more I explore the model of small-venue theater, the more I'm starting to believe that the small venue is the end, the goal. We are emerging to financial sustainability, if anything, but the work just needs to build a following to make that happen.

    I have seen “professional” “semi-pro” and “community” primarily used as labels by audience members (and, sadly, intermittently working union hacks who need to defend their financial position with labels – keep in mind I'm saying this as a proud union member) who want to ghettoize theaters on that basis. I'd avoid them like the plague… and I think “independant” may unfortunately support the frame of that ghettoization rather than encouraging patrons to evaluate theater based on delectable traits instead of price tag.

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