Creating Community Connections through Theater

When Curt Columbus instituted "talk-back" sessions after performances by Providence's Trinity Repertory Company, it seemed an ideal way to allow audience members to air their thoughts and give them a sense of investment in the show.

As it turns out, the benefits are mutual: The give-and-take also offers a peek into the community's tastes and preferences, insight that has helped Columbus, who took over as Trinity Rep's artistic director in 2006, determine what fare his theater should offer.

"Being more public-square and having a more interactive art form was something I was focused on, so I can get real-time feedback from my audience," Columbus says. "It affects us in terms of programming more than anything else, and allows us to listen to what they're asking to see more or less of."

The verdict?

"There's a sense that they want to see more politically motivated theater. Our audience really wants to be challenged," says Columbus, 43, a Yale graduate who previously served as associate artistic director of Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company. "They've asked us to be more interesting, so we're not as stodgy as some other regional theaters."

Indeed, few would call the Trinity Rep under Columbus "stodgy." From "Paris By Night" – a musical Columbus wrote that centers on a gay, interracial romance, to his award-winning translations of Russian drama – Trinity has proven consistently thought-provoking on Columbus' watch.

Columbus wasn't sure how audiences in Rhode Island would react to edgier theater. One recent play about photographer Sally Mann tackled controversial issues connected to freedom of speech, the boundaries between public and private and art versus pornography.

"We didn't have a single protest, like you might expect in Kansas or Indiana or places like that. What we had was a real conversation about the issues at hand," Columbus says. "The most remarkable thing about theater in Providence is the fact that you have this loyal, committed audience that wants to be challenged. The conventional wisdom is that you'd only find that in a major metro area, but you have that here."

"One tends to forget that there are actually communities of people in the world who have a real relationship with local artists," he continues. "And it's not just in cities like Chicago and New York and L.A. that you can have that sort of thing happen."

One reason for the audience's connection to Trinity Rep may be Trinity's commitment to the community. Indeed, what made the job irresistible for Columbus was the chance to work with one of the last resident theater companies in America.

Years ago, when the regional theater movement started in America, the model was to have a resident troupe of actors who lived in the community, supplementing that core with individuals as specific plays demanded. But most communities have abandoned the model because it's expensive to maintain.

Having a resident company helps anchor the theater in the community: Among the 15 members of Trinity's company, for example, the length of service in Providence ranges from four to 42 years. The "halo effect" of such an arrangement, Columbus says, is that the artists who live in the community enrich its cultural life: Columbus himself, for example, serves as chair of the Brown/Trinity Consortium's graduate programs in acting and directing.

The set-up of a resident company also encourages the flow of ideas and creativity in the theater.

"What happens is that you get people who can act like family with you, which is to say that they don't feel they need to be guarded in their criticism, so you get real feedback from the actors," Columbus says. "Because I know them and I'm with them all the time and I know their tastes, I can figure out how to write the narrative in a way that is generous rather than selfish."

Let me put it this way," he says: "Shakespeare worked with a resident company, Chekhov worked with a resident company – and they didn't suck."

Columbus, who presented at the BIF summit two years ago, sees a lot of similarities between the type of creative connections the Business Innovation Factory promotes and the open-source atmosphere he's encouraging at Trinity Rep.

"We need to go back to what I call the ‘Tupperware model' – creating connections between people directly, where you're not trying to market to them but to get them to join you," he says. "That's a philosophical shift that requires that we stop competing for transactional purposes and start competing for people's awareness and time, which is something they'll willingly invest if you prove to them that you're worth the investment."

"The BIF conferences are creating that sense of investment between people. You can't necessarily track a direct transactional effect, but the impact is felt and it's durable," he says.

So, too, it appears, is Columbus' tie to Providence. Looking back on his decision to take the Trinity job, it now appears to be a no-brainer.

"If what you want is a resident acting company for whom you can write and develop material over the long term, where else could I go? There is nowhere else," Columbus says. "This is what I've always wanted to do."