Richard Geer, Building Communities One Act at a Time

Originally posted on neighborhoodamerica.com

Most people think Richard Geer is a theatrical director and producer who stages plays that use local people as actors and local stories as material.

But he’s really using the theater as a way of building a community.

“Arts-based community building activities are a powerful way of making change,” he explains. “You can find out what the community’s issues are by listening to its stories. The themes that come out of those will be the community’s issues.” Bringing together people who can address the community’s issues is the ultimate aim of Geer’s Community Performance, Inc. Since 1992, he’s been responsible for plays in Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Chicago. He routinely responds to communities that have heard of his work and are curious about how they can adapt his ideas to their needs.

The notion of using theater as a social force came to him while he was running a theater company in Colorado. His cast and crew included both local people and those from New York. During the course of developing a production, these strangers learned to trust each other and formed strong bonds. “The thought just crossed my mind that if I could ever make a rehearsal room as big as a community, maybe I could bring the people in the community together in the same way.”

He got his chance to do that in Colquitt, Georgia, “this little town of two thousand people in southwest Georgia that was dying and drying up.” Local residents wanted to create a play about the community’s history, thinking that if they were poor in some ways, they were rich in stories. Geer saw the potential of not just saving Colquitt’s history, but of giving the town a new start.

“I said we could do this play out of the stories of the people of Miller County, and it will have a positive effect on the economy. It will bring the community together. It will instill a sense of pride individually. It will transform the people in it, and black and white, young and old, rich and poor, will be together in a way they haven’t been before.”

Most people listened politely and did not believe him. But he’s been proven right. An hour-long version of Swamp Gravy opened in October, 1992. In March, 1994, a full-length production opened in a converted abandoned cotton warehouse, a culturally appropriate setting for the stories of this Georgia town. Since then, it’s played to sold out houses for two runs each year, and the economic dividends Geer predicted have occurred. Tour buses visit the town and an entire tourism economy has developed in Southwest Georgia.

Even more important are the contacts and relationships that he predicted would form. “What it does is put people into relationships, people who wouldn’t otherwise be in relationships, and it puts them on a relationship on a parity.” Typical is what happened in Belle Glade, Florida, where migrant workers, townspeople, African-Americans, and Native Americans lived near each other, but rarely interacted.

When Pot Luck in the Muck began rehearsal, the white mayor of the town and black teenaged migrant workers were both in the cast. There was parity “because the mayor and the kids were just actors in the performance. He was no better than they were and they were no better than he was. They depended on each other.”

As they worked together, they began to trust each other and began communicating in ways that would have been impossible in another setting. “I remember walking away with the mayor surrounded by this group of young teenagers. He happened to be white; they happened to be black. And they were talking about the city, talking about how to make it a better place.”

Other contacts are equally important. In Chicago, he merged two groups living in the same area: homeless and previously homeless people and the local teenagers. The area is poor, and houses many immigrants. There are literally over one hundred languages spoken there. The resulting play, Scrap Mettle Soul, brought together the teens and the homeless, elderly and young, and businessmen and jobless.

Geer thinks it is important to bring the less-prominent residents of a place into the performance. “We try to go into a project through the existing power structure and work with it. But we immediately try to reach out to the edges to listen to the welter of voices across the whole spectrum, because the power to heal and grow that community is probably held in more concentrated form by the people at the edges than it is by the people in the center.”

Sometimes that idea can threaten the status quo, but Geer presents it to the dubious as an opportunity. “I think when you get these communities working, it’s like hooking up more cells in the battery, so that there’s more electricity, there’s more charge, there’s more juice, and with more juice, you can do more things. Now the community product is bigger. There’s more wisdom, more energy, more excitement, more creativity to tap into.”

While the idea of staging a play based on the town’s stories and traditions sounds romantic and exciting, not every community has the fundamental need to develop one. The plays fill a deep, aching need – what Geer calls ‘the scream.’

“If they haven’t got some powerful reason for wanting to do this, it’s way too much work. You have to identify a crying need in the community. Having said that, I believe that every community has a scream. There is no such thing as a functional community in America, almost by definition. Middle class suburbia is where you might point. You might say, ‘There’re no problems here. That’s why we moved out from the city.’ But I think looking beneath the surface, at tragedies like Columbine, have shown that there is something going on. There are people not being heard, there are pains that are going unattended.”

Which comes back to using the stories as a way for the community to explore and explain itself. Some places want to glean material from historical societies or books, but Geer frowns at that idea as being too dry, too removed, and too sanitized to be useful.

“If you can get people to trust you and listen to their stories, you are going to get difficult, funny, painful, miraculous, real stories with real grit. With the guidance of the people within the community, create a performance that embodies the things that they think are important. And then you put on a performance that’s as big and wonderful and spectacular as you can make it so that the community really feels that it has honored itself. They experience that as the community itself. What the community experiences is a shift inside itself. And I think that’s why this kind of theater is a powerful agent for social change.”
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