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Yesterday, we talked about the upcoming Giving Tuesday event, and our passion for community theatre. Today, Stage Door Productions Executive Director Kimberly Kemp shares with us the driving force for her passion for community theatre.


When you think of live theatre, do you ever think of how it affects our community? Have you ever thought that participation in the arts can change a life, a community or an attitude? I am writing to you today because of the impact socially engaging theatre has had in my life. I have been a teacher and a member of the surrounding theatre community for 27 years. It has taken me at least twenty of those years to come to terms with the value of what I do. My work at George Mason, Massaponax High, Stage Door and the theatre community has finally allowed me to put a name to my passion and my strength as a socially engaged theatre practitioner.

I began my work in the theatre because I was addicted to the connection I felt as a performer with the audience. In the early nineties, two pivotal things happened in my life that changed my outlook on the power of theatre forever.   I had a student who confided in me that her uncle had just been diagnosed with AIDS and the other, despite good natured warnings to a friend in college turned into a reality when he told me he had AIDS. I began to experiment using theatre as a way to educate as well as entertain and how that connection I felt as a performer could also have a similar effect on the audience and the community at large.

Socially Engaged Theatre. The definitions are countless: arts for social justice, participatory arts, art and community collaboration, weird stuff, artsy fartsy, avant garde, experimental theater, etc. There isn’t a definite way to describe it because it is presented in many different forms. The common denominators in my work include: community, sensitive issues, artists, audiences, dialogue and collaboration. I prefer the definition “art that intends positive change”. That is what Stage Door is trying to do through all of its theatre programming whether our participants are sponsors, spectators, actors, technicians, administrators, volunteers or employees. All of the theatre we present is socially engaging theatre.

The goals of socially engaged theatre include: Social Impact, Artistic Excellence and Community Engagement. The definitions of these three goals are just as complex as the measurement of them. In all three goals, the quantitative data that can be measured is number of participants, number of spectators, number of sponsors, etc. In conventional theatre, we measure a show’s success by these numbers. If Stage Door did that, we would be producing mostly unsuccessful shows. As an arts organization, we would like to reach as many audience members as possible, but the value of soft outcomes, are more meaningful. We empower, we educate, and we entertain our participants and create a community in the process.

How do you measure the power of the arts? Engaging the community can be difficult. We have found success in collaborating with the medical community, targeting specific groups who had a heart for our issue, advocacy groups and educational leaders. Our performances are presented with the idea of sharing a story, not telling an audience how they should think or what the outcome should be.

When measuring our programs by artistic excellence, we have found that the most important component of these presentations is participation. When our cast buys in to the message of the script, they work harder to communicate to the audience. It raises their level of commitment, willingness to risk and their level of ability. The focus becomes the message rather than the performance. Egos are left at the door and they begin to think of themselves as a unit telling someone’s story rather than as individuals striving for individual attention. Though there are some who are critical of community theatre as a platform for artistic excellence, the bottom line is these participants are perpetuating the continuation of the arts or their participation in it.

In my experience with socially engaging theatre, there are three challenges that present themselves more than any others: economic, social and legal. Though the challenges at times seem great the potential benefits far outweigh any negativity the disadvantages present. Four obvious benefits are promoting life-long participation in the arts, education and awareness, open dialogue and community interaction. There are many others. As arts managers, we are so concerned with justifying the need for our programs by outlining our target audiences, securing funding, or promoting community support. Sometimes we forget to record the successes outside of our quantitative measures.

The number one benefit our Stars program, (theatre for children with disabilities), has received is the willingness of other arts organizations to offer classes or programs for our community of children with special needs as a result of participation or volunteering at our summer camp or workshop programs. Theatre has the ability to change the perception about sensitive issues one experience at a time.

27 years is a long time and I’m sure some are wondering how can I keep forging away in this art form for so long without growing weary of it?   Four years ago, my youngest went to college. For ten years before that, I had refocused my life to be the best mother I could possibly be. When my children went to college, I was lost. All of a sudden, I lost my place. I spent the next year trying to find a new purpose and then I was hit over the head.

I took my daughter to see The Normal Heart at Arena Stage. When we arrived, a piece of the AIDS quilt was hanging in the lobby. My daughter, a 20 year old, did not know what it was. Though I had worked so hard to be a good mom, at that moment, I felt like a failure. I had failed to educate her on a topic that changed my life, my goals, and my passion. I explained the meaning of the quilt to her and that lead me to a conversation about my dear friend that succumbed to AIDS. As we walked down the stairs into the auditorium, my friend’s quilt was hanging on the wall. To say I was stunned is an understatement.

As I watched the play unfold and recount the AIDS crisis in New York during the late 80’s, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my work in the theatre was not complete. The play reminded me of that connection I felt as a performer and the work we have done in our community entertaining, educating and presenting socially engaging topics. The impact that theatre can have on our community is difficult to measure, but there is no doubt that the intrinsic value it affords is necessary. This year we are asking our friends and neighbors to help make the challenges of presenting socially engaging theatre programming for every sector of society a little easier by supporting us. As we begin our Annual Campaign, we ask for a commitment from you: support us with your attendance, participation on stage or backstage, connect us with community partnerships, donations of in kind gifts or monetary donations.

How will you choose to make a difference in your life, the life of another or your community? Support local live theatre and be a part of the social change. Together we can build your community theatre.

Please show your generosity by donating to help us continue to bring our passion for theatre to the community! Simply click on the “donating” link and type in “Stage Door Productions” and enter your donation. Remember, every little bit helps. For donations given between December 2, and December 30, 2014, Paypal will donate an extra 1% of your donation to Stage Door Productions. Keep in mind that Non-Profits also do not pay servicing fees which means Stage Door Productions will receive 100% of your donation!