Re-defining Community Theatre: The Dignity of Accessibility
An Interview With Executive Director Stephanie Bond
By Celine Dirkes
Early this year, Broadway World New Jersey awarded ReThink Theatrical Best Community Theatre in New Jersey! We’re incredibly excited about that news, and grateful to the community that voted us in. But I, for one, didn’t know much about the Broadway World New Jersey Regional Awards. And I was also curious about what it means to for ReThink to be the “best” and, most importantly, what it means to be a “community” theatre. So, I sat down with two of ReThink’s leaders to see if I could figure those answers out.
After a great interview with Artistic Director Thomas Young, I had the privilege of picking Executive Director Stephanie Bond’s brain.
CD: So ReThink recently won an award. Can you tell me a little bit about that award?
SB: Sure, so we were very lucky to win the Broadway World regional award for best community theatre in New Jersey. And, One of the exciting things about winning that award is that we did not nominate ourselves! Broadway world NJ regional awards allows you to nominate anyone or anything that you’ve seen in the calendar year, and somebody—unbeknownst to us—thought well enough of us to nominate us for the award. So that’s a huge honor, because that means that it was genuinely from the public, that they appreciated the things that we were creating for the community. So yeah, we are number one out of about—I would fact check it—out of about, I think, like 50 or so community theaters in the state.
(By the way, I did fact check it, and the New Jersey Association of Community Theatres lists 102 companies.)
CD: That’s awesome, congratulations! So, ReThink bridges an interesting space between community theatre and professional theatre. So can you tell me a little bit about how you serve the community, as a semi-professional organization?
SB: Sure. It’s actually got several different pieces to it. One way that we serve the community is the Theatre that we produce is professional quality, and it is for a suggested donation, which means it is completely free to the public if they want it to be free to them. You get to sort of choose, monetarily, how much you want to invest in coming to see it. And we have truly no expectation for how much you’ll spend when you come. We want to create a pipeline for people to enjoy theatre, and so our goal is to not just be accessible in cost but also in the content of what we create. So it should be awesome when you watch it, you should have a great time when you watch it, and it should feel like you could be anybody from any background, and you could still have joy in what you’re seeing that ReThink Theatrical has produced. And so, we’re not in it for the commercial success that a for-profit or a, you know, professional theatre company might need in order to sustain themselves and pay their actors and rent their space out and things like that. So we do everything as free as can be, so that more people can see it for less money. That also serves the community in creating a space where free theatre is a dignified experience. You’re not being forced to come in and admit your low-income wage in order to be able to get a free or cheap ticket. You’re not having to prove any kind of wealth, or lack thereof, in order to be able to achieve a free ticket. You get to come in and reap the same benefit as everybody, no matter who you are. And you get to choose how much you pay, which means it’s not just free for the sake of free, you decide, you pay what you wish. And that, I think, adds a level of dignity to being able to receive something in a charitable capacity. I also think we serve the community by being a really successful representation of professional quality art that’s done on a budget, and that’s done with more sparse set decorations and props and things like that. The talent really speaks for itself, in a lot of ways, and it offers an opportunity for semi-professional artists to come into the ReThink space and learn a lot from the professionals who make this work possible. So we offer a lot of professional development for community members who are artists as well as the people who come and consume the shows.
CD: So I feel like you’ve already partially answered this question, but my last little wrap-up for you is what does it mean for you as the Executive Director to bring your best, and the company’s best, to this community?
SB: That’s a great question. Can you ask it again?
CD: Yeah! What does it mean for you in your position at ReThink, and for ReThink as a whole, to bring your best to this community?
SB: I think for mean it means the ability to tell stories well, and encourage people that storytelling is pivotal to our humanity and to our empathy. We build empathy, we strengthen our empathy muscles, by telling stories and hearing stories. When the stories are put behind a price-point barrier, we’re not allowing certain groups of people to have access to a deeply important and necessary piece of our humanity. So for me, bringing my best to the position means that I am creating an inclusive and a professional—in all aspects—a professional atmosphere, where people feel safe to be themselves and to consume and understand stories. And hopefully, to find a piece of themselves in the stories that they’re seeing. And to know that community means them too. It’s not just a community of artists who think that they’re artists, or theatre-goers who have been theatre-goers since they were kids. It’s truly for anybody, and I’m not doing my job well if I have not communicated to the general public that it truly is for them no matter who they are and no matter the background that they’re from. And so, we’re hoping to continue to grow that, over time, and be more successful at that in the long-term. And I believe that my leadership as the executive director is about connecting with people so that they understand that their stories have power, and significance, and relevance.
Want to read more from ReThink’s leadership team about bringing our best to the community? Check out my interview with Artistic Director, Thomas Young.