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Student Blog: Can Theatre Be Our Third Place?

Home, the workplace, the theatre- three places of such high value for some people. It can be this way for everyone.

Student Blog: Can Theatre Be Our Third Place? In sociology, the third place is an environment in which we find comfort and familiarity that is separate from home (our first place) or work (our second place). Sociologist Ray Oldenburg defines the third place as "an anchor of community life that facilitates and fosters broader and more creative interaction." Upon hearing that definition, it's easy for us theatre artists to think of the theatre, despite the fact that it likely is our second place as well. But let's step back for a second and look at this from an audience member's perspective.
Oldenburg assigns eight characteristics to this third place: it is a neutral ground, it is a leveler in terms of social class, it is accessible and accommodating, it is homely and without extravagance and grandiosity, it harbors regulars, it has conversation as its main activity, it consistently holds and values a playful tone, and it provides a feeling of being "home" without actually being there. Can an audience member check off all eight of these boxes when considering the theatre as a third place? How can we, as theatre artists, work to make theatre a third place for audience members? We already know that theatre can foster creative interaction, but those conversations that could be had after the show aren't always had, and that's because the rest of this criteria isn't always met.

Theatre is a neutral ground in the sense that we all are there to be entertained, but it isn't necessarily a leveler of social class. Dating back to the 19th century we have had theatre that was only for the elite or only for the lower classes, and this has unfortunately dug a hole between the stereotypical "starving artist" going to some upstairs blackbox theatre to see their fellow artists and the stereotypical "snobby rich people" going to the chandelier-and-velvet-seat theatre as part of a night on the town. What about the people in between? The regulars don't have to be just the frugal yet supportive artists or the pearl-clad elites for whom extravagance is a mere standard. Isn't there a way everyone can have a chance to see a piece of theatre that could change their lives?

Live theatre isn't like a cinema where you'll find anyone and everyone in the seats. Because of these little connotations that come along with the word "theatre," we already can't call theatre a leveler of social class. Nor does it have conversation as its main activity in the way that it could. Think again of the cinema and the afterwards talks you have with your fellow moviegoers; you exuberantly debate about various aspects of the movie as you step out into the bright post-matinee sunlight or leave the parking lot in the dark of midnight if you're more of a late-showing type of person, and these conversations carry you from the cinema itself all the way home. You don't always have that in the theatre, and that's actually because theatre isn't as incorporated into daily life as movies or television are. Most audience members aren't going to be viewing live theatre the same way they're viewing a movie because they don't have as much experience with it. This bleeds into the "accessibility" category.

Just because theatre can be accessible doesn't mean that it always is. Broadway musicals like Wicked, Moulin Rouge!, or Beetlejuice are in theory very accessible because they're based on well-known films and/or contain very famous music, but ticket prices are so high that few people can afford to see them. An experimental production at La Mama is much more affordable ticket-wise, but very few people will be able to appreciate those styles of theatre. A bridge needs to build more between these two aspects because there truly is a piece of theatre for everyone in just the same way that there is a movie or a television show for everyone, but not everyone can access that piece of theatre that is meant for them. Accessibility also doesn't just mean affordability and comprehension, either- accessibility refers to disability as well. Disabled audience members often feel as though they won't have the best experience at the theatre because they can't be sure that a venue has the appropriate equipment, and they, along with members of other marginalized communities, can't always be sure that they'll see other members of their community represented well onstage or backstage (or, honestly, represented at all). Theatre can be much more accessible. It's just a matter of actually making it so.

Now, after considering this, let's ask again: Is theatre a third place? No. Not really. But can it be? Yes. As theatre artists, we know that it is well within our power to make theatre more accessible and more of a leveler. We can make theatre the ignitor of enthusiastic conversation. And no, it doesn't necessarily have to be extravagant. After all, the reason we all became theatre artists is because we fell in love with the theatre, and because it felt like home to us. We can make it a home to every audience member, whether the venue has chandeliers or creaking stairs, and whether the theatregoers are wearing diamonds or Docs. Theatre can and should be a third place, and it's never too late to make it so.


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