Drawn from the Well of the People: The Living Stage Theatre Company and their Groundbreaking Community-Based Practice
Crowley, Patrick Abram
Harding, James M
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Drawn from the Well of the People is the first full-length history of the Living Stage Theatre Company. Founded in 1966 by Robert Alexander, Living Stage was the education and outreach arm of Arena Stage in Washington D.C. until their closing in 2002. A multi-racial, improvisational, and community-based company, Living Stage broke ground with many socially engaged theatre practices, and through their process-based approach they created theatrical engagements with, not just for their constituents. Famous for engaging the “forgotten” people of D.C. and beyond, Living Stage worked with young people besieged by poverty and segregation, seniors, the deaf and hard of hearing, disabled students, and inmates at correctional facilities like Lorton Prison and D.C. Jail. This project relies on the Living Stage Records at George Mason University Library’s Special Collections Research Center and is the first major work to do so. Additionally, long-tenured company member Jennifer Nelson donated her personal archive, which was gifted to her by Robert Alexander, to aid in the completion of this project. Oral histories from five company members were collected to supplement and enliven the written records. The dissertation also addresses the work of Haedicke and Biggs, the only extant scholarship on the group. Living Stage’s contributions force us to reconsider the intellectual history of socially engaged theatre in the United States, as they devised similar strategies to those found in Theatre of the Oppressed but did so before Augusto Boal created and published on his system. Similarly, how they obliterated the fourth wall and troubled the hierarchy between artists and audiences by engaging participants as co-creators expands the canon of radical and experimental theatre in the U.S. While their participatory approaches and commitment to marginalized communities radically democratized theatre practice, their institutional practices replicated systems of domination in important ways. For scholars and practitioners alike, Drawn from the Well of the People, offers potent models and philosophies of socially engaged theatre, case studies to illustrate the work in action, and some cautionary tales about failing to apply the ethos of the work to the internal workings of the company.