Chad Sweet: “Buy Local” Means Theatre, Too

For a few years now, the buy local movement has been snaking its way into Reno’s hearts and pocketbooks.

Look at the impressive expansion of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, the great new restaurants and bars sourcing local products popping-up, even “in this economy,” and the investment and support of Midtown — all locals making people think differently about how and where they spend their money.

But what about art? Specifically, theater.

Here’s a list of the producing companies that put on live performances in the immediate area: Reno Little Theater, Bruka Theatre, Good Luck Macbeth Theatre Company, TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada, Nevada Repertory Company at UNR, Truckee Meadows Community College, Tahoe Players, Ageless Repertory Theatre, Nevada Shakespeare Company, Sierra School of Performing Arts and the Nevada Opera Company — 11 in all, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few.

At any one time, you’re also likely to find individually produced works, as well as alternative live performances like improv and spoken word. And the vast majority is all volunteer, from actors to producers to designers to musicians.

That’s a whole mess of theater happening in this town of ours.

Actually, we’re a medium-sized city with a population of 225,000 — 425,000 if you include Reno/Sparks metropolitan area. The funny thing is that, according to an informal survey of the members of the Reno Area Theatre Alliance, an estimate was bandied about of approximately 3,000 theatergoers supporting locally produced theater. That’s less than 1 percent of the population.

The last study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that 13.5 percent of the U.S. population went to nonmusical theater alone, acknowledging that even more go to musicals. That’s a big gap.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t just a problem in Reno. For 30 years now, every theater market in the U.S. has struggled to find audiences. It even happened on Broadway. They fixed the audience problem, but at what cost? They’re now mostly a part of the hierarchical marketing scheme of Disney. And is that what we want, Reno?

My guess is no. We’ll get it anyway to a certain degree. Touring productions will come through town. Movies and television will consume a good part of our time and money. And they can be great with gigantic production values, superb talent and the ability to transport audience members to fantastic new places.

We can do it, too, but not in a vacuum. We need local customers to support our local companies and pay our local talent to avoid creative drain (the movement of creatives to economically or creatively supportive markets) and maybe even attract new talent. We all have the personal responsibility to decide what we care about for our community and ourselves.

Reno has shown what it’s willing to do for bars, crawls, restaurants, casinos, food, farmers, hunting, clothes and tattoos. Let’s see what we can do for theater.

Originally written for and published by the Reno Gazette Journal.

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