Better Than Guffman | 12

You need art in your life more than you probably realize, and you need to notice the local art done BY your community, FOR your community, more than you probably realize. This is definitely true for me. 

Read the Episode ↯

Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is an idea.

There’s a small movie that came out about 25 years ago; you may have seen it — it’s called Waiting for Guffman. It was one of the first of a string of mockumentaries put out by Christopher Guest (also known as the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride). He helped put the genre of mockumentaries on the map; the fake documentaries we’re so used to seeing these days, like Parks & Rec and The Office. Anyway, this movie is about community theater — more specifically, about a questionably-talented director and cast of a local production of a musical about the small town in which its set’s origin story.

It’s a really bizarre movie, and I loved it the first time I saw it. But I loved it because I love weird humor, and awkward characters, and narrowly-focused, niche storylines. I didn’t really think much about what it was really about until much later. Namely, when my teen daughter got SUPER into what it’s all about: community theater.

And now, I think of that weird movie every few months, whenever it’s tech week for one of her local shows, and all the tropes come out to play. And I love every second of it.

Yeah, I’m talking about the idea of supporting community theater. Or, community art in whatever form it comes in — this includes local author book readings, open mic nights, musician gigs at coffee shops or small venues, visual art showings at various places, poetry readings, and even buskers on street corners. Whatever art resonates with you, this is about supporting it on a local level. And if this idea is new to you, or if the idea has held some appeal to you for a while but you’re not sure where to begin, I suggest community theater. And if you’ve never been, I can’t guarantee things in every corner of the globe, but in general, it’s typically much better than Red, White, and Blaine, the musical from Waiting for Guffman. We’re talking your neighbors, kids, and friends working hard to create art for you to enjoy.

I’ll get into how supporting local theater has made my life better, and why I think it’s a good idea for you as well, right after this short break — I’ll be right back.

Okay, we’re back. Community theater productions are in almost every city and town, big or small, so it’s a safe bet that there’s probably one not too far from you. But if you’re like me, they just weren’t really on my radar until my kid got into it. Now, I did ballet and other types of dance for many years as a kid, so I was already into watching performance art, but I’ll confess that up until recently, I felt like my high standards meant it wasn’t worth the money to spend on tickets to stuff unless I knew it’d be really good. This meant I’d only go to ballets, or musicals, or concerts once every several years, for the professional stuff. I’m embarrassed to admit that I flat-out didn’t patronize local productions of things because I simply thought it wouldn’t be very good. 

Well, I’m glad to say that in almost every case, I’ve been wrong. I started going to youth theater productions when my kids started going to school with other kids into theater, so we’d watch their shows and I’d walk away really impressed with the quality. Here was a group of kids, who in just a few months’ time, would put on a really well-done show, thanks to both their hard work and good attitude, and the many hours behind the scenes from the adults who love them and theater.

And just like that, as youth theater got on my radar, I started noticing it everywhere. We live in a small town right off the historic square, where there’s a literal old theater that looks straight out of an old movie — and sure enough, I started noticing that they put on regular plays and musicals, all year long. (It was like one of those moments when suddenly your new-to-you car is everywhere — oh, so people have been doing community theater a few blocks from my house this whole time?) Fine arts departments of colleges and universities have an entire season line-up of productions, as do many smaller venues for local shows, both professional and amateur. So, I started going to more and more shows, and wouldn’t you know it — I’ve been happily surprised. They’ve been great. Really, really well done. Turns out I didn’t have to wait for the professionals to come through town every few years.

So all this is great, you might be thinking, but …who cares? Art and theater is good and all, but why does it matter that I specifically and purposely go to community productions, especially if I don’t have a kid or friend in the show? Because that was truly my posture only a few years ago. Well, I can’t make any guarantees that your life will magically change, like in a musical, but here are a few ways this idea has made my own life better, and then you can decide for yourself if it might make your own life better, too.

First, my going to local theater means I’m providing a way for the people around me to create their art, and I believe we have an innate need to create something. All sorts of studies show how creating art is part of alleviating depression and is a healthy form of self-expression, and doing it in a community creates easy-access places where people feel like they belong. My daughter’s theater group has countless examples of kids who formerly didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere, or who struggled socially and emotionally, who then find their tribe of people and completely bloom in this sort of nourishing soil. So when I go to their productions, it’s like I’m voting for this kind of thing to happen around me, locally. And this means I’m living in a community that has a way for people to create art, and thus become healthier people. And I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a community like that. I want to be around families and individuals who have a way to be artistic.

Secondly, this is also good for me. I actually need to consume art regularly in my life, and I’ll wager you do, too, because I also feel like this is innate in us. If you’re especially sensitive to this kind of thing, like me, you’ll notice when your breath catches in your throat at an especially glorious sunset, or a really great chorus in a song, or a movie that completely moves you — or even those small moments, like tearing up a little at a commercial or paying attention to a flower that’s slowly blooming in your yard. All this points to this thing in you that craves beauty — and that’s what art is. It’s beauty realized. So, I’ve learned that I need this in my life regularly. And I was getting this, but in other forms, and usually by the trusted professionals (movies, published books, albums) — but turns out, I need this sort of art created by my neighbors as well.

And lastly, I genuinely enjoy this form of art! And it’s nice not to have to wait until the professionals come in, or for me to go to NY or London and spend tons of money. I don’t need to be a snob about the art I consume. Just like I like a good BBC period drama series and an old-fashioned binge-watch of Brooklyn 99, I don’t need to save up my pennies to just see well-known artists perform. I can enjoy actually good theater in my neighborhood. It’s fun to go to Broadway shows when you’re visiting NYC or to go out of town every now and then for a concert, but I can make enjoying art a regular part of my life when I participate in things like supporting community theater.

Now, how could this work for you? First off, if you’re interested in the idea of theater, look it up! Search for community theater + [name of your town or area], and you’ll find TONS. More than you’ll know what to do with, most likely. And then, just go to an upcoming show! If you don’t like it, well, then you tried it, so at least you know. But if you’re like me, you might find you like it a whole heckuva lot more than you thought you did. 

And if community theater’s not your thing, try something else. Or, if you’re on a budget — because I know theater, professional or amateur, can add up — add other sorts of art to your life. The next time you pass someone playing an instrument on the street and they’re not half bad, stop and listen for like a few minutes, then toss a dollar or two into their tip jar. There — you just infused your day with a bit of art for almost no time. Or when you go to a coffee shop and there’s someone playing music, don’t turn around (and believe me, I get that there are times when you just want quiet, or you just want to talk with your friend) — actually look up and take in the music for just a bit, maybe clap for the artist, and leave a dollar for them as you leave. Or if you’re at that coffee shop, or restaurant, or your library, and there’s art from local artists hanging on the wall, stop and soak it in for a minute or two longer than your usual walk past without even looking at it. These are all ways to slow down, pause, and notice the work done by your neighbors and friends for almost no money or time. If your community has a listing of events (they almost all do), check out what’s in your local area in the next few weeks, and see if you can go check it out — go hear an author at a bookstore or library, go watch a college orchestra or choral concert, or as I’m focusing on in this particular episode — go check out a play or musical production. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

And yes, do this to support the work of others, so definitely go to your niece’s recital, your son’s friend’s play. In fact, that’s what I’ll be doing this next week — it’s daughter’s theater company’s show week, where a large group of really talented kids are putting on Fiddler on the Roof, and it should be great. Hey, if you’re in the area, you may want to check it out — I’ll put a link to how you can buy tickets in the show notes.

But also do it for you — you need art in your life more than you probably realize, and you need to notice the art done by your community, for your community, more than you probably realize. This is definitely true for me. And I always leave whatever art I just took in in a better mood about the world I live in, both nearby and at large — and that’s really, really good and healthy for me. I bet it’s true for you, too.

Hello, my name’s Jessica and I am from Skagit County in Washington state and I would love to have an idea on The Good List. And that is an idea that is not mine but one that I participate in. There is a woman, her name is Deanna here in Skagit County that has a flower farm called Twig and Vine and through her flower farm, she has a project called Growing Kindness. Growing Kindness is all about spreading the love of flowers as a surprise and delight to anybody and so she encourages people to grow flowers and simply give them away just to bring a little joy, to spark some happiness, to open up doors to conversation and just really build community. She’s doing a lot of great work in her community and really nationwide. The program is is spreading.  I’m very excited to be a part of that to grow beautiful flowers to give away and just encourage everybody else to do the same. Go check her out. She’s at Twig and Vine and it’s just simply lovely. Thank you.

If you enjoy this podcast, and you don’t yet get my free weekly email, I’d love you to sign up. It’s a short email I send out most Friday mornings, and it’s called 5 Quick Things. It’s where I share 5 things I either created or loved from that week, and I keep them short and sweet, ideally under a minute to read, because I’m not a big fan of super-long emails that constantly show up in my inbox, so I’m gonna guess you’re not either. Go to fivequickthings.email, and you’ll find where you can sign up. It’s short, weekly goodness in your inbox every week, and every once in a blue moon, I may send you an occasional additional letter, but I’m here to respect your inbox, because I like it when people do the same with mine. 5 Quick Things is the free thing I send out as part of my larger newsletter called Books & Crannies, which means on Friday mornings, I get to say hey and share some goodness with a whole heckuva lot of you — tens and tens of thousands. So again, sign up for my free weekly letter at 5quickthings.email.

When I hang out online, I’m mostly on twitter @tsh and sometimes on IG @tshoxenreider. You can also find a transcript and the show notes of this episode, #X at thegoodlistshow.com.

And like always — I want to hear from you! Leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, which goes directly to voicemail; or, record your voice and email the voice file. Just state your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better, and maybe I’ll feature you here on The Good List. For reminders on how to do this, and everything else I’ve talked about, once more, go to thegoodlistshow.com.

Thanks so much to Jessica for sharing her current idea that’s making her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.

Join thousands of other readers
& get Tsh’s free weekly email called
5 Quick Things,

where she shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)

It’s part of Tsh’s popular newsletter called Books & Crannies, where she shares thoughts about the intersection of stories & travel, work & play, faith & questions, and more.