Our Links to Whitman and Lincoln

To navigate our project, our team of four veteran print journalists drove into a garage. Our mission: how might we tune up and rebuild, a local/regional newspaper’s web page about and for community theater. We took a close-up, technical and practical view of the “car” presented to us, and also stepped back for a macro view of website design/use and an analysis of the questions and purposes behind the vehicle itself.

After looking at local and national arts sites, and examining situations and responses in our own cities (Cleveland, Chicago and Newark), we realized that we needed to jump-start the design and operations of the site on the blocks. Furthermore, we needed to go back to the very idea of community, as it is used in the concept of “community theater.” Group interviews via Skype with a “digital community engagement” pioneer and a communications chief for a major regional theater company helped reinforce our ideas about how community could and should be at the site’s center, and also how the site could be a template for other artforms and other cities/regions.

As with so many of the arts, theater has its roots in communities. But segregating community theater from other arts can be seen demeaning. That’s especially the case now that large, major arts groups — theaters as well as orchestras, opera and dance companies, and museums — recognize that community work is essential to their missions and their futures of the art forms they present, exhibit and promote. As Walt Whitman observed 140 years ago, community arts groups are building blocks, “the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”

So with help of a young web expert, we combined the contemporary concept of the Internet and social networking with Walt Whitman’s historic and philosophical idea of the community to make the community itself  the hub of the retooled site. Conversation is a driver, not just a comments-section button.

Content does not rank a neighborhood or community troupe below a community presentation or activity by one of Cleveland’s many established professional companies. Children’s theater is seen as a basis and a magnet for theater education and audience development. The retooled site provides a single home for theater attendees, supporters, and presenters. Directors of local area troupes, many of which are themselves institutions, are connected with the education, community, and artistic leaders of downtown and monetarily established companies. Connections with local weblogs, and encouragement of new ones, can boost a critical community and conversation.

Additionally, we incorporate the American senses of Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” by inviting and tapping into individual and family recollections — visual, oral and written — of area productions, seen, acted and played in. We also heed Whitman’s reminder that we always need to see broad vistas as we ask site users about how they might extend local legacies into a democratic, community-centered, and increasingly vibrant theater web in Cleveland and northeast Ohio.