ARTS

By Casey Kelbaugh


AGAINST STEREOTYPE


ReAct proves “community theatre” doesn’t have to be a dirty word

David Hsieh may be the nicest man on earth. His soft-spoken and gentle demeanor plays against all my stereotypes of an artistic director, and the more we chatted, the more I marveled at his genuine good nature. No frustration was voiced without a smile, and that says volumes, because this man works hard.

The theatre company he founded in 1993, the Repertory Actors Theatre (ReAct), has an ambitious three-part mission: to foster performers of all ethnic backgrounds and experience levels, to help support other non-profits in the community, and to create new appreciation for the arts among the general public.

It seems to me, that mission in the wrong hands could be a recipe for disaster. My mind immediately jumps to potential challenges. How can such a small company survive if it’s giving money to other organizations? What about ego battles arising from experienced performers working with novices? How will public interest be generated in yet another small Seattle theatre company? It looks impossible.

It’s not. (Apparently, mine would be a good example of the aforementioned wrong hands.)

ReAct faces the same lack-of-resource issues other theatres face, but the difference seems to be an unshakeable commitment to a clear and specific mission. Values like mentorship and community support underlie all decisions, resulting in a relatively obvious though certainly not easy path. It’s just not an option to cut corners by eliminating their philanthropic role, or to try and gain public attention by moving toward a professional acting company. ReAct wouldn’t be ReAct, so what would be the point?

The company succeeds where a number of others fail: it keeps its growth in check. This isn’t to say they aspire to remain in relative obscurity, because they don’t. But Hsieh understands that acting prematurely on lofty ambitions has squelched many a smaller theatre, and in fact has been known to endanger larger ones. He therefore sets achievable goals that he refers to as “baby steps.”

With those baby steps, ReAct has been able to accomplish some admirable feats of community development. Every show features some less experienced performers, and sometimes folks who have never been on stage before, so by a ripple effect, there are always friends and family coming to shows that may not have ever seen a play in their lives. Baby steps, sure, but pretty smart if you ask me.

Performers of color are given an opportunity to play roles they may not otherwise have a shot at. That’s why a ReAct season can seem so eccentric; plays are chosen with an eye toward using multi-ethnic casts in mainstream shows. It would not be unusual to see an Asian Blanche duBois or a black Algernon Moncrieff.

Everyone gets paid for their work. Not a huge sum, but some theatres of similar size do not pay anything at all. This is another area where a priority is firmly in place and will not be usurped to save money.

ReAct also gives to the community in financial form. Donations have been made from the company’s already small profits to local arts and humanitarian organizations. Though Hsieh expressed that he’d like to see the amount contributed grow, there is always room for a group to do its own fundraiser, by having some of the proceeds from ticket sales go back to the group. A portion of all ReAct tickets sold through Ticket/Ticket goes to charity.

Hit hard by September 11th repercussions, it’s unclear what ReAct will look like a few years from now. Hsieh hopes the future will bring financial prosperity and a permanent home (right now ReAct rents space on a per show basis at places like Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center or Broadway Performance Hall), but also acknowledges that the company could just as easily fold. The next year or two will be crucial in determining whether or not the organization will stay afloat.

For the time being, though, Hsieh says he is “artistically fulfilled” and will continue to put his spare time and resources toward building a tomorrow for ReAct. Hopefully, the baby steps will lead the company to walking on their own rather than toppling over. With David Hsieh holding their hand, they couldn’t ask for a better or a nicer guide.

For more information on ReAct, visit www.reacttheatre.org.







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