"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being." —Oscar Wilde
I love the theatre! I have a voracious appetite for it. As an audience member, I love to see theatre productions, read plays from around the world, and discuss performances with friends and strangers alike. As an artist, I love the creative dynamics that bring the magic of theatre to life; and as an educator, I love to see the sparks of creative genius and the moments of discovery as they awaken in my students.
I moved to Peoria nearly a decade ago when I was invited to chair the Department of Theatre Arts at Bradley University. Relocating from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, my family and I were excited to discover that Peoria had a vibrant arts community that supported a symphony; two ballet companies; an opera company; multiple arts galleries, cultural festivals and museums; two professional theatres; a performance hall; and three dynamic community theatres, along with a multitude of creative artists.
Regretfully, the same cannot be said today, just a short decade later. We have lost Opera Illinois, Illinois Ballet Theatre and the Apollo Professional Theatre; the Contemporary Art Center and Peoria Ballet are cutting staff; and scores of artists are leaving the area. Good things are happening in the arts as well, such as the Civic Center expansion and the new Riverfront Museum, but the loss of these arts organizations is significant to our community.
Over the past year, three noteworthy events have taken place that revealed to me the alarming scope of challenges faced by the live theatre—and the arts in general—challenges with tremendous ramifications for the entire community.
In January, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach an “Expedition Course” for Bradley University called the London Theatre Experience. For two weeks, 18 students from a gamut of disciplines explored the art, history and impact of the live theatre as a dynamic reflection of the human experience. In addition to lectures, readings, museum visits and presentations, the students on this trip were required to see at least eight live theatre events, from classics like Shakespeare to new and innovative productions, traditional musicals, and fringe theatre.
Following one of these inspired productions, Arabian Nights, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, one student turned to me with an excited smile and said, “Isn’t this amazing? We could never see anything like this in Peoria.” I smiled back, acknowledging her enthusiasm in the immediacy of the moment. Then I realized that this dynamic student plans to move away after graduation because she wants to live in a place where there are significant levels of creative energy and a quality of life not available here. What a loss for our community! Nurturing our creative class, as Richard Florida identified in his 2002 book, is paramount for the growth and success of the region. I wonder how many more dynamic individuals will leave because Peoria is losing its artists and the creative energy they bring?
Most of us are familiar with Rocco Landesman, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and his infamous 2009 remark to The New York Times, when he stated, “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman.”
I am proud of Peoria’s theatre community and ArtsPartners for stepping up to defend the quality of the arts in our community. And I was very pleased with the national attention the arts in Peoria have garnered thanks to Mr. Landesman’s visit to our city last year.
But let’s take a step back and reflect for a moment. Rocco was right. Peoria does not have a theatre of the caliber of the Goodman or Steppenwolf. When was the last time a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright debuted a production here? When have we had artists like Brian Dennehy or Gary Sinise work our stages? Look at the facilities that house our performances, and you do not see a world-class theatre. That does not mean we do not have excellent theatre productions or significant talent. Rather, it means we do not have world-class theatre, and that begs the question: Should we? I think we should.
What concerned me more about his statement was that the head of the NEA did not know if we had ANY theatre here. Before his visit, we were not even on the cultural map of the country.
It has been nearly a century since Peoria set the benchmark of quality for live theatre. Will it play in Peoria? This phrase originated in the golden age of vaudeville, when Peoria was a major stop on the circuit. The belief was that if a new show was sophisticated enough to succeed here, it would be successful anywhere—even in Chicago and New York City.
Since the earliest days of civilization, mankind has leveraged the power of theatre to educate children, build community, share history and worship their gods; all of which celebrate life. In prehistory, when primitive humans gathered around the fire to re-enact the hunt, they were celebrating the heroism of the hunters, teaching their children how to survive, thanking their gods for their hard-earned nourishment, and coming together as a community to keep out the dangers that lurked in the dark. As they looked on, following the sparks from the fire rising into the sky, they saw the stars, and in seeing the brightness of the heavens above, they began to ask questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? These fundamental questions of human existence are still explored in the lights of the theatre to this day.
So why don’t we have world-class theatre here today? Why don’t actors, directors and designers flock to our city to prove their mettle? Why are the beautiful theatres that once thrived in Peoria now parking lots? If one were to speculate, one might assume that the theatre just doesn’t matter any more—that it has no relevance to our community, or that what we have is good enough, and if we want better, we can just go to Chicago, New York or London. And if you were to read our local newspaper, you might think that assumption true.
This past summer, I was informed that the Peoria Journal Star was no longer going to review local theatre productions. Their action was due to economic necessity, as they could no longer afford the staff or the space. I was not really surprised by this decision; I had seen it coming for awhile. The Arts section of the paper is a mere shadow of what it was a decade ago. The decision is indicative of the challenges facing newspapers all over the country. As more people get their news from the Internet, newspapers are struggling for survival.
But to be honest, I think they are going about it backwards. Why cut what is unique and dynamic to a region? I get my local news—including arts coverage—from local sources. For the theatre, that source is now our NPR station, WCBU, which has begun running theatre reviews to fill this void, and the newly-formed Live Theatre League of the Greater Peoria Area (peorialivetheatre.com), a collective of local organizations dedicated to keeping audiences informed about what is happening in our area theatres.
I understand the paper’s need to streamline operations, but this decision sent an erroneous message to the community that live theatre is of little significance to the cultural, educational and economic growth of the region when, in reality, the opposite is true.
Art, including the live theatre, informs our very existence. The theatre is a magnifying glass that allows us to examine our actions, our follies, our dreams, and our fears in a way that intensifies the human experience. Through the theatre, we can explore ethical dilemmas, question the darkest corners of our soul, and celebrate the brightest achievements of the human spirit. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” and through the theatre, as Shakespeare eloquently shared in Hamlet, we hold “a mirror up to nature” to see the unvarnished truth of our every ambition and illuminate the questions we have about life’s challenges. It is up to us to find the answers to those questions, and that opportunity for self-discovery is part of the transformative power of the arts.
The Power to Change Lives
According to a report from Americans for the Arts, children regularly involved in the arts are:
- Four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
- Three times more likely to be elected to a class office
- Four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
- Three times more likely to win an award for school attendance.
Involvement in the arts helps level the "learning field" across socioeconomic boundaries and has a measurable impact on at-risk youth in deterring delinquent behavior. Additionally, the arts help all students develop a greater understanding of the world around them, a positive work ethic and pride in a job well done.
The 2003 report, Arts Spending in the Peoria Area and Its Economic Impact, notes that the arts generate more than $39 million annually in central Illinois—dollars that create jobs and contribute to the region’s economic prosperity. Americans for the Arts reports that, nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year.
I know from personal experience that the arts have the power to change lives, educate our children, build economic stability and enhance quality of life. So why are the arts in Peoria suffering? Why have we lost so many arts organizations over the past few years? Why are our artists—our creative class—leaving?
My fear is that, as a community, we have lost our hunger for the sublime, for the richness that the theatre and the arts can bring to us: compelling stories, thought-provoking discourse, and passionate struggles, which inform, question and illuminate the human condition. The phrase I often hear is, “Peoria knows what it likes and likes what it knows.” We make safe choices by sticking with the familiar, but yet another production of Oklahoma or Arsenic and Old Lace, while wonderful shows, does little to grow the arts in our community. As every business leader knows, risk is necessary for growth. Innovation requires us to step out of our comfort zones, rethink what we do, explore new ideas, and, by implementing our discoveries, achieve higher results.
If Peoria is to achieve its full potential as a world-class city, it must have world-class arts. There are many things we can do as a community to grow the arts, such as: develop a vision of the future that embraces the arts as a vital partner in growing the region; fully invest in ArtsPartners so it can more effectively facilitate its mission; rehabilitate the warehouse district into an arts district; and rebuild the Madison Theatre, for starters.
The list can go on and on, but the simple truth is that for the theatre and the arts to grow in Peoria, only one thing is needed: an audience with a hunger to know the world around them—a community of passionate theatre-goers willing to support our artists while they present challenging works that question the status quo, exult the human spirit, and dare us to think.
If Peoria is going to be a world-class city with world-class arts, we need YOU! Go to the theatre. Take a friend. Experience something you have never experienced before. It is a simple act that can change your life as well as help move this community forward towards reaching its full potential. By doing so, you allow the artists in our community to offer you a view of the world through their eyes, and what a breath-taking view that can be. The arts work in Peoria—only if we support them. See you at the theatre. a&s
George H. Brown chairs the Department of Theatre Arts at Bradley University.
Affirming the significance of live theatre as a cultural, educational and economic catalyst for the region, the Live Theatre League of the Greater Peoria Area seeks to ensure the future of live theatre as a multifaceted asset to our community through promotional, collaborative and educational endeavors. Member organizations include Arc Light Productions, ArtsPartners, Bradley University Theatre, Corn Stock Theatre, Eastlight Theatre, ExplorePeoria.com, Illinois Central College Theatre, Peoria Cabaret Theatre and Peoria Players Theatre. Visit peorialivetheatre.com for more information.