Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Community Theater

Sheila posted this with a link to an essay written by John Barry about reviewing Community Theater.

I held my breath at first while reading it thinking, "okaaaay... This is going to sting." But it was pretty great. And clever. And insightful.

I live in a town with no professional theater. So we are fortunate enough to have some very talented people who were professional actors at some point in their lives involved in our community theater (because it's us or nothing). Some of them are very good. But most of us are policemen and lawyers and students and (ahem) artists, who really enjoy this but know we're just tolerable at it.

No one gets paid (well, the bookeeper does. But the bookeeper works for us). Even the cleaning is done by volunteers. We get yelled at when something goes wrong in the box office by patrons who don't ever realize that this isn't our JOB. Every year there is the task of deciding on shows for the upcoming season and the stress of balancing edgier fare with not alienating the older crowd (who pay our bills with their faithful attendance... I think some of them skipped Hedwig, though. It did well anyhow). We sell ads in the programs ourselves and design the posters. We pitch in on buying accessories for our costumes that simply won't fit into the budget. Heck, we're not even reviewed. We wouldn't know what to think of it. We're fond of saying, "Well, honestly, it's COMMUNITY THEATER." We know what that means. It's a labor of love.

The old ladies come to Sunday matinees and tell us how wonderful we did and make suggestions for future plays. One of them thinks we should do Phantom next year. She loves Phantom. Because, you know, a huge cast and an enormous chandelier would look great on our tiny stage. (The little old ladies rock. We love them.) Our families and friends say crazy things like, "When you're famous..." and bring flowers and make us feel like we accomplished something. Our community is pretty artsy so sometimes we get a packed house (which is always exciting) and on reception nights they exclaim about what they've seen you in before and tell you you look older onstage (well, maybe that's just me) and say bizarre things and try to be complimentary ("Did you do that lazy eye thing on purpose? That was AMAZING." urg). During performances you can hear people whisper to each other about plot points or clarify which cast member they know. That's my favorite. People will say hilarious things during a show. They talk to the characters. They ruin suspense. They make disapproving noises at the bad guy. Some actors find it distracting but I figure that the lady in the second row who's telling you what she thinks you should do next is REALLY INTO THE PLAY, which is wierd but also pretty great (and makes for a funny anecdote later).

The students all think they're going to be hugely famous someday. They're so cute. Well, the primadonna who demanded that someone do her hair because she is "accustomed to that being taken care of" - yeah her head needed pinching off. But most of them are adorable. The rest of us are just glad we have friends to get together with who don't think "playacting" is too silly for adults and who enjoy Saturday afternoons of set painting and long lunches. It's a thankless task in may ways, but everyone needs a hobby. Mine enables me to meet people I would never otherwise meet. I learn things about using power tools, which has never been a strong point for me. It shows me that inside the teacher and the nurse and the Russian translator and the photographer there may just lie actors and set designers and directors. People just as obsessed with theater trivia and film history as I am. Which is kind of reassuring.

It's just community theater. We know that. But we love it.


  1. To me, it's one of the purest forms of theatre. I've done a bunch of it myself - not in a long while, but the feeling of having that audience - a committed local audience - is like NO OTHER.

    I recently went to go see a local community theatre production of Crucible - and the heart that was put into it - all of it, the costumes, the acting - I sat there, with tears streaming down my face almost thru the whole thing. It's not that it was brilliant acting - but it was just ... the dedication, the attempt, the going-for-broke quality of it - when you have only have 30 people watching!! ... I don't know, I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown, but I also felt like: if you FORGET what it's like to do a play like this in a high school auditorium or a church basement ...then you have lost so much.

    I would definitely have a hard time "reviewing" it - I would have to totally change my style, from reviewing, oh, The Producers on Broadway or something, where the concerns are totally different, and the ticket prices astronomical - it's a whole other ballgame.

    I've seen some really pretentious community theatre too - and THAT i find annoying.

  2. Yes, not to be a goof - but the feeling of "community" is just intense (and something I definitely yearn for) ... you know, seeing a little blue-haired couple venture out on a Thursday night and rickety-walk down the aisles to see some Neil Simon play at their local theatre ...

    It's fantastic.

  3. I know what you mean. One guy in town does frequent vanity projects (he writes, directs and stars in them all) and he always handles it as if his audience should be so grateful that he's sharing his genius. Some of it's actually alright, but I only go if have a friend in his show because it's so grating.

    The local support is wonderful. They may whisper during a show or grouse at the box office but they know we are THEIR theater. They have opinions and they show up for performances and they remember everything. They are amazing. We're lucky to have them.

  4. This is a great summation of the community theatre experience. And re: Sheila's comments on The Crucible, I saw a middle school production of it several years ago at my first wife's school (she was the principal)and they had cast the roles based on what they had (talent and otherwise) so the lead character of John Proctor was played by a twelve year old black girl whose wife was played by a ten year old white girl. I can't remember any of the names now but that little girl's performance as Proctor was one of the most moving I've ever seen on a stage. I don't know if it's because I let my guard down having no expectations or because she really was that good, I just know that I'll never forget it.

  5. Actually - it reminds me of something John Barry said in his essay, "...they know I'm one of them." That's how it feels. In amongst the people who participate and the audience and the local paper that tells people to come see us with reassurances that it's "another great show opening this Friday at our local theater!" We're in this together and it's a good feeling. Intense is a good word. It's the most intense sense of community I've ever experienced.

  6. Jonathan - that rocks. I love that.

  7. Jonathan - wow. That is so wonderful!!

    I think, too, that Broadway is WAY behind the curve in some things - for example, non-race-specific casting - like you mention in your beautiful example. In college and high school theatre, you always have black actors playing siblings with white actors, vice versa - because everyone in the department needs to be cast, etc. And it's no big deal.

    Oh, and opera does it now too - with regularity. Black, white, all different races ... if you've got the voice, you've got the part. It's so refreshing.

    But with Broadway it's still this huge no-no. Ridiculous.

    I recently saw 110 in the Shade on Broadway - with Audra McDonald in the lead - and the character has 2 brothers - and one was a white actor, one a black - and the actor playing her father (John Cullum) was white. Of course it was originally written for an all-white cast, but that doesn't matter - or it shouldn't. it was never mentioned, it wasn't a "gimmick" - you just accepted it.

    It really felt (even with the Broadway-level production values) a little bit like community theatre - with that friendly egalitarian casting.

  8. Boy it's true. Sometimes Broadway really could learn a lot from community and school theatre. I love that 110 in the Shade did that.

    And BTW, I got choked up writing my first comment thinking about that little girl doing the "Because it is my name" part of the play. She really was exceptional. If I was speaking with my first wife I'd ask who it was (that sounds bad but it really isn't - it's just that we haven't spoken in years and it would be odd to call her up now and ask about that - I excel at over explaining myself in comments).

  9. Marisa- this is lovely.
    "We know it's just community theater."
    But that doesn't stop anyone. I'm a costumer- my youngest was still on their mailing list and I answered an audition call for that job. I was trepidatious, and had my little portfolio of previous work with me, which no one seemed too concerned about. But they gave me the job.
    ("Ohmigosh," the high school director guffawed later. "You walked in the door and volunteered- of course they wanted you!")
    My family sees the hard work and the anxiety and the endless running around and the trips out to the theater as a hardship for me. It's so difficult to express to them how satisfying it is to solve a technical or design problem and to collaborate to create a production that hangs together visually or to see your work help an actor's performance be the best it can be.

    I think Sheila is right- there's something about doing this with other people just because you want to that is not available elsewhere. I love it so very much.

  10. Oh! I have had that conversation! People come in all timid and say they haven't done theater in a long time or they never have and they were interested in volunteering to maybe do something..."

    And we all stop and grin and are like, "Did you say VOLUNTEERING?"

    Then we do a little happy dance and add a new name to the call list. :)

  11. ... and I forgot to add this, Sal, but I know the costumer has SO MUCH WORK. The resources are usually so limited and there are never enough hands helping and it's an aspect of the production that gets a lot of scrutiny. Good Costumers who actually want to volunteer are like superstars to us! :)

  12. Sal - what a beautiful comment. So true!! In my experience, the costume designers were unbeLIEVABLE in community theatres ... they had the archive of stuff from former shows, they took it totally seriously - and of course the actors would donate stuff (I had a pair of frumpy thick-heeled shoes which I called my "nun shoes" - and I used them repeatedly in off off off Broadway productions - because they were a throwback, they were beaten up - and they would be fine on a nun, a Depression-era schoolmarm, or Sally Bowles could wear them on her day off - and many other types of characters.) I found the dedication, on limited budgets, to getting things right was intense.

    It's like independent film sometimes: with LESS of a budget, people are often able to do MORE - because they have to be way more creative.

    It's awesome.

  13. I have so much I want to say...from this post and your post on Heath Ledger...both make me feel wistful and amazed at how you put into words what I think and feel but never focus into anything nearly as meaningful.

    So I'll just say: luv you, keep blogging

  14. I'm curious, and have a question for all of you. I am too am involved in community theater. My board (or more accurately my PR group and myself) is compiling information for an article concerning the decline in Musical Thater vs. The growth of Cinematic thater. Any input?