Theater for Everyman (and Woman) - How Community Theaters Help the Art Survive
Often overlooked and ridiculed by many in professional and regional theatrical circles, community theaters deserve a closer look. And your patronage. They do more to help keep the art of live theater relevant than they are given credit.
Okay – does my introduction give me away?
Yes, I admit it: I am active member of a local community theater. It’s been two months since my last production – which involved senior strip poker, gurus on a mountaintop and beastie rap – but that’s another story.
We in community theaters have incredibly talented participants who are as dedicated to the craft as anyone attempting to make a go of it in this sacred world of make-believe and story-telling. Whether it’s through Scottish lords, ladies and witches careening towards their inevitable downfall, or something more akin to fantastic young love, fire-cracker girls, and dying salesmen all rolled in to the uproarious hijinks of familial dysfunction, our little corner of the universe is as deserving of your admiration into these dalliances of the human psyche.
After all, each of us has to live somewhere, don’t we? This artistic expression of inner journeys and outward struggles is quite often found in our own backyards, living rooms and therapy sessions. Who better to portray the mendacity that can overtake a family than the real life children, siblings and relatives of people who have actually survived inheritance battles, alcoholism, sexual identity confusion, and loveless marriages? I mean, come on – who hasn’t dreamt of fairies and love potions gone awry waiting to attend the shotgun wedding of dukes and queens all the while simultaneously planning a lamentable comedy production in the woods?
It is in small, make-shift theatrical homes brightened by fluorescent bulbs and light switches, echoing sound pumped through magical iPods and leftover speaker wire that might spark the next Sarah Bernhardt, John Barrymore, or Antoinette Perry. Designing costumes by digging through endless thrift store racks, sewing buttons and hems on the bus going to and from a “day job” that pays the rent, and force fitting an ingénue’s ball gown onto someone proudly displaying a few more fries in her shake, there could be the inspirational beginnings of a new generation’s Edith Head, Alvin Colt or Willy Clarkson. Surely the herculean singular stage management effort to chorale a dozen kids on and offstage through a multitude of entrances and exits at the same time as calling the eight billion light and sound cues at the same time as moving giant pieces of immovable furniture to create the next scene accounts for something? Who cares if it’s in Anwhere, USA or SoHo?
If matters such as these aren’t enough to convince you – consider this: why would so many put themselves through so much for so little return?
For the same reasons you do – we absolutely love it. Our passions, muddled with a bit of attention-seeking, minor visions of fame and possible fortune, and an altruistic high from making someone else laugh, cry, or think is akin to pure bliss. And that bliss – as short-lived as it might exist between changing diapers, punching a time card and searching couch cushions for gas money – is enough.
How does that song go? “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” The lyrics might be about a higher calling but the song reflects the same sentiment. Who are any of us to say that the little light lit by watching your town’s version of Our Town or getting a chance as a teenager to discover the brute force of existential angst in hell by being cast in Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit or even by auditioning for community theater as a last resort because no one else would put in you in a play couldn’t be the start of a trajectory towards countless roles, two Oscars, four Golden Globes, a couple of SAG Awards and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals Man of the Year award? Or simpler yet – be a shining example to anyone who ever wanted to make their world – our world – a better place.
Still not satisfied? Here is one last argument thinly veiled in analogy for you.
The bottom line is this: community theaters – for-profit or not – help the bottom line of professional theaters everywhere. Audience members plus the cast and crews from local shows are more likely to enjoy the experience enough to make the trek into larger cities and pay for bigger budgeted productions. Actors, directors and designers have to pay their dues, cut their chops and break their legs somewhere, at some point in their careers before earning points and garnering salaried contracts. Playwrights not only need testing grounds for new material, they also need subject matter to write about i.e., Exhibit A: That crazy uncle who always wows locals with his rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof but who goes home every night to tend to his miniature glass collection that he hides from his dead, albeit still overbearing, mother, and whose best friend happens to be a pink, six-foot-tall wildebeest. Imagine the millions of tickets you could sell with that story?!
So, the next time you get a chance to support your local community theater – by seeing a show or volunteering your time and talent – I hope you will. They will be ever so grateful you did.
Photo: It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at Westport Community Theatre