How Community Theatre Can (and Should) Be As Relevant As Broadway
Anthony J. Piccione
- OnStage Connecticut Columnist
- Twitter: @A_J_Piccione
Those of you just reading the title of this column may consider this to be a bold statement, if not an outright ridiculous one. After all, how can local community theatre compare to what they do in New York City? Isn’t Broadway supposedly the pinnacle of great American theatre? Especially with great shows like Hamilton currently being all the talk of the town, is there any real comparison between the two?
The quick answer to that question is…yes and no. If you read on, you’ll see what I mean when I say that, and what I mean when I say – as crazy as it might sound –that local community theatre has the potential to be just as relevant as Broadway ever will be, in terms of the role it plays in society and in people’s lives.
It Isn’t Yet
First, let me just put a bit of emphasis on the word “can”. I am not stating that community theatre is more influential in society than Broadway theatre.
Don’t get me wrong: I love community theatre. I love many of the people that I’ve met in community theatre. I am proud of the work I’ve done in community theatre. Having said that, to say that we are currently having more of an impact on society or culture than Broadway would be foolish.
If anyone reading this doesn’t believe me, just take a look at most of the non-theatre people that are in your life. If you personally know someone who loves talking about community theatre, it is most likely because they are involved in community theatre themselves, or because they have a close friend or family member who is. There doesn’t seem to be many people who get hyped up about what goes on in community theatre, but if they are, those are usually the main reasons why they are. I’m not saying that I necessarily like it. As many of us already know too well, that’s just the reality of the world that we live in.
On the other hand, whenever any sort of reference to modern or contemporary theatre is made in pop culture, it refers to just a handful of the biggest shows on Broadway over the past two or three decades, such as The Lion King, Rent, The Book of Mormon, and most recently, Hamilton. Sadly, even this isn’t enough to demonstrate that theatre is as relevant in today’s pop culture as other art forms, such as film or music. (That’s another discussion for another day.) However, it still shows how a small number of big productions get far more attention than local, more accessible theatre tends to receive.
Why It Should Be
I personally can’t help but think about exactly why it is this way, when I believe it shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t have to travel to New York City to say you’ve seen great theatre anymore than you should have to travel to Los Angeles to say you’ve seen great cinema. The fact of the matter is that no matter where you live, more people have access to their local theatre organizations than they may ever have to the big shows that you see on Broadway.
Personally, I have seen a fair amount of examples of great local theatre that is, by any objective measure, a truly great live experience for audiences to enjoy. A few of these past productions that I speak of come close to being of the same caliber of many shows in New York, albeit in venues that are often smaller. The only reason they aren’t always better, one could argue, is because not enough people think highly enough of community theatre to provide sufficient funding to put on bigger and better shows.
I’ve heard many people – including on this blog – talk about how the future of theatre lies in live-streaming of Broadway shows, and how more people can access theatre through television or the internet. I am always baffled by this, and it almost feels as if they are taking away a big part of what makes theatre so special, as an art form. When you take away the excitement of a live performance happening right before your eyes, what makes theatre any different from film or television?
This is why I believe that rather than find new ways to stream Broadway productions that many people might never get to see in person, the focus ought to be on doing more to both improve and promote live theatre in our own communities, and using that as the primary means of promoting both shows that originally appeared on Broadway that people otherwise might not get to see, as well as newer shows.
On that note, I also believe that in community theatre, there is more of an opportunity for new writers, directors and performers to take the lead in shaping the future direction of theatre, in a way that could help make 21st century theatre, generally speaking, more popular and relevant than it has ever been in society in recent years.
Many people like to talk about the future of theatre, and how we can make even the smallest improvements to make theatre better for both artists and audience members. One idea I’ve always had is producing more new, diverse works of theatre, as opposed to producing the same shows over and over again. (Full disclosure: As a playwright, I’ll admit to having some personal reasons for wanting this, but I do genuinely want it for other playwrights, as well.) That’s not to say that the classic shows that originally appeared on Broadway should never be produced again, but producing just as many newer works might not be such a bad idea, both for artists craving to get their work out into the world, as well as for some audience members for whom classic Broadway musicals might not be their cup of tea.
So whether it’s to have the chance to see something brand new, or to experience a live show that one might not have been able to see live in New York, these are just two primary reasons that community theatre ought to be more popular, and why it is not to be overlooked by those thinking about how to expand access to theatre in our communities.
How It Can Be
As I’m writing this column, I can already hear some of the arguments that all of this talk is naïve, and there isn’t much to be done to attract more attention to community theatre. After all, they haven’t been coming to see our shows now. Why should I expect that to change any time soon? What can possibly be done that isn’t already being done to attract big crowds?
Based on my own past experiences, I can say that this attitude couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve said before in my past column “More Colleges Should Be Producing New Plays”, I’ve had one of my own short plays produced while I was in college, as part of an event that was not only sold out, but was standing-room only. I’ve also been part of many other events involving new plays – which are much lesser-known than the shows that most community theaters put on – which also had attendance levels that came close to the number of that event. Needless to say, this was largely because of an excellent effort to spread the word about these events, which seems to largely invalidate the argument made that people won’t go to see them simply because they aren’t always well-known shows or organizations.
This is why I will say that, especially in cases such as this, the need for great marketing is stronger than ever.
For as long as I’ve been in theatre, I’ve understood how important it is for any show at any theater to have a strong marketing campaign, which can help get the word out and sell tickets. This isn’t to say that many theaters aren’t already trying their best to get the word out, when it comes to their productions. However, I have to admit, it feels almost as if certain local theaters aren’t always doing enough. To fix this issue, one way might be for ALL theaters to up their game, and do more to promote the great work we do in the theatre community to others, and make sure we reach as many potential theatergoers as we can.
My hope is that if we can get more people to acknowledge and pay attention to what was going on in local theatre, as well as all the possibilities that theatre at the local level potentially has to offer, then over time, any theatre talk that goes on in our society would be just as much about what’s going on at their local theatre organization as it would be about what’s going on in New York.
And of course, while we’re talking about being able to produce bigger community shows and launching an effective marketing campaign, this is yet another reason why public officials need to BOOST ARTS FUNDING NOW.
Some Closing Thoughts
I’ve said this before in past columns, and I’ll say it again in this column: live productions should be the place where people get to experience great theatre, not in front of a screen. As I said previously, I’ve seen plenty of local theaters right here in Connecticut that come remarkably close to replicating the original production of the show that they are producing, and if they had more financial resources, they could very well come even closer. I hope more people outside of the usual theatre community start to eventually see this, at some point. If they did, then maybe – just MAYBE – as community theatre starts to get more positive attention, this will also lead to more funding to put on bigger and better productions of these older shows, as well as some newer shows that have never been produced before. Wouldn’t that be nice?
If these things were to become a reality –better marketing, more awareness, more different types of shows, and yes, more funding – than I do truly believe that community theatre has the potential to be perceived by society as more significant and relevant than ever, as people will always have more access to the productions in their own towns and cities than they will likely have to the shows in New York. I have no idea if or when this will ever happen. However, in an ideal world – and as someone who loves the arts and cares about the future of theatre, I say it’s my job to be an idealist – this is exactly how it would be. The more people go to support their local theatre organizations, the more those of us who are involved in theatre – whether it is as an actor, director, playwright, technician, designer, or audience member – will benefit, as a whole.
This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione)
Photo: Lubbock Community Theatre