Becoming Part of the Process

Skip Maloney

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

I have been told that I have a bad habit (or two). One of them, particularly irksome to my grown daughter, is the way I express my surprise that an individual with whom I am speaking has not seen a particular play or musical that has come up in a conversation. I don't just raise an eyebrow, nod, say "Oh well" and move on. I make a point, which, according to my daughter, is usually expressed with more drama than I intend.

"What??!!" I'll say, as if not having seen a professional production of Sweeney Todd, or Equus, or some other play or musical were an affront to civilized society. As if it were some sort of crime. But more importantly, expressed with an attitude articulating visible disdain for someone's apparent failure to have availed themselves of such an experience.

"What," says my tone of voice, "is the matter with you?"

The strongest and hardest reaction for me to effectively curtail is my reaction to a discovery that a person with whom I am speaking, has never seen any sort of live theater performance.

This absolutely astounds me. I don't think that I'll ever be able to respond casually to that. What is even more astonishing to me is the number of people who don't find such a thing to be at all unusual. Given the size of audiences, compared to population (they'll say), you'd have to know that there are a lot of people in any given community that do not attend live theater. You're bound to run into a few of them when you're out and about.

So what's the big deal? Why the surprise, over-exaggerated or not?

Those of us in the theater community, in whatever capacity, be it professional, semi-professional (which usually means paid, but not much), or amateur theatrics, try to reach these people who don't attend our shows, and to a certain extent, I think, we're losing the battle. Not just to movies, video games and reality shows, all of which we can combat with good productions of our own, but to an education system, particularly in the lower grades, that undervalues theater's contributions to our lives.

Not universally, but seriously enough for me, at least, to note the increasing number of 20-to-40-year-olds who not only do not attend live theater, but find the idea just a little quaint, old-fashioned.          

No interest.

How do we get to these people?

In Wilmington, NC, where a healthy local theater community is very active in promoting and supporting youth theater, the pre-teens and teens we're watching down here right now will carry the torch just fine into their 20-to-40s. You can see it in their eyes. They're excited about theater, the way we here in the choir are.

Our next responsibility, beyond education, is to give these people, when they do come, a reason to buy tickets for the next show. We need to tell them a good story. We need to make that story sing with energy, sometimes literally, and we need to be meticulous in our adherence to certain theatrical principles of good story telling. It is not enough, we must come to realize, to entertain people. We need to excite them.
I would argue that the most important people in any theatrical company are the ones who choose the scripts. There is no more sure-fire way to keep people away than to produce inappropriate material. I was witness to this when a theater company in Plymouth, Massachusetts chose to produce The Prodigal, by Jack Richardson. Based on the Greek legend of Orestes, it was, according to the description of it by Dramatists Play Service," an attack on the senselessness of war." It was also a painful demonstration of what not to do.

In February. In Plymouth.

There was a night when there more people on stage (15, and I was one of them) than people in the audience.

Before a play is chosen, it will generally go through a process of variably random selection.

Everybody and his brother will have suggestions for a theater company's next season and winnowing that initial field of 'appropriate' material might, or might not, entail an established process. It's at a different level with the 'pros,' of course, but in some ways, it's very similar.

Pick a play, or a bunch of them.

At the community theater level, this process will most often engage people to read the plays that have made it to a final selection phase. These readers, along with the people who make the final decision (sometimes the same, sometimes not), are the real secret to a local company's ability to recruit converts to the wonderful world of theater. 

It helps if these readers and decision makers are acutely aware of their group's abilities, and financial constraints, but more importantly, they need to know their audience. And they need to know them well.  Well enough to give them what they know from attendance the audience wants, and once in a while, well enough to challenge their own basic assumptions about what's 'appropriate' and take a risk.

There is a tendency, variable from community to community, toward selecting the familiar.

There was a time, back in the 20th century, when you couldn't spit without hitting the production of a Neil Simon play. And right now, as we converse here, there are likely multiple productions of musicals like Annie, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver, Grease, and Bye, Bye Birdie being mounted all over the country. Anthony J. Piccione wrote an essay for this site in June, suggesting 10 musicals that, according to the headline, "community theaters should just stop producing." Piccione was not judging the musicals in terms of their quality, merely pointing out his contention that "there is such a thing as too much of a good thing."

But what's a local theater company to do? They have an obligation to select plays and musicals that will effectively put fannies into seats, and history has told them that the standards are the ones most likely to accomplish that objective. There is no easy answer to the question, but communities interested in maintaining a lively theatrical presence within their community should take note of any opportunities to become involved in the play selection for a company's season and participate in that process.