- OnStage Washington State Columnist
Fun: it’s a word frequently thrown about in non-professional theatre circles. When I tell people I’m a theatre major, they say something along the lines of, “Oh, that sounds fun.” I ask a fellow performer about their experience during a show; “It was a lot of fun.” The word comes out of my own mouth as I awkwardly try to explain why I put so much time and energy into theatre. “It’s fun,” I mumble, knowing full well that word fails miserably to describe my feelings.
I don’t mean to sound like a party pooper here. Theatre is fun. Putting on a show is a magical experience like no other, and only those who truly enjoy the process should continue in the field. However, theatre is so much more than being fun for the performers, and constantly describing it in such terms has a trivializing effect on the craft. Amateur theatre artists always struggle to be recognized. As a theatre major, I realize many dismiss theatre as an easy study for people who don’t have the discipline or intelligence to major in some more profitable field. This is far from the truth; in reality, theatre majors are some of the most dedicated, hardworking people imaginable. It takes real commitment to stay up late rehearsing and then crank out pages of homework in the wee hours of the night. Yet, most non-theatre people see only the surface, and assume studying theatre only involves silly voices and frilly costumes.
Theatre should be hard work. There’s certainly no rule that you must feel miserable during the process, but artists should break a metaphorical sweat. The idea of theatre as being “fun” makes it sound like a hobby or a casual pastime. There are some who have no ambition to pursue theatre professionally and are purely in it for pleasure. That is perfectly fine, but many of us would do just about anything within our power to make a living doing what we love. It is wonderful that community theatre brings together people with various levels of experience, but it is hurtful to the whole production when cast/crew treat the show as something secondary which does not deserve their full attention. When people sign on to a show without fully committing, tensions rise as others struggle to fill the gaps they have left. Those just looking for something to do in the evenings must remember that the theatre demands our focus even when the process is stressful and brutal.
Because community theatre cast and crew are unpaid, it is often viewed as inferior to professional theatre. The amount of money involved does not dictate the quality of any given production, and community theatres are certainly capable of producing shows on par with Broadway standards. What really separates the two is that professional theatre artists have more incentive to work hard while community theatre artists can much more easily get away with phoning it in. Thus, community theatre suffers when those involved see themselves as inherently inferior to professional theatre, thereby meaning there is no point in really trying. I have seen very few terrible community theatre shows, but a multitude of mediocre community theatre shows. These shows are not bad, but it is clear the company took the easy route and accepted producing a mildly entertaining show rather than shooting for a mind-blowing performance. They took no risks. Everything is as would be expected. People are working, yes, but not pushing themselves beyond the usual standard.
In addition, thinking of theatre as fun for the performers can skew productions towards thinking more about the interests of the cast/crew rather than the audience. The audience members are the ones who pay for the show, who invest their time and attention to view the work we create. Without an audience, theatre is dead. And yet I have seen far too many productions which seem to forget the audience. Instead, the production turns inward, focusing on the selfish concerns of the performers as the company member’s egos battle for control. I particularly noticed this phenomenon occurring in academic settings when the company was almost entirely composed of young students. Sometimes the best decisions for a show go against a given performer’s personal preference, but there is a larger vision which needs to be served before anyone’s ego. In the end, does it really matter who had the most lines or the most flattering dress if the audience is happy? It hurts, but sometimes our personal desires must be sacrificed in order to put on a strong show. If such sacrifices are not allowed to happen when needed, the result is that the performers may have a blast but the audience does not get their fair share of enjoyment.
Theatre is all about creativity, exploration, and play. It is exciting, enthralling, and, yes, very fun. However, theatre artists must remember that theatre is a cruel mistress who we must stand by even when everything appears to be falling apart. Prioritizing having fun skews performer’s priorities, harms the capacity of the show to progres from good to outstanding, and threatens to steal the fun away from the audience.
Theatre is not a hobby you can just drop anytime. It is a commitment. It is hard work. It is so much more than the word “fun.” Those who look down on theatre think all we do is party, primp, and mess around. Let’s prove them wrong.
Photo: Anchorage Community Theatre