Dee Dee O'Connor
OnStage Washington Columnist
Lets face it, dramas are the broccoli of the theatre world…especially community theatre. Chestnut plays (musicals, comedies, etc.) put butts in seats and dollars in the bank. Dramas, particularly those that don’t leave an audience feeling good at the end, tend to fare less well and generally get only one slot in a season. Understandable, but unfortunate because there are so many wonderful plays to be seen but won’t because they are riskier for community theatre to produce. But it’s a risk community theatre should take every once in awhile.
My community theatre recently put on a stunning production of August: Osage County, the Pulitzer-Prize-wining masterpiece by Tracy Letts — and a play rarely done in community theatre. At 3-1/2 hours long (with two intermissions), this caustically funny but seriously heavy work about a severely dysfunctional family is not everyone’s cup of tea. The New York Daily News described it as “… laced with corrosive humor so darkly delicious and ghastly that you're squirming in your seat even as you're doubled-over laughing.” Strewn with f-bombs and situations that are often taboo in community theatre, it was definitely a risky play to include in our season.
I sat on the play selection committee when this play was submitted for consideration. While everyone agreed “August” was a fabulous play, there was, understandably, some squeamishness about putting it on. There were those on the committee who believed that we stood a real chance of offending our core members and season ticket holders to the point where they just might jump ship and turn their backs on us forever. But there were also those of us who thought they weren’t giving our audience enough credit and that we stood a very good chance of attracting a newer, and perhaps younger, audience as well. It would also give actors and crew an opportunity for meatier work than the standard fare.
In the end, the strength of the play won the day. The committee voted to include August in the season line up and the Board of Directors gave its stamp of approval. Even so there was still some handwringing that we were pushing the envelope a hair too far and there were several who expected ticket sales to be light.
Over 60 actors auditioned for the show. The director cast a powerful ensemble of top tier actors from the community and gathered a strong production crew committed to making August a success. (I should probably mention here that every person in or on the show was a volunteer.) Rehearsals were hard and often grueling given the enormity and power of the play. The set was huge and the set crew put in extra hours to complete it on time. Once the publicity campaign was underway, language and adult theme warnings went up on our website and in our social media. As a final firewall, warnings were included in the house manager’s speech at the beginning of each performance. We gave our audience every opportunity to know what it was in store.
Ticket sales started off slowly, but then they usually do. Still it was a bit nerve-wracking. Then we had our Friends and Family Night where we offer a free preview during one of the last dress rehearsals before we open. We held our breath and crossed our fingers. That audience was riveted and blown away by the performance A local reviewer said it was the best production he’d ever seen at our theatre, while another avid theatre goer that night said it was the best production she’d seen locally in many years. Word of mouth quickly spread and by opening night we had sold over three-fourths of the house. For many, it had been their first time in our theatre. That’s what every theatre wants, right? New audience members. Not only did our supporters and members not bolt, many concurred that t it was the best thing we’ve done in years. And several patrons suggested we should do more shows like it. We received many positive messages and comments on our Facebook page. And, to almost everyone’s surprise, we received very few, if any, complaints about the language or content. Those who felt that the play was too risky were pleasantly surprised.
By taking this risk, we ramped up our game a bit, garnered new respect, and learned something about ourselves. Chestnut plays are important but so are the more serious, riskier works. They may not fill the house but they can pay off in other ways.