How Community Theater Can Survive & Thrive : Part One

Liz Chirico 

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

A colleague with On Stage UK wrote about how theatre will survive. I do agree, theater is necessary and needed now more than ever it seems, but while the future of professional theater seems fairly secure I’m not sure the same can be said for community theater. Without changes, some potentially drastic ones, community theater may very well become a thing of the past. This is part one of a two part post.  This first post will focus on the challenges, my next post will focus on my suggestions and thoughts for theaters on how to not merely survive, but thrive. 

Over Saturation. 

I live in Worcester, MA. Without the use of Google and without even much effort, I can name over a dozen community theater organizations in about a 25-mile radius of me. Many of their mission statements are completely interchangeable: 

This theater is a non-profit cultural institution, dedicated to the presentation of affordable, high-quality theatrical performances and to providing performance opportunities for adults and youth in this area. 

This theater group strives to provide an outreach cultural enrichment, centered on family and community, by facilitating high quality theatre arts experiences within the greater community. 

This theater group is a non-profit, community theater committed to staging quality, affordable theatrical productions for the betterment of the surrounding community.

What does any of that even mean? If you’re identical to over 12 other places in a 30-40 minute drive, why should I choose you over any other? How are you building brand loyalty? Make no mistake, non-profit organization or not, you’re still a business and you need a loyal customer (audience and participant base) to have any chance at thriving. 

Who’s Who?

How many times do you see a theater group advertising their latest cast list and you think “Wait- is this their new show, or their last show list?” Because a large chunk of the names seem to be exactly the same, every. Single. Time. From an audience’s perspective watching the same people in show after show becomes stale. Even Meryl Streep takes a break now and then. 

Didn’t I just see that show?

“Oh look, another production of Annie! I can’t wait to see that show for the 5th time in 3 years.” Said no one ever. The classics are reliable: relatively low risk, low cost, easy to market- believe me, I am the biggest proponent of the classics you’ll probably ever find. But even I feel that many of the classics have been done to death at this point. And when they’ve been done to death, you’ll be hard pressed to find an audience to pay to see (insert overdone show here) again.

Too expensive.

An adult ticket to local productions near me range from $18-$25. Many of the shows take place in church halls, or town halls without permanent seating so you end up on a folding chair. For 2.5 hours. If you are smart you bring your own seat cushion or a pillow (I’m never that smart) or sometimes you can rent/purchase one from the theater company. And then there’s the raffles to purchase, and the flowers or candy-gram to send to your friend(s) in the cast. Before you know it you’ve spent another $10-20 and it’s not even time to hit the concession stand. 

And I get it. Believe me, I’ve acted, fundraised for, and produced enough shows to understand they aren’t cheap. Theaters have to recoup their costs and there’s only so many ways to do that. They either hit up the audience or the cast members. So some groups ask cast members to pay participation fees ranging from $25-50 per person. And/or they ask cast members to donate items towards raffles, sell tickets to the raffle and the show itself), sell ads in the program book, bake goodies for the concession stand, ask/require friends and family to volunteer as ushers, ticket sellers, etc. And that’s not even counting the additional hours some companies ask cast to give for set building, and painting. That’s on top of the countless rehearsal hours and time spent working on the show at home. It can be overwhelming and off-putting to say it nicely. And there needs to be a better way to make a show without breaking the cast. 

But Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon Prime or…)

For less than the cost of one ticket (before seat cushions and raffles and the likes) I can have an entire month’s worth of Broadway HD- which I know isn’t that great, but I’m purposely using the worst streaming service example to make my point. Unless you’re really into Shakespeare, Broadway HD’s library leaves a lot to be desired. But they still have a good half dozen or so musicals and plays available to stream from your living room, on your big screen plasma TV, while you sit on your comfy couch, eat whatever food you want, wearing your PJs. 

No, it’s not the same as live theater. But the recent filmed production of Newsies showed me, a die-hard live-theater enthusiast, sometimes it can be better. The camera work in Newsies was perfection; I felt more a part of that production than if I had been in the theater watching the show live that night. Plus I saw the talents of Jeremy Jordan and Kara Lindsay. Even taking those two away, Newsies amassed an incredible group of phenomenally talented dancer-gymnasts far beyond what any area theater group could pull together. And with only so much disposable income to go around, this is something else community theater is up against now. High-quality productions watched from the comfort of your living room. And that’s what I’ll try to figure out how to compete with and overcome in my next post.

Photo: Woodside Community Theatre