(DISCLAIMER: Mr. Dameron, nor anyone from OnStage Blog is affiliated with AACT)
“Go!” yelled the timekeeper, and I watched as my cast began to move their set from the 10 foot by 10-foot box it was sitting in onto the spike marks we had laid down the day before during our one-hour tech rehearsal. The flats were placed just so, the cast moving quietly and professionally, careful not to give any indication of performing. The stage manager made her way to the sound booth, giving me a smile and a thumbs up indicating she was more than ready. I sat in the audience, nervous with anticipation of our only performance, our one chance to impress the adjudicators, at the first State theatre festival I had attended. There was nothing more I could do as the director than to enjoy the show.
Every odd numbered year, the American Association of Community Theatres hosts AACTFest, a nationwide theatre festival showcasing the best of community theatre around the country. It is a culmination of months of smaller festivals, starting in the individual states, then moving on to surrounding regions, with the Regional winners being invited to a host city to perform their 60 minute show in front of appreciative audiences of like minded theatre aficionados.
The first step in the process is to compete in a State competition, hosted by your state’s theatre association. 36 of the 50 states have associations that are affiliated with AACT, and a complete list can be found here. If you or your theatre are not currently affiliated with your state’s association, I strongly recommend that you encourage them to become a member. You will connect with many resources around your state that can help answer questions you may have about upcoming productions, problems you are running into, where to locate costumes or props, building an effective Board of Directors, or any other theatre-related question you might have. If you’re running into a problem, there’s a good chance someone else in your area has dealt with the same problem and can provide a simple solution. Some associations have worked out deals with companies in the industry to provide their members with discounts. The connections only multiply if your theatre is a member of AACT as well.
The 10-minute setup time was over, and my cast was waiting in the wings for the sound cue to start the show. Twenty seconds into the performance, the crowd was abuzz with laughter, and I knew we were going to be okay. The 55-minute runtime went by in a flash, my cast performing at their absolute best, with perfect timing and a chemistry that was evident to all in attendance. Upon their closing line, “Go To!”, The audience roared their appreciation. The set was then struck, well within the 10-minute time limit, and the cast returned to the auditorium for their adjudication to another round of thunderous applause. Even before the adjudicators started their critiques, I knew we were heading to Regionals, and started mentally planning the tweaks that were going to be needed for the next round.
The performances are only a small part of what takes place over the four days of the festival, this year occurring in Gettysburg, PA in June. A multitude of vendors make their way to the festival to promote their theatre wares and products, workshops are presented on a variety of topics, monologue, and design competitions are held, and of course who doesn’t like a good party or two with a bunch of theatre people? Before you can make it to Nationals, however, the Regional competitions showcase the top one or two productions from the State festivals. At these festivals, you will get to not only see the best from your state, but also the surrounding areas. As of the timing of this article, there are still many State and Regional festivals still to occur between now and May 3rd. The full calendar of upcoming events can be found here. If you are close to one of the State or Regional festivals, do yourself a favor, grab a couple of your theatre friends and make a weekend out of it. You will be pleasantly surprised at what you see, and it could get your creative juices flowing. The best way to learn about theatre is simply to watch theatre.
There was a buzz around the awards ceremony. Who was going to be advancing, representing Texas at the Regional festival? Eight companies from around the state had performed over the last two days, and now it was the moment of truth. The response we received from the audience during the show was overwhelming, the adjudicators seemed to have like the show, the cast and I all felt confident. As the individual awards were presented, two of the three members of my cast received All-Star awards. The costuming, technical, and directing awards were all presented, and the time came to name the two advancing companies, as well as the first and second runners up. The second runner up was announced, the director made his way to the front to accept the award, and we were down to three awards remaining. The tension was building in the room as over 100 people hung on every word from TNT Executive Director, Linda Lee.
When the first runner up was announced you could have heard a pin drop in the silence, an audible gasp was heard from someone a few tables away from me. I stood up and walked to the front to receive the award, both proud of my cast, but sad for them at the same time. As I smiled for the picture, all I could think about was what would we be bringing back to competition two years from now. The experience was more than I ever thought it would be. I met some great theatre people from around the state, learned a lot about an organization I barely knew existed a couple of years before, and most importantly realized just how much I loved being involved in theatre. Fourteen years later I am still involved in Texas Non-Profit Theatres as a Board member, and just last week I was Commissioner for one of the preliminary festivals in Texas before the State competition.
There are those that say theatre should not be a competition, that it should be done for the enjoyment of the volunteers and the audience. I agree with that sentiment to an extent. AACTFest isn’t as much about the competition as it is the relationships that you build with people from around your area, state, region, and the entire country. I love hearing stories about what shows other theatres are working on, the problems they face, the successes they have. The ‘C’ in AACT is for Community, which is really what it is all about.