Striving for Excellence in Community Theater

Striving for Excellence in Community Theater

A few months ago, I was working on the set building crew, fussing over a detail when someone came up to me and said, “It’s good enough; it’s just community theatre; it doesn’t matter.”

I wanted to scream in frustration and throttle the individual, but I liked him so I said with a calm that belied my feelings, “Of course it matters. Just because it’s community theatre doesn’t mean I should do less than my best.” He grumbled an “I suppose you’re right” and thankfully left me alone to my fussing. 

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My Gateway to Lighting Design

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington Columnist

The way in which lighting helps tell the story on stage has captivated me from the moment I stepped into the light booth as a light board operator (light op) when I first started volunteering at my community theatre. Night after night as I ran the light board, I was fascinated by the subtleties of timing, particularly when the cue was on an action; the way light told the time, and set the mood.  I loved it so much that I light op’d all but one show that season. 

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

Being a light op was my gateway drug into lighting design. There is something visceral for me as I help shape the story through lights. When I get it right, I can actually feel it with my entire being. My training for light design has been entirely “on the job,” thanks to a wonderful mentor who is generous with his time, supportive, and encouraging.  Now, heading into my fourth year designing lights, I’ve learned so much, but I also understand that I have only scratched the surface. Getting it right takes a lot of work and is not without trial and error.

My first light design was for The Women of Lockerbie by Deborah Brevoort, a fabulous, poetic drama that takes place during the course of one night and ends with a slow sunrise. Up until the end of the play the design was relatively simple—deep blue on the cyclorama, alternating dark blue gels and bastard amber gels for the face light so I could have the amber dimmed lower for night and the blue dimmed during the sunrise. I began the play with the lights very dim at about 40% and had a slow 6 minute fade up to about 80% so the audience got the sense that it was nighttime but by the time fade was complete, they still had the sense of night without having the actors on a dark stage for 70 minutes. The sunrise needed to slowly rise for about 10 minutes at the end of the play and took me a very long time to design. I spent days looking at photos of sunrises and scouring the web for images of what others had done with the play. Then I spent untold hours in the light booth working on that sunrise: getting the LED colors just right from my night blue transitioning through purples into the lovely orange, coral and pink color of a sunrise and finally to a bright cheerful morning. In the end I was very happy with the result. But it was my first show and so I was a little nervous…or a lot depending on the day. As we were going through tech rehearsals, some of the actresses told me they could actually feel the warmth of that sunrise against the cyc when they were on stage and that it helped them get through the heavy emotions of the play. I was thrilled! When the play opened I was almost afraid to sit in the audience and watch it. Of course I did and I was very proud of that show. I received a lot of compliments and was riding pretty high.

But not everyone liked it. An online local theatre blog sent a reviewer who skewered my design. It was the first show where we used LED par 64 fixtures for cyc lights because our old incandescent bays were huge monstrosities that took up a lot of circuit space and sucked power. While the pars weren’t ideal, they allowed a lot of flexibility with color. It seems this reviewer sat in the one seat in the house where that blue cyc was, in his words, “blinding.” And that was the kindest thing he said. I allowed myself a couple of hours to be totally crushed. I talked to my mentor who told me not to worry about it as it was only one person’s opinion and reminded me of all the reasons the design was solid. Women of Lockerbie went on to win several of our theatre’s annual awards, including “Best Lighting Design.”

Since then I have branched off into other areas of technical theatre but lighting is something I always come back too. Whether it’s designing a show, assisting another designer, or just being part of the light crew, I am never away too long—you might even say I’m addicted.

Community Theatres—Serve Some Broccoli Once In Awhile

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.

Bellingham Theatre Guild’s production of “August: Osage County”  David S. Cohn

Bellingham Theatre Guild’s production of “August: Osage County”  David S. Cohn

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.

Photo: WSCTA