Community theatre. The foundation of the theatrical industry. It has existed in our country for nearly 150 years, and even longer in other countries. Many of the biggest names in the industry began their work in some form of community theatre, as have many movie stars throughout the years. Don’t believe me? Just ask Chris Evans (Captain America) or Kristen Bell (Anna in Frozen) how community theatre helped shape their careers.
Let’s take a few moments to explore why this avenue is so crucial to these very popular industries… and to our world as a whole.
A launching point to the world of performing arts
Many schools don’t have the budget to support a robust music or art department (some have no music or art department at all), which means the students have little to no opportunity to explore the amazing world of performing arts. Whether by direct involvement or simply having the opportunity to watch a performance, community theatre bridges this gap by being available to everyone. Tickets to attend community theatre are usually quite reasonable (often ranging from $5-$20) and many offer free programs throughout the year. My theatre hosts a “Children’s Playhouse” that performs a short play for over a thousand local kids every year – completely free. This is the first – and only – exposure to performing arts for many of these kids. You never know when a production might spark a young person’s love for theatre and they then devote their life to becoming the next Sir Ian McKellan or Emma Watson.
Community theatre gives the opportunity to stretch our wings
Community theatre further bridges this gap by allowing anyone to participate at whatever level they are comfortable with. This is one of the few places in life where you can join a project with little to no experience at all. I remember a couple of young girls during our youth drama camp production of Our Town a few years ago, they were so nervous about getting their three or four lines right. Of course, they did fine when it got to their part, but by golly were they nervous! Fast forward to today and they are some of the most dedicated kids at our theatre and are always eager for large parts and interesting characters. They are phenomenal actresses and I always look forward to watching them perform and grow further.
Connecting Art and Culture with Life
It comes as no surprise that Shakespeare and Dickens might be boring to read about for many youth today, but give them the opportunity to act it instead and you may find them hungering for page after page and be genuinely sad when Act 2 ends. Community theatre gives the ability to be transported to another era, culture, or continent. It’s not often you can take a trip to nineteenth-century England and feel what it was like to live as a poor child in the Cratchit household of A Christmas Carol. “Why exactly was Tiny Tim sick?” This is a question a child playing that character might ask and be inspired to research, perhaps later leading to a passion for the English or medical fields. “Why did the Hoovervilles exist in New York City?” or “What caused the Great Depression?” are two questions that may arise during a production of Annie and could spur children to pursue economic or political history or ignite a passion to make an impact in today’s world.
Community theatre nurtures an appreciation for all forms of talent
Although community theatre employs non-professional volunteer actors from the local community, the performances are often professional grade. Of course, I am not saying you can see a full Broadway-quality production of Phantom of the Opera for $15 at your local community theatre. However, when you read in the playbill that the lady playing Christine is a local third-grade schoolteacher and not a professional singer, you may just find yourself more amazed at her singing abilities than watching the same show sung by a professional with 10 or 20 years of training.
This is not to say that professional performers are not impressive or talented; no, of course not. They most certainly are and should rightly be respected for it. But whether it be the characterization or singing talent, dancing or choreography, set design or prop creation, or the simple fact that the costumes were all sewn by a great-grandmother and the intense lighting scene was run by a 12-year-old, there is just something special about watching community theatre and realizing that it is run and performed by neighbors from your community.
Community theatre brings us together
Community theatre is one of the few things in this world that people from all walks of life can participate in and be equals. Regardless of your age, race, religion, gender, political views, finances, or favorite color, when you walk into a community theatre you walk into a family. In a production of Annie I directed a few years ago, there were people of drastically different political views and several different religions. In any other circumstance, you would have expected there to be high tensions and quite possibly some very heated conversations – not so in community theatre! The whole cast worked together and supported each other like a family.
Community theatre spans the generations
In a day and age where the rift between generations is quickly growing larger, community theatre provides this amazing dynamic where age is largely immaterial; youth and seniors are equals and work together side-by-side. I have been blessed to work alongside many veteran actors and directors and each one has helped shape me not only as an actor and director but also as a person. I’ll never forget the encouragement the man playing Tevye gave me during my first time acting as Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof, or when I watched the veteran actress playing Aunt March sit down with young Jo to discuss character growth when I directed Little Women the Musical. One of the things I enjoy most about working in theatre is watching the young first-timers be mentored by the veterans who have been acting for the past twenty, thirty, sometimes forty years or more. This is a relationship I think that is largely unique to community theatres.
Community theatre is crucial theatre. It is crucial for our community, state, nation, and the world as a whole. It connects us with our world and the people in it. It helps us to empathize with others and spurs us on to personal growth.
Community theatre is the pathway to not only unlocking the next generation of actors, but also the next generation of a caring society.