Welcome to the holiday season! I hope everyone survived American Thanksgiving and Black Friday. I'm taking the holidays off from performing so that I can instead be in the audience of the many wonderful shows that open this time of year. Already I've seen My Fair Lady, The Importance of Being Earnest, Murder in the Wings, Reefer Madness, The Full Monty, and Seussical.
All these shows were produced by local community theaters, which offered stunning quality for a vastly more affordable price than Broadway charges. And with Broadway stagehands currently on strike, leaving Broadway dark, community theater is the only alternative for many of us who would otherwise be making an expensive holiday trek to the big city. Fortunately, it is an abundant and enjoyable alternative, with a full dissertation of the reasons why after the jump.
Community theater was a mainstream attraction until the inventions of film and television allowed masses of people to share common experiences across time and space. Nowadays, potential audiences sequester themselves at home with a DVD, equating big budgets and big names with quality (Titanic), despite repeated examples to the contrary (Catwoman).
Fortunately, some film fans are beginning to poke their heads out of their darkened home theaters and see the light. "Within the last few years, there has been a definite resurgence, state-wide in community theater," says Kevin Baldwin, professor of theater at Anna Maria College and artistic director of K&K Productions, a community theater group. And with live theater having spawned many mass-consumer successes, such as The Producers, Phantom of the Opera, and Chicago, community theater is enjoying the free publicity and the interest of an audience curious in these shows' roots. (The accessibility of the Internet as a medium of publicity hasn't hurt, either.)
Almost universally, theatergoers who invest their entertainment dollars in community theater are receiving a unique and more personable experience. They know their money is not going to a conglomerate that associates with fast food chains, or to a company that counts its gross income in the millions. They don't need to donate thousands to feel a sense of ownership. The faces of community theater are not those of businessmen, but of your neighbors.
It's that sense of community that makes the first half of "community theater" more than just a restrictive adjective. Every person who associates with community theater does so not as a labor not of profit, but of love. The actors associate with their audience not to seek praise or to sell autographs, but because they are not above that audience. A lead in one show may be a chorus member, usher, or audience member of another a month later. They act not for the fame or fortune or scale that Hollywood and Broadway offer; they act for the sheer joy of the experience, for the chance to entertain their peers, and for the opportunity to expand their horizons.
Do not mistake the lack of stars for lack of talent. While your ticket may not get you to see Robin Williams or Ben Affleck, such fame as is theirs is derived from being well-known. A theatergoer, once initiated to the community theater scene, will quickly grow to recognize the names and faces of the people responsible for each production. The talents of local actors such as Doug Ingalls, David Ludt, and Mark Patrick become easily recognizable and soon draw audience members familiar with them.
Naysayers who claim if these actors were good enough, they'd be on film or Broadway, are overlooking many variables. Celebrities are created by a variety of factors beyond talent, among them physicality and, to a large degree, luck: Sarah Michelle Gellar's career was launched when she was four years old by being in a Burger King at the same time as a talent scout. Such big-name actors must balance their passion for the art with the need for work to maintain their lifestyle. Local actors pursue community theater as an avocation and experience no financial dilution; their only payment is a job well done, which makes them that more vested in providing you with that experience.
These actors perform each production live, untiringly reinventing themselves and their characters each night. With a live performance, every night is guaranteed to be unique as the actors introduce an ad-lib, experience a moment of inspiration, or interact with the audience. Some shows capitalize on this variability; take Clue, which, like the board game, has hundreds of different endings.
Live performances also mean live stunts and special effects. Industrial Light and Magic won't contribute their lasers to a community theater production, but neither will a computer stand in for a stuntman. When actor Charles Ross performs all three of George Lucas' original Star Wars films in one hour, by himself, you know he's not getting second chances or extra takes. It's a single, unedited cut — which makes it all the more awe-inspiring.
Live performances are also ephemeral by nature: there is no rolling camera preserving the event for future fundraising through sales and rentals. The limited occasion and context in which to see a theatrical production creates a more meaningful opportunity for social networking. Everyone knows that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father (sorry — spoiler warnings expire after thirty years). But finding someone who has seen Arsenic and Old Lace creates a rarer and more intimate bond. If it is the same production, similar memories can be swapped; if a different production — something impossible with Hollywood copyrights — comparisons and contrasts can be drawn. This network can be established more comfortably than in movie or Broadway theaters, which hold hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and which evacuate the theater of its clientele as quickly as needed to fill it with a fresh batch. A community theater is smaller, usually with only one production per day. Such a comfortable atmosphere encourages audience members to turn to each other and share comments and critiques. Psychologists have proven that the ability for groups to integrate diminishes beyond 150 people. The seating capacity of Calliope Productions, a typical community theater: 150. Coincidence?
The limited run of every show makes each show more precious, but without necessarily translating to restricted choices. The opening of Showcase Cinemas North may've closed their other branches in Webster Square and White City, but no such competition has driven community theater out of business. To the contrary: within a half-hour's drive from Worcester exist more than a dozen community theaters. Aggregate web sites like NETheater411.com are as effective at listing all local shows and times as film sites like MovieFone.com. Too many productions occur simultaneously for any one person to absorb them all. What a wonderful dilemma!
All this local benefit is made possible at an affordable ticket price. Movie ticket prices range from $8 to $16, depending on the theater; for Broadway, the scale is $32 to several hundred, varying within each theater merely by seat. Most community theaters do not stratify their audience members, instead favoring a first-come, first-served basis. To get a front-row seat on opening night and meet the actors afterward, if not priceless, would certainly cost more than what community theaters ask.
Hollywood and Broadway are integral venues in a trinity of performance media. It's time we acknowledge — and benefit from — the curtain that's still up on their progenitor.
Baldwin, Kevin, as quoted by Brodrick, Ian. "Community theaters go on with the show." Mothertown Monthly, November 2005: 4.
Gladwell, Malcom. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.