The Playgoer: The Community Theatre Beat

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Community Theatre Beat

This is not a gig for the weak of heart. It's for the eternal optimist, the dead-end journalist who doesn't believe in dead ends. It's for the tolerant, the cheerful, the brave and gratuitously creative. It's a job for someone who doesn't have a lot to do on weekends.
-Baltimore-area critic John Barry, in a hilarious and touching mini-memoir on criticism in the trenches--i.e. community theatre.

I've long been fascinated by the status of community theatre in America. As a child spoiled by Broadway and BAM, of course, ten years ago I would have snickered at the mere words. But when I was stationed in Syracuse I was struck by how the local community theatre commanded equal attention and audience loyalty (nay, more loyalty) than the professional company for which I worked. But after the initial shock, it made total sense. We were jobbing in Equity actors from New York, they were showcasing local actors known and beloved by their neighbors. The difference in "quality" so evident to a seasoned professional playgoer becomes less important when what you value in theatre is the social bonding and local tradition.

Plus, it's a lot cheaper. Especially if you want to take your family. Hence we decided to drop our "Christmas Carol" when the "amateurs" across the street were outselling us.

Mr. Barry here strikes a more pessimistic note, and perhaps he's right. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole life of community theatre is in flux right now--but who knows it might end up stronger. Either way, the strength and popularity of community theatre is probably as good a bellweather as any for the state of theatre in general across our nation. For ultimately it's the urge to do theatre--at any level, for any audience--that keeps the art alive. If it fails at the cheapest and most local level, then pray for its survival at the "top."

Anyway, read Barry for some hilarious stories about frankly awful productions and impossible to find venues. Also there's these poignant words:
Then there are the shoebox theatres trying to squeeze out a little applause from people willing to watch. That population — people who like to watch plays just for the hell of it — is admittedly getting older and smaller. Now, in a world where it's constantly pounded in our heads that there's someone more interesting going on somewhere else, people need to be told why they're doing it and what they're going to get out of it. In Baltimore's community theatre, that's not always clear. There aren't any big names, and no one's breaking new ground. It's not guerilla theatre, and it's not fringe theatre. It's exclusive, durable, conservative, filled with core actors and playwrights who are a little jealous of their turf and a little grumpy with people who wonder why they don't take a few more risks. You can't blame them: They've created a small comfort zone in a city where theatre is underfunded, overlooked, and loved by a shrinking crowd of advocates. Whenever I try to play Frank Rich with them, there's one question I can't get out of my head: Does the world need one more unread reviewer telling unseen actors to stick to their day jobs?
Indeed. The critic can perform many functions. Being a "cheerleader" for Broadway is totally unnecessary. But when the stakes are totally different, why not.

Actually, ideally, shouldn't commuity theatre reviewers just be on an explicitly different beat? Announcing clearly separate standards? In so many towns the same critics cover both. What think you?

Keep in mind that in many towns the term "community theatre" is interchangeable with any "nonprofessional" theatre. For instance, I often like to think of any nonequity production in NYC as essentially our "community theatre". How would that look as a listing category in our local papers...


Stephen R. said...

Here in Chicago, 9 times out of 10, the best work, the most interesting work, the work that moves the art of theatre forward is done on the non-Equity level. Yet, Chicago non-Equity performers tend to shy away from and look down on suburban community theatre.

Still, I will say that living in a city with such a thriving non-Equity artistic theatre community has made me loathe those who believe an Equity Card suddenly makes someone a "real artist." It doesn't. Not by a longshot.

Art is created and theatre is performed in places other than just Equity theatres.

Theatre is, by definition, the combination of actor and audience, not "Equity Contract" and "LORT."

Anonymous said...

What you suggest -- having a separate "community theatre beat" is exactly what the Washington Post did during the years I lived in DC. (They may still, but it's been almost a decade since I left, so I don't know.)

It was wonderful.

I can't say whether there was a different artistic standard used because the community theatre critic and the professional critics were not the same people. I have no idea how Leonard Hughes (the community critic) would have written about shows at Arena Stage or the Shakespeare Theatre.

But I can tell you this -- I felt that Mr. Hughes was the paper's best reviewer. We've all too often seen the critic who tries to be the next Shaw, and winds up revealing more about his own prejudicies and critical inadequacies than about the production. But Mr. Hughes had no such pretension for his work with DC area community theatres. He would always let you know, as an objective journalist, what kind of show it was; he would let you know how he subjectively reacted to it; he would always find something to say about everyone's work and to credit them with that work by name -- and I mean everyone, from the lead actor with the eighteen monologues to the two-line cameo to the props person (even if she only had to find three drinking glasses -- if she was in the program, she got reviewed).

Did he write this way because he saw himself as covering "the enthusiast beat" instead of "the serious art beat", or did he write this way because he was a genuinely lovely man who loved theatre? I can't say. But I do know that the DC theatre community was well-served.