Community Theatre: a guidebook to life (or at least an interpretation)

By contributing writer, Julie Baird, The Pondering Post

I was 15 years old when I attended my first community theatre performance. It was Ira Levin’s Deathtrap produced by Raleigh Little Theatre in 1983. If you ask me today to give you a plot summary of the play, I would have to do a quick Google search and get back to you, but the experience was far from forgettable.

My friend and her parents were season ticket holders and invited me to join them that evening. Before arriving at the theatre, I envisioned walking into a stone-cold, silent auditorium full of stuffy, high society folks — Raleigh’s upper class. I don’t know why my mind went in that direction. My friend and her parents, although wealthy enough, weren’t at all snooty, but it was, after all, the theatre, and I couldn’t help but imagine that ordinary, middle-class stock like me were among the minority in such a setting.

Contrary to my previously-perceived notion, the theatre I walked in to was full of energy, excitement, and plenty of chatter. People were greeting each other with hugs and handshakes and standing in the aisles laughing and talking. I was surrounded by strangers, yet I felt a connection with them — a sense of commonality, inclusion, and, as I look back now, community.

We casually found our seats and I remember my friend squeezing my hand and asking me with a look of sheer, unconstrained delight on her face, “Are you excited?” I was, although I wasn’t sure why. The spirited mood in the room was infectious, but movie theater audiences didn’t display as much pre-show emotion, and that was my only comparable point of reference to date.

The audience fell silent as the house lights dimmed and the stage lights came up, and I was instantly captivated by the action taking place before me. The performers moved about so naturally, and the audience, myself included, watched and listened intently to every line each actor unveiled. I quickly caught on to theatre etiquette such as applauding between scenes, and noted that it was quite acceptable to laugh out loud.

At intermission, the audience mingled and chattered as they did before the performance began, but this time, much of the discussions I overheard seemed to center around the highlights from act one and their predictions for act two. My friend, still excited and grinning from ear to ear, asked me if I was having fun. I was, and I hardly could wait for the second act to begin. I was impressed at how quickly the audience scattered and returned to their seats when the house lights flashed, and my friend leaned toward me and whispered, “Act two is about to start.”

I was mesmerized throughout rest of the performance. I took in the set design, the lighting effects, and, quite obviously, the actors’ movements and dialogue. The power and impact of that inimitable moment was not wasted on me. By the curtain call, I was hooked on this thing called theatre. Everything about the experience left its mark on my thespian soul, although it would be years later before I took to the stage for my debut performance.

What I discovered that evening in 1983, was that community theatre, with its broad appeal, has a way of drawing people into its unique, creative circle. When summoned, folks can’t help but respond — first as onlookers then, for some, as performers, directors, set designers, lighting and sound technicians, costumers, makeup artists, and stage crews.

Eventually I realized that a community theatre isn’t simply a performance venue or artistic group that attaches itself to a particular geographic map dot. Like any community at large, as the name suggests, a community theatre is composed of mixed personalities with varying beliefs and associations. No singular economic ranking or social status is represented, and a wide range of innate talents and countless skill sets are present among its members. A community theatre is a reflection of the community it enhances, and in kind turn, the community at large — its culture, its history, its vision, and its people — enriches its theatre.

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Unfortunately, non-profit community theatres often don’t enjoy a carefree Utopian existence as I, to this point, may have led you to believe. As a former member of a local, community theatre’s board of directors, I had the dubious privilege of witnessing community theatre’s ugly side — the struggle to survive financially.

Producing a stage performance is not a low-cost venture. Most expenses such as royalties, scripts, set pieces, costumes, and publicity are required up front with the hope that ticket sales will offset the overall cost. It’s a gamble theatre groups often take, and I’ve seen some disappointing returns on investments, but for those of us committed to keeping the ancient art alive, it’s a gamble worth taking.

Of course, most community theatre groups don’t solely rely on box office earnings to stay afloat. As a Wall Street Journal article suggests, community theatres around the country often solicit local business support and seek donations from individuals all while developing some pretty creative marketing techniques and fundraising campaigns.

Additionally, most community theatres in America are non-profit organizations that operate primarily through the work of dedicated volunteers. Just as I did, these volunteers discovered a love for theatre and all the unique nuances it encompasses.

Rarely do community theatre casts and crews as well as support teams get paid for their labors of love, but many of those volunteers wouldn’t have it any other way. (Well, that may be a stretch, but I’m betting that any income they would receive from the theatre most likely would be donated back to the theatre!) Whether on stage, off stage, or back stage, these volunteers show up eager to preserve a time-honored and time tested art form that transcends all man-made constructs attempting to divide humanity.

Community theatre offers its participants a creative outlet and is an exercise in communication and teamwork. It provides an opportunity to develop both public speaking and carpentry skills (You think I’m kidding — I’m not. Those sets aren’t going to build themselves!) and teaches patience, responsibility and respect for others.

Community theatre often shines the spotlight on current social problems and promotes a call to action. Finally, community theatre entertains and offers a much needed, albeit temporary, distraction from some of those same social issues.

Stella Adler, well- known actress and acting teacher, once said, “The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.” If what Adler said is true, then the show must go on in every community theatre everywhere.