Theatre The Theatre Community Disdains

February 21st, 2012 § 39 comments

“Can’t believe that a MAJOR theater is producing [play title redacted]. Crazy talk. Does its “non-profit” mission mandate producing community theatre?”

I know. It’s just a tweet. Let it go. But it’s emblematic of bias I read and hear constantly. It’s about time I said something.

I would like everyone to stop using “community theatre” as a punch line or punching bag.

As people with a vested interest in building and sustaining interest in theatre, pretty much everyone in the business is supportive of and in many cases evangelical for arts education. We applaud academic drama programs and productions from kindergarten to graduate school, recognizing that such programs can give voice to the next generation of artists as well as the next generation of audiences. We decry funding cuts to such programs for their impact on creative as well as intellectual development. Of late, there is also recognition that these programs may offer refuge to those who seem “different” from student bodies at large, safe havens from predatory classmates (“bully” seems a bit tame these days) among those similarly inclined, close-knit teams for those who shy away from sports.

But once school is over, those whose lives and careers take them away from the arts, but whose love of performing doesn’t abate, become part of a maligned yet integral part of the theatrical ecosystem which, when spoken of by most professionals and media voices, is summarily disparaged. Why on earth does this happen, and why is it allowed to propagate?

While I’m quite certain there are some fairly sophisticated community theatre groups, I’ll cede the point that a great deal of the work done in community theatre likely doesn’t measure up to professional, or perhaps even collegiate, standards. But that’s not the point of it. If the participants wanted to be professionals, they might be pursuing those goals; perhaps some of them did, and didn’t succeed. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that the majority of the participants in community theatre never sought a professional theatre career, and are happy to be teachers, dentists, attorneys, mechanics, stay-at-home parents or what have you. The fact is, community theatre is a hobby, a passion and an outlet for people who truly love theatre; it’s the bowling league, the weekly pick-up basketball game, the book group for the performance minded. The participants are, I’m willing to bet, ticket buyers at local theatres, tourists who flock to Broadway or national tours, parents who encourage creativity in their own children. In some cases they may even provide the only theatre their community gets to see. They are the people we need.

Drawing on data from the American Association of Community Theatres website, which surely doesn’t include every community group out there, we know that AACT itself “represents the interests of more than 7,000 theatres across the United States and its territories, as well as theatre companies with the armed forces overseas.” They claim more than 1.5 million volunteers [participants], over 46,000 annual productions per year, an audience of 86 million and a combined annual budget of well over $980 million. That’s a lot of theatrical activity.

Before you accuse me of being a hypocrite, I will admit to enjoying Waiting for Guffman, an at times cringe-worthy satire of community theatre and a touchstone for many in the business now for a number of years. But like other Christopher Guest films, particularly Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, Guffman is an affectionate and at times absurdist view, which celebrates the passions of its offbeat thespians just as it lampoons them. There is no such affection in the tweet quoted above, or in the often-used critical riposte that labels sub-standard professional work as approximate to that seen in community theatre.

A couple of years ago, when I worked on the American Theatre Wing’s book The Play That Changed My Life, I was struck by the fact that this collection of independently written essays ended up including several paeans to community theatre, with both Beth Henley and Sarah Ruhl writing about how their parents’ community theatre experiences informed their own theatrical lives; Chris Durang wrote of play readings held in his living room which transformed his mother and the local newspaper editor into the elegant personages of a Noel Coward play one afternoon. Surely these are not unique stories. I even had my own experience with community theatre, when at age 16 I successfully landed the role of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof (playing opposite a 27-year-old school teacher); to be a high schooler cast amongst adults was my own moment of breaking into the big leagues at that stage in my life. Community theater can matter.

Let me swerve to a corollary issue, also invoked by the opening tweet, which is the suggestion that certain plays belong solely to the community theatre repertoire (I redacted the play named in the tweet because I don’t care to debate its relative merits, but rather address the broader issue). “Community theatre plays” share a common trait with many “high school plays,” in that both often feature large casts, casts that most professional theatres would happily employ if they could afford it.  But because for these groups, inclusion is essential, both in a desire to be welcoming and because inclusion can drive ticket sales, the large-scale plays common to the mainstream theatre in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and the larger scaled musicals from across the past 100 years are staples. The value of the pieces should not be diminished because they flourish in these non-professional settings; they may not always be the most current work (though, again, I know many community groups do recent, smaller plays too), but their only opportunity to be seen may be in the community theatre arena.

Size isn’t the only issue; current tastes dismissively relegate shows to “community theatre” status as well. You Can’t Take It With You stumbled on a recent effort at Broadway, but surely Kaufman and Hart, staples in community and school theatre, are no less important because of it. Neil Simon is not in critical or commercial favor right now, so his work can be tarred with the “community” slander, but if the upcoming West End production of The Sunshine Boys, with no less than Richard Griffiths in the cast, proves revelatory, a shroud may yet be lifted from Simon’s bust in the theatrical pantheon. We’ve seen somewhat of the same thing happen recently in England with the long out-of-favor Terence Rattigan; the acclaimed David Cromer attempted Simon’s resuscitation on Broadway a couple of years ago but was undone by finances. The non-profit theatre producing a “community theatre” play should be applauded for reexamining a work not often professionally staged — at least until it opens; then judge it on its own merits, not on a collective and peremptory assumption about its worth. There’s a corollary in “family” or “children’s” theatre, where You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and Annie are seen as staples, yet those shows weren’t written for or sold to children in their original runs any more than Wicked is subsisting solely on sales to 14-year-old girls today, as some would ignorantly suggest. This reductive labeling is detrimental on so many levels.

We are part of an industry that constantly worries about its future, but can be our own worst enemy. By slagging community theatre, we’re undercutting our own best interests and evidencing our own cultural elitism; by allowing others to do so we join the juvenile yet dangerous bullies who taunted us in high school — by doing the same to adults whose only wrong is to enjoy doing that which we’ve made our careers. Even if you’ve never uttered a word against community theatre, but merely have never given it a moment’s thought, you are doing it disservice. Is theatre so healthy that we can afford to be so blithely arrogant?


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  • Rebecca Bromels

    Howard Sherman, speaking the truth once again. I will freely admit that there was a time when I used to look down my nose at “community theater.” Then I grew up and wised up. When the community theater in your town has triple the subscriber base of the professional theatre you are struggling to keep alive, you have to ask yourself– what is the REAL value of theatre to this community? And are we providing that value as well as this group of committed volunteers?

    We don’t expect people who play sports to play until they are 18 and then either go pro or be couch potatoes for the rest of their lives.  We see the value of a wide range of people of varying skill participating throughout their lives.

    Community theatres build audiences for professional theatres.  They spark passion and provide opportunity to young people who become the artists that shape the future of the artform.  And they put a little bit of revenue in the pockets of playwrights.  We need to thank them.  And, we need to figure out what we can learn from them.

  • Mishia Burns Edwards

    Well put Rebecca. I felt the same way about community theatre once, until I moved to NC and worked for a fully-staffed community theatre that is ran by a woman with over 30 years experience as an actor, director and business manager. She set me straight. : ) Then I moved to MN where a crossover of professional and volunteer is the norm.At the community theatre level I’ve worked with people who have acted at the Guthrie and regularly work paid jobs in our region. Here there is a respect for the work and privilege of making art, even if it means volunteering time and talent. One of the community theatres I direct for has a good-sized budget and full staff and turn a profit regularly, unlike a lot of the smaller professional companies. And, working with actors of all levels of experience keeps me on my toes and allows me to use all my directorial skills. So glad I “wised up.”

    • Mishia Burns Edwards

      I wish I had “wised up” with my typing and taken the time to proof. 

      So sorry for the errors.

  • Guy Iaccarino

    I’m not even a theatre person Howard and I really enjoyed this read. Good on you for taking a stand. I dare say you made me aware of an unconscious bias on my part and opened my mind to the value of community theatre. Nice job.

    • Of course, Guy, you had the opportunity to see my performance in community theatre (though I doubt you did) and could have shared with readers about the brilliant talent that I showed so precociously.  But thanks for the kind words — from a non-theatre person.

  • EXCELLENT post.

  • Another excellent blog, Howard! Thank you for saying all that you did! It needed to be said!

    Just as high school and community sporting events have often allowed me to witness more memorable moments of athleticism and passion than professional games, I have had experiences watching community theater that I count as among my favorite moments witnessing live performances. I remember one season back in the 90s when I thought I had fallen out of love with theater, after months of sitting through a string of well-produced, soul-less professional productions, and finding myself weeping while watching a sparsely-attended community theater production of “Not About Heroes,” being staged just a few weeks into the first Iraq War, as luck would have it. The person I went with that evening – who also worked in professional theater – turned to me at intermission and said, “There is something magical in the air.” I still cherish that performance as one of the most special moments in theater I’ve ever witnessed. I also remember arguing with a certain major critic who shall remain nameless for his refusal to attend a production of “The Glass Menagerie” because he felt “It’s a play for community theater, not a professional company.” And I could write my own blog about how community theater productions in Western Kentucky and Southern Indiana when I was a kid turned me onto theater for a lifetime. 

  • As someone who frequently crosses boundaries from community to educational and to professional theatre – I find that each area has nourished the other and am grateful for all.  The Twin Cities has a particularly high incidence of border crossing!

  • Pmrcase

    Terrific article, Howard!

  • Jon Heron

    There are many types of community theaters.  Some just want to do shows for Aunt Gussie and her friends.  I don’t see anything wrong with that, but I have no desire to have anything to do with it.  In my experience, many community theaters are committed to doing shows that are as professional as their imaginations and budgets allow them to be.  Admittedly, most don’t come close, but some do.  I was a professional in theater many years ago.  Artistically, I’ve had much more satisfaction in community theater than I did when I was working professionally.  Can I direct a show and get a professional result using actors who have day jobs and working with a ridiculously low budget?  Yes I can…. sometimes.  But I certainly try every time.  Do I have the vision?  I hope so.  Do I have the budget?  Absolutely not.  

    There is no reason why the experience of mounting a show in community theater should be any less rewarding artistically than mounting a professional production.  Strip away the things that don’t matter and you get to the core of the art of acting.  You can do that in community theater.  

  • Wonderful post, Howard. I suspect that there’s a lot of head nodding from readers between the coasts. As many here have posted, the lines get blurred in many communities. Blurred to the point of uselessness. 

    At the end of the day, it’s all just theatre. I see some brilliant “community” theatre, and some deadly “professional”. Not only should we stop using the term to disparage theatres, we should probably stop using the term. Trying to draw fine lines between “community” vs. “semi-professional” vs “professional” is a semantical exercise, and usually is only there to make you feel that you can look down on a lower rung.

    Shouldn’t all theatre be community theatre? Aren’t we all trying to serve our communities? 

  • As an actor/director/producer (and more) who has done a fair amount of bouncing between educational theatre, theatre for youth, community theatre, and semi-pro, and professional theatre, I think that perhaps there are a few other issues here that we could bring to the table: I have seen plenty of theatre in each category and been a part of productions in each of them as well and the thing that always gets me irked enough to feel this way or say disparaging things about any kind of theatre is work that doesn’t try to be more than its categorization and companies that are guilty of doing the same as institutions. I think if everyone truly gave 100% (plus) that we would all be more forgiving. I think if theatre artists – professional or amateur – truly STRIVE for professionalism – and if companies truly aspire to be the best company that they can be – then the theatre, in general, would be a better world. I have seen young people (aged 14-20) do better work and produce a higher caliber of show then some professional touring productions. I think it’s all about intentions. If a theatre – professional or not – decides to do a piece because they love it and believe in it and have something they WANT to say, then by all means – do it and say it! But to offer anything to the world – to our audiences – that is less than everything we can give, IS worthy of scorn. It’s called deadly theatre… and there is far too much of it out there. I think in this media-saturated world, we must all be looking at the core values and core attributes of the medium itself and revisiting daily why and how we do what we do as theatre people. The artform needs a rehaul for a new generation – and there are a LOT of companies and individuals – professional and amateur that need to realize that and embrace it or the theatre WILL die a horrible death. Whatever its caliber, “Theatre 2.0” is what we need. NOT more of the same.

    • Theartsphere

      This is absolutely absolutely dead-on, Daniel.  I recently saw a high school production that lacked so much joy I wanted to claw my eyes out.  I felt sorry for the kids in the show and the in the audience, knowing that they had no idea just how avoidable this misery was.  Add a little love and energy and stir… Meanwhile, young audiences walk out of that house thinking “all theater sucks” and they don’t want to see another show.  This is what makes it “deadly.”  It kills future audiences.  Ignorant adults say, “As long as the kids had fun…” and I hang my head in despair.  Thank you for this response.  This should be an article in itself.  

  • Max

    I’ve heard MANY community theatre patrons say they enjoyed one or another of our theatre’s productions (Des Moines Playhouse) better than the touring Broadway version. There is an abundance of talented, trained and seasoned actors and designers, who, for their own reasons, abandoned or never pursued professional theatre employment, but, instead, choose to donate their skills to their community. Bravo community theatre!

  • Janis

    BRAVO! In many ways community theater is a purer form of art- done for joy alone. No one has a hope of a profit, merely hope of not having to pass the hat among the cast, crew and board at strike. How is this different than doing the same with a inner circle of angel donors? All theater plays to its audience.  Professional theaters are the master chefs crafting new and exciting presentations for special occasions and adventuresome palates. Community theaters craft tasty daily artistic fare drawing new ideas from the chefs. But great chefs do not hold classic comfort food in contempt, they  make it new and original by reworking it in ways we never imagined to bring us even greater joy.

  • Gary

    Howard — a wonderful article. My wife and I directed that production of “Fiddler” all those years ago…and you know what we’re doing now? Community theatre! Thanks for your support!

  • Amy

    Unfortunately, the snobbery starts young. I attended a university with a well-known musical theatre program. A few years ago, I went to a student-run production for non-majors, and had the misfortune of being seated next to a group of theatre majors who spent the entire show mocking the performers on stage. Yes, the performances and production values weren’t on par with the Equity playhouse that staged the drama program’s shows, but that wasn’t the point. These were students who probably did theatre in high school, but had no desire to make a career of it. They were just having fun.

    At one point, one student suggested they yell out “Drama ’09!” during the curtain call, I guess to assert their supposed authority over the non-majors, and just be jerks.

    I was sorely tempted to turn around and remind these kids that they were spending $180,000 on a degree to wait tables, while the non-majors may not have the same level of dance skills because they were too busy with their bio-chemistry coursework.

    I grew up going to community theatre. Most people do. Most professionals got their start there- whether they like to admit it or not- as a tree or a Munchkin or a child of the King of Siam. People seem to believe there’s a cut-off at what time community theatre is no longer acceptable, as though it’s something that should be outgrown, and that’s really unfortunate.

  • Taylor

    Lovely post Howard. My play “The Lily’s Revenge” was written specifically for community theaters to perform. I’m happy that professional theaters are doing it but I hope to see it done by a community theater someday. The first community theater who takes the risk – gets it royalty free.

    Taylor Mac

  • Patrick

    The need to disparage and diminish probably comes out of fear. If the community theatre with a budget of $1000. a show, charge $15. for the ticket and provide me with a group whose work I can see grow over years can provide laughs and sentiment, how can the Equity house compete? Do they need their superior attitude to distinguish themselves?

  • Divama3344

    So well said that I have nothing to add. Thank you Mr. Sherman

  • Brilliant. As one of those full-time-jobbers who performs “on the side” (currently in ANNIE, no less), I fervently applaud this article and abhor the snobbery and elitism that drive the point of view you are criticizing. Take a bow, sir.

  • Jake

    Thank you, Mr. Sherman, for this defense of community theater. I happen to be president of the board of directors for a small community theater organization, meaning I wear many different hats. I act. I direct. I am the managing producer at times. I do it all for the passion of the art. I also do it for the passion of the great works we are able to bring to our relatively small community.

    My reward comes when I hear an 8-year-old say that our $4000 production in a local park of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works was “fun!” We’ve done cutting-edge, contemporary musicals for under $10,000 including royalties that had a very small loss in our small, rural area. I realize I sound like I’m bragging, but I believe I’m adding to your argument that community theater is relevant. Last year, we did one three-actor play for about $500 and a four-actor play for $1000. The former was highly praised by an actor from NYC, and the latter was called “brilliant” by a professional retired from the LA scene.

    Despite the disdain, community theater is alive and well. Some might argue that it began with the Greeks. It’s the oldest form of theater.

  • Tim Browning

    Thanks for this wonderful article!  I’m a pro who serves as a volunteer at a community theater outside Columbus, OH.  I started in community theater as a child.  I absolutely would have no career had it not been for those days!  Most people don’t realize how important community theater is to the fabric of the overall theater scene.  The majority of playwrights’ incomes does not come from Broadway and LORT, but from high school and community theater.  Community Theater is the heart and soul of theater in the United States, for good or ill.

  • What a beautiful article. Community and local professional theatre are the heartbeat of smaller markets. I’d rather see a passionately produced piece of community theatre than the latest Broadway adaptation-of-a-movie-everyone-knows-starring-a-movie-star any day.

  • Greg Morgan

    Community theatre people generally work a full schedule at a
    “day job,” and then hurry off to rehearsals that run late into the
    night, and that leave little time for a good night’s sleep, let alone taking
    care of a family and a household. They struggle to find the time to learn their
    lines and blocking and to develop their characters. All of that is crammed into
    six weeks of preparation for a run of rarely more than three weeks. Not to
    diminish the talent, skills and learning that top theatre professionals bring
    to their work, it is the height of unfairness to compare community theatre
    people’s achievements with those of people whose only job is the current
    production, and who have the luxury of honing their work through seven or more
    performances a week, possibly over many months. Most of us have seen community
    theatre productions that are better than some professional productions we’ve seen.
    When the pros get it right, they deserve all the accolades we give them. But
    the fact that community theatres occasionally–or ever–achieve at that level
    is arguably deserving of even greater admiration.  

  • The saddest part is that this mentality does indeed start early. I know students who are in undergrad with me now who already dismiss community theatre as sub-par. I recently organized a group of students from my Uni to go out and support local a community theatre company and a) it was very difficult to get our numbers up, b) one of our profs rejected our Facebook invite because she “does not support amateur theatre” — what a supportive sentiment from someone who works with hoards of amateur theatre artists on a daily basis in our program… tisk tisk.

  • Anonymous

    Our local newspaper refuses to acknowledge the existence of our many community theatres, many of which do work as good and sometimes better than the professional theatres. If you just read the paper, you’re getting a narrow, limited view of what’s going on. Thanks to the internet the community theatres have started routing around the media to get the word out about their shows.

    There is also a fear among professional actors that doing a community theatre show will make them seem less professional, even though there isn’t enough professional work to accommodate everyone that wants to do it. All it does is build more walls in a theatre town that’s not really big enough for those walls, and everyone would benefit if actors could freely go from one kind of theatre to another.

    It takes more than a college education to be a pro. The community theatres are excellent training ground for young actors and disparaging them only hurts the community as a whole.

  • Mermaid069

    Thank you so much for writing this article!  I am a board member in a community theater.  We strive to put on the best performances we can for our patrons and have succeeded quite nicely I might add.  We did a production of Jekyll and Hyde the Musical which was absolutely mesmerizing if I may say so.  So many of our patrons left the theater exclaiming how our production was as good as, if not better, than a broadway production.  Our volunteers take pride in our craft and make it our business to bring professional and affordable entertainment to our customers.  Thank you again for sticking up for the little guys.

  • Thank you for your advocacy and insight on the current views on community theatre. I am emeritus professor and part time actor, among other things. I delight in and find a freedom and outlet in local theatre that sustains my childhood dream of being a screen actor.  Your observations about who are the participants in community theatre and what roles it plays in the life of the community and the art itself are correct. The Shakepearean theatre group of Merced,Ca, directed by Heike Hambley, is among the best, and provide a stablizing cultural influence in the Central Valley of California. One cannot say enough about the valiant and even passionate productions in a time when the economy drains the life blood of entertinment and appreciation from the wallets and minds of the very public of whom you speak. As my mother, used to say, “you can say that again.”  Dr. SA

  • Shelley Tolliver

    With the reduction of art-related opportunities in the classroom, the community theater stage is the last refuge for the “average joe” to experience art in its many forms…performing, singing, dancing, being musicians, set building, light designing, make-up, costumes…. It is also a place where people from all over can join together to bring a story to life. Without community theater – these people may have never met. It brings folks from all walks of life together. Sure, not all community theater productions are created equal – but I’m thrilled to read an article in its defense.

    Thank you!
    Shelley Tolliver, avid theater enthusiast 

  • Louisel7777

    I never knew it was maligned. Why, indeed???

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this article Howard.  I have always appreciated Community Theater and what it has to offer and feel it has great value!

    I love that you wrote that some people have no intention of going on beyond community theater and living their lives in a 9 to 5 job, but do theater at night because it enriches their lives and others.  You have generously lent your support through tweeting about my project “Backstage Drama” and this is the reason we created it.  To show the value and talent of community theater.  Thank you for your continued support in this article!  Here is a link to “Backstage Drama” and hopefully some of your readers will support it.  

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  • Gleatherwood

    I played the Tin Man in a Children’s Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. My wife made my costume. The producer/director hauled the sets around in a rented U-Haul trailer and set up outside the grade school where we did the play; once we got to use a real stage in a real auditorium. We had a bunch of little kids for Munchkins and every one of us did a little of everything.
    The thrill was watching the saucer eyes of little kids in the audiences who had never seen live theater, having been raised on TV. One little guy had to be stopped by his big sister from climbing up on the stage so he could be part of the scene! We did 24 productions, made a few bucks for the school PTAs and introduced several generations to live theater. No one asked if we were “professionals,” no one cared.
    Thanks for the article.

  • Lenore Justman

    Thank you, sir. I am on the board of a community theater which has enriched the entertainment scene in my city. More than one professional has made a beginning in our theater, including a recent Oscar nominee.

  • Melba LaRose

    The joke is on us because if we don’t start thinking that the professional theatre IS a “community” theatre, we’re all going to sink like a rock.  We’re part-way there now.  Audiences want to be engaged today, to feel a part of, to have a say in, to debate, to keep the conversation going via social networking.  The 4th wall is out in the barn someplace.  And, I also challenge you to compare the life of the community theatre actor to the professional actor.  There are actors on and off-Broadway who have a day or night job.  Face it, a very small percent of people — even in the unions — makes a living in this business.  I work on the small nonprofit company level.  Everybody involved has another, usually full-time, job.  Nobody makes money in the business.  Even off-Broadway producers are challenged to break even and, certainly, no one could live in NYC on the salary of an off-Broadway actor.  There are Broadway actors who cannot afford an apartment in Manhattan.  So, I don’t know what planet you hail from, where you can look down your nose at housewives and firemen who do theatre just for the love of it.  Seems to me we’re in the same lifeboat.

  • This is wonderful Howard.  I read your blog off and on but this one really caught my eye.  As the mother of an 11-year-old budding thespian who found it difficult to compete with is friends in the sports arena, he has found a home in a local children’s theater group that is helping him to develop skills that he will find useful as he grows older both on the stage and off.

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