Back in the day, as we say, theatre was produced in New York, tested in out of town tryouts, then taken to a theatre along the great white way for hopefully a long popular run. Later, if lucky, there might be a tour of a show to limited big cities. This limited reach of live theatre left much of the country without the ability to see live theatre, unless they were part of the few lucky ones that could travel.
This is where the Regional Theatre system began. Larger theatre companies were created in major cities to produce their own work for their region. This exposed much more of the nation to live theatre, but certainly not all, and there was really very little opportunity for would be performers to get involved, test their craft, work.
Then, along with more open options for royalty permissions to produce plays came Community Theatre. Smaller cities and towns everywhere started creating their own small theatre guilds and groups that encouraged community members to come out and be in a show, or help backstage, or help paint, run the box office, sell the tickets and more. They were truly a community event with community members and family members coming out to support their friends and loved ones in the show. Obviously these were not the most polished productions much of the time. Sets, costumes, props were created out of what they had or could acquire and designed and finished by amateurs. Direction and performance was a place of learning and of finding a creative outlet for the people involved. They typically had no training, little if any experience, but maybe some innate talent and guts to rely on. It was community on and off stage with all the encouragement and wide eyes that came with it.
Well here we are now, many many years later, with community theatre mixed with small and large professional theatres, with the lines often very blurry. Does pay mean you’re pro? Does it also require a certain level of expertise or training? Theatres are abundant in cities and sometimes even in small towns… sometimes with more theatres than talent to support them.
Expectations have changed as well. Audiences go to theatre expecting a high quality show, even if it’s a community theatre where every member is a volunteer. The audience often has no connection to the cast or crew involved. It’s no longer the community gathering on stage and off that it once was, cheering on your friends up there on stage doing their best acting, singing, dancing. It now is often much more. We expect a higher standard, a professional production, a level of talent on par with other theatres where performers are paid, more experienced, with years of training.
To attempt to deliver this high quality of production, the people involved rehearse evenings after work, weekends away from their family, countless hours, sometimes for a couple months or even more. Since the hours of rehearsal are shorter per day, rehearsals are spread out longer as they compete with work schedules and lives. In the professional theatre, where a performer is being paid full time, they rehearse for 8 hours a day as their job. They don’t have to work first, THEN go to rehearsal and work more. So rehearsal periods in number of weeks can be shorter often than community theatre. Maybe they rehearse 4 weeks, then perform 4 weeks, then move on to the next show. Community theatre also relies on volunteers putting in long hours on the production side building sets, hanging lights and so forth. These volunteers are often hard to find these days, unlike professional theatre with paid staff members in these roles.
So how do these compare? With the commitment to countless hours on top of our every day lives, exhaustion that often leads to illness, and passion fueled work that often leads to absolute joy.
Community theatre involvement is huge. Arguably I’d say it’s far more of a strain than that of professional theatre involvement, though of course the pros likely paid their dues over the years, got the training, worked extremely hard.
It boils down to an appreciation of the work of these people, driven by their love of this collaborative art form, of performing or designing or supporting in numerous ways. I hope that audiences can imagine the work that they have undertaken for weeks and weeks to bring that show to life. In our current model of all kinds of theatres blurring the lines of professional to community, coupled with the work of just getting audiences to come to the shows, supporting the theatre with ticket purchases and donations, attention should be paid to this extreme dedication and passion.
From the community theatres are born the future Hollywood stars and Broadway performers. Let’s show them our deep appreciation and support on their journey.
Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liaison, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration.