by Jim Russell
I love theatre, and over the past thirty years, I’ve had the great privilege of being involved with both professional and community theatre companies. As an actor, stage manager, director, designer and marketer, I have learned a lot, and continue to learn every day. I have learned that professional theatre is a serious business with highly trained experts in place to create the best quality performances, sets, costumes, lights and sound possible. The bottom line demands it, and audiences are willing to pay more to get it. There’s not a lot of time for education. You’re supposed to already know what you’re doing and do it – right. I have also learned that the production quality in community theatre can sometimes rival the professionals at every level. It’s an exciting thing when an audience member says your community theatre production was as good as or better than anything they’ve ever seen on Broadway. It is absolutely commendable to strive for excellence and professionalism in community theatre, but I think the most important thing I’ve come to learn over the years is that community theatre is a completely different animal than its professional cousin – by design. In community theatre, achieving perfection must not ever be more important than making theatre accessible to and inclusive of the very people it exists for: the community. After all, what is community theatre without the community?
Is a community theatre with a tiny group of highly experienced people doing all of the directing, set building, costumes, lights, etc. really a community theatre at all? Sometimes this environment can develop when a community theatre is lucky enough to have a really talented person or small circle of talented people come along. The goal becomes to raise the bar of quality and with these brilliant few people on hand to do it, it is a natural, understandable evolvement that, for the betterment of the group’s productions, these exceptional and hard working folks end up being the solitary few behind the magic.
It is certainly an admirable ambition to strive for perfection, but in community theatre, perhaps it is equally important, or maybe even more important, to be a place where anyone can walk in off the street and have the chance to be part of crafting live theatre. Someone who has never threaded a needle should be allowed to learn how to do costumes. Someone who has never used a power drill should be given the chance to learn how to build a set.
Sure, it would be easier to just let the few more experienced people handle everything. The outcome would be better and the process faster. But is that what community theatre is supposed to be about? There is no doubt that having ten people sort through the prop room might create a little more work and confusion than having one person in charge of it, but maybe welcoming those ten people to be part of the excitement should be more important than having the most perfect prop room in the world. Maybe having a team of lighting people will result in a wrench not being exactly where it should be from time to time, but could enriching the lives of those people be more important than knowing exactly where the wrench is?
For the sake of fostering a large, welcoming, educational and inclusive theatre group, perhaps rather than striving for perfection by having the most experienced people do all the work, we can aim for perfection and know when – and why – to settle for less, and in the process let more people learn about theatre and share in the fun. Maybe the result will be a set that has a slightly crooked door, or a dress on an actress with a thread hanging from it, or a light cue that happens a few seconds later than it should have. And maybe that’s okay.
People who know me know that as a community theatre director, I strive for the very best show I can put in front of an audience. I will admit there was a time in my journey that I would be tempted to go with proven, tried and true regulars when choosing people for set décor, lights, costumes, etc. But I have learned that giving someone new or different a chance is not only much more in line with my view of what community theatre should be about, but also that the resulting work accomplished by so-called “beginners” can be downright amazing. I recently had the honor of directing a play for which I had a first-time set builder, first time set design and décor person, first time lighting designer and a team of costumers rather than a sole costumer. Nearly twenty people helped build my set, and I mean significant involvement, and overall more than sixty people (yes, I counted) volunteered in some capacity to help create the show. What I learned from this is that when you ask people if they want to be involved with making a play, they almost always say yes. And with an open, welcoming, guiding hand, they can work wonders.
Okay. By now, you might be thinking, “but you can’t just turn an army of people with no experience loose! There will be chaos!” Of course, you are correct. And that’s where I come back to those few really good people who might have inadvertently become the lone work horses of a theatre group. This is where they get to let their experience, knowledge and natural-born talent shine in a very different way. How? By mentoring, teaching, and guiding that army of people who just walked in off the street. In my perfect scenario, the “cream of the crop” would have the chance to evolve beyond that masterpiece set they could accomplish all alone, or the magnificent costumes that might win them a little statue, or the sole credit they might get for the best lighting design since God said “let there be light.”
They could accomplish similar greatness by becoming teachers and taking the time and effort to share their secrets and expertise and train others how to do things right. A community theatre could become a place for people with no experience to come and fulfill their dreams under the wise and experienced guidance of someone who knows the ropes. And that’s how a theatre group can be inclusive and welcoming without chaos ensuing. In the end, it is very possible indeed that that goal of raising the bar can still be reached in the process.
I understand and respect that there might be some artistic geniuses in the world who prefer to make the magic on their own terms and without the help of well-meaning newbies. But I really believe that community theatres, especially non-profit charitable community theatre groups, should not ever sacrifice the importance of inclusiveness to get the benefit of brilliant work from an artist who prefers to work alone. This kind of artist is not a bad person. Some artists work this way, and that is okay. There are really excellent opportunities for this kind of professional to get paid to do what they do best at a professional level. No need to mentor. No need to “waste” time with beginners. Do your thing, get paid for it, and live happily ever after. And there is always the option to start your own for-profit theatre company and do things however you want. You pay the bills, you call the shots.
But if a group is especially lucky, the best of the best will instead be willing to become the welcoming “professors” of a community of everyday people who want learn to be the best playmakers they can. Groups could have free workshops or even classes to educate newcomers. Experienced lighting designers and sound technicians and prop-makers and set decorators and even marketing and publicity people could share their wealth of knowledge and in the process help others learn to create theatre that truly honors and encourages excellence in the craft. No person who contacts a community theatre offering to volunteer would ever be told “sorry, we already have someone who does that – we don’t need you.” They would be told “we would love to have you come be part of the process. We can teach you everything you need to know and we want and need your help!”
All of this brings me to one of the reasons I feel so proud and truly privileged to be part of my local community theatre, Carrollwood Players. They actually have a mission statement in their by-laws that speaks to the things I’ve discussed here. It reads as follows:
“The purpose of the organization is to promote a greater knowledge of the theater arts and skills by developing talent and training members in all branches of dramatic presentation, fostering and promoting exchange of information, experience, and ideas, and presenting a variety of stage productions for the entertainment and benefit of it members.”
What I love most about this statement is that the mission of education is listed first, followed by the mission of entertainment. I am the first person who will tell you that I want to see great shows at Carrollwood Players, but I want to see it accomplished in an environment of welcoming and learning, with opportunity for the many, not the few. That’s why I love my chosen theatre group so much, because it is actually written in the by-laws that that’s what we’re about. And that’s why I am so excited when I think about what is possible at this wonderful gem in my community. I see a very bright future for this little theatre as long as we keep our mission in mind always.
Anyone who is reading this and ever wanted to design or build a set, go on a prop-finding hunt, design a costume, decorate a stage, learn how to be a director or stage manager or how to operate a light board, or even get on stage and perform, Carrollwood Players Theatre is ready for you to walk in the door. And that’s why I am so happy to be part of this group.
I have a favorite quote I’d like to share: “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”
If you’d like to become part of the symphony that is Carrollwood Players Theatre, visit our website at www.carrollwoodplayers.org and contact us, or message us via our Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/carrollwoodplayers