Theater the Theater Community Disdains

I would like everyone to stop using "community theater" as a punch line or punching bag.
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"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 theater" as a punch line or punching bag.

As people with a vested interest in building and sustaining interest in theater, 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 theater groups, I'll cede the point that a great deal of the work done in community theater 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 theater never sought a professional theater career, and are happy to be teachers, dentists, attorneys, mechanics, stay-at-home parents or what have you. The fact is, community theater is a hobby, a passion and an outlet for people who truly love theater; 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 theaters, 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 theater 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." It claims more than 1.5 million volunteers (participants), more than 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 theater 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 theater.

A few 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 theater, with both Beth Henley and Sarah Ruhl writing about how their parents' community theater experiences informed their own theatrical lives; Chris Durang wrote of play readings held in his living room that 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 theater, 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 theater 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 theater plays" share a common trait with many "high school plays," in that both often feature large casts, casts that most professional theaters 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 theater 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 theater arena.

Size isn't the only issue; current tastes dismissively relegate shows to "community theater" status as well. You Can't Take It With You stumbled in a recent effort at reaching Broadway, but surely Kaufman and Hart, staples in community and school theater, are no less important because of it. Neil Simon is not in general critical or commercial favor right now, although The Sunshine Boys has been mounted recently at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and in London's West End; it's too soon to tell whether they've lifted a shroud from Simon's bust in the theatrical pantheon. We've seen somewhat of the same thing happen last year 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 nonprofit theater producing a "community theater" play should be applauded for re-examining 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" theater, 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. Could the new Broadway Annie remind people that it's not just for kids? We'll see. But 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 theater, 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 theater, but merely have never given it a moment's thought, you are doing it disservice. Is theater so healthy that we can afford to be so blithely arrogant?

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