In Praise of Community Theatre (and new works)
“There is just so much talent here, it’s crazy. I’m so humbled to be a part of this.” - Cast Member “S”
Among our cast for A Vote of Her Own were people with the following backgrounds: conducting, international competitive ballroom dance, dance and fitness instruction, business owning, hard working mommying, singing and songwriting, historian-ing (?), baseball playing, and high school students-figuring-out-their-paths…ing. (Why not add an "ing" to everything...?)
The gentleman in the cast who made this comment meant every word earnestly. And that struck me.
As a professional actor I have struggled with the challenge of auditioning for the professional stage and not being chosen, cast, wanted, good enough- so my mind will say.
So, tbh, committing to a community theater show CAN feel like I’m participating in something- for lack of a better word- lesser.
Since, I may think, "It’s the challenge and exposure of a professional job and environment that would fill up a space in my eager heart to make art and make me more available for work in the future", I relegate community theater to a place of insignificance. This isn’t fair.
Now if you go see a community performance of Aida and then follow that with a professional production of the same, you will undoubtedly note a difference in the caliber of performance and production quality because of the time invested to both build skills and the money invested to mount the show. But, in my recent experience as a part of a new musical, A Vote of Her Own, I want to take a moment to raise up the benefits of community theatre and the challenges of presenting a new work into the world. (*Insert Mufasa holding Simba moment*)
Truly all theatre is community theater.
We would not have theatre without community. To have theatre you must have an audience- even if only two people, someone must be receiving the story and responding to it.
But, for the sake of common understanding, when I say “community theater,” I’m referring to theaters that operate on a low budget because the willingness of participants’ to give up their evenings when they have full time jobs and families make mounting a show possible. Together these lovable crazies (I include myself here) come together to create some piece of art for the benefit of others and for the sheer love of doing it.
Specifically I want to raise up the act of presenting a new work into the world, whether on a professional stage or not, any new birth is a challenge that requires the buy-in of many people:
People to pay for space rentals and audio equipment, costumes, etc…
It requires people to volunteer their time to rehearse and perform.
It requires emotional investment for the players to embrace the story and be willing to immerse themselves into the telling of it.
During the birthing process of A Vote of Her Own, I felt many things.
To give some context: I came close to my first professional stage job (after five years of auditioning in Nashville) when called back for a lead role in a musical early 2022, though I was not cast. I took it as a victory, but it still hurt. So not having a show to do when coming “out of” COVID with an eagerness to work in close community again, I was scrolling Facebook for "wanted actor ads" and found a video request for auditions for this piece, A Vote...
A lot of work had already been done on it. The music had already been recorded by a ten piece symphonetta- and I enjoy history, so I thought- “Why not?" The music was well produced, and the creator seemed to really know her history. I truly enjoyed meeting her, recognizing her similarities to myself - wearing many hats to create something special. (She also acts as one of the songwriters, the script writer, the costumer, the fundraiser, and one of the main parts.) I can commiserate!
After saying “yes”, the show experience was a process of learning to be patient. We didn't have a clear rehearsal space or dates, a luxury that those with dedicated theater spaces experience. I committed in March and our rehearsals started in earnest in August, during which we had a solid performance date set at a beautiful historic theater in Knoxville, TN. Unfortunately, the summer became one of the busiest I’ve had in a few years (because of the pandemic, no doubt.) We HAD to make the show happen by mid-August. So, in the midst of cast members being out of town for all kinds of summer vacations and school starting back, it was quite a remarkable feat that it all came together. (If you’ve ever done theatre, you understand that somehow, someway, it always does come together.)
Was it the most professional of shows I’ve done? Well, no. Of course not. Was it any less special? 100% No.
There are always obstacles to overcome in creating a new work of art, especially when you don’t have the backing of a large organization or the clout of an established reputation like theater companies that have ‘been around’ may have.
So please let me acknowledge with these additional words you’re generously taking time to read that being a part of this musical was a reminder to me that the hard work of birthing a work of art deserves a lot (I repeat, a LOT) of respect and applause.
I had to let go of some expectations of what I had hoped the show would be first time around, (and I say this honestly not trying to demean the show by any means.) I just wasn’t entirely sure what the show would look like to determine what I should expect. The cast the creator wanted was much larger than what we ended up with. But the cast we had was special, and everyone wanted to be there. (Any teachers reading this will know what a difference a desire to learn and participate makes!) They chose to sacrifice their time and effort to be there to make this art.
Art making is something for anyone and everyone, and it’s important that we have access to the option to make it, regardless of if we have chosen an art form as a career or even as a significant hobby. Many of us are told young we don’t sing or move our body well, so we don’t take the chance to grace the stage and experience how special it is to create a living work with a group of people. Or we are pressured by their friends to steer clear…
I had a conversation with one young man in the cast who explained his friends’ disdain for theater people, calling them “weird”, keeping ten feet away at all times. His mother was in the show, so he joined too, and he said his experience presenting a long paper he’d composed for school made him believe he could transfer himself from the baseball pitch to the stage. (And he did a great job.) He said, “You guys are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. My friends don’t know what they’re missing.”
People are makers. I believe it’s a good lesson to remember there is value in making things with people who come from different disciplines, bringing different perspectives, with a willingness to learn and try. A willingness to - in another word- play.
Community theater can teach us this.
So, if you have a community theater near you, go check it out! Sometimes you’ll be amazed. Other times you’ll have a fun evening. (Let’s be honest. It won’t always floor you…but that’s ok.) If you’re like me you may have trouble watching a full performance without noticing things that could be improved, but, as my dear drama-professor-and-second-dad taught me, the hard work must be honored.
I want to honor everyone in A Vote of Her Own because it was a special memory and an honestly worthwhile way to spend my August.
The show will continue to develop and change, as shows do. (As a reminder, Hamilton developed over- what was it- ten years? Point being...Art like people, evolves.
And...the music will also be up on Spotify soon, and I highly recommend listening- it’s really good! Like, really!
In closing, please come with me as I expand this thought…