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Community Theatre

November 7, 2007

An arts writer friend of mine in Chicago, Kerry Reid, and I, have been exchanging some interesting thoughts on the subject of community theatre.

The main conclusion we seem to have come to is that the word "community" is very misleading in this context.

Traditionally, when people use the word "community" in conjunction with the word "theatre," they tend to mean productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma or any play by Neil Simon put on by a group of amateur enthusiasts in the church halls of suburban communities. Think Waiting for Guffman.

These days, as the line between "professionalism" and "amateurism" has become increasingly blurred not just in theatre but across all the arts and media, commentators seem to be drawing a distinction between "community" theatre and "community-based" theatre. While the local dentist channeling Topol in a production of Fiddler at Pleasanton Seventh Day Adventist Church is regarded as community theatre, new performance projects by "serious" artists about community issues and maybe involving members of a particular community directly are known as community-based theatre. An example from recent Bay Area stage history that springs to mind is Shotgun Players' Love is a Dreamhouse in Lorin. Shotgun worked with Berkeley playwright Marcus Gardley and many members of the Berkeley neighborhood where the theatre is based to create a new work for the stage based on the community's history and development over 100 years.

But these distinctions are difficult. What makes the Shotgun production more "serious" than the hypothetical Fiddler? Many of the artists involved in both productions probably wouldn't / didn't get paid, so they're both "amateur" in the strictest sense of the word. Is the Shotgun production simply taken more seriously by critics and other theatre people because it's a new project as opposed to a regurgitation of something tried and true and selected mainly for its crowd-pleasing potential?

As Kerry points out, "there are community companies in Chicago that do regional premieres and new plays, or at least somewhat-challenging revivals (one is currently running Hare's "The Blue Room," which is a bit racy by the usual standards one thinks of in connection with community theater). While I appreciate that the Tribune and the Reader both tend to prioritize covering new companies and new plays in the city, it does make me wonder why that same privilege isn't extended to the community houses when they have "new" on their side."

When it comes down to it, all theatre is community theatre. With no community, there is no theatre. I think I'll pay closer attention to what's going on outside of the main performance arena. And let's also not forget that many of the best actors and even a few playwrights began their careers in church halls.


  • And even with "Waiting for Guffman," it's worth remembering that "Red, White, and Blaine!" was a new work that involved the actual history and experiences of the people in the town -- so I guess it really was more of a "community-based" project, after all!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 8, 2007 at 8:43 PM  

  • A related side-note re: "professional" versus "amateur." Though these terms are often associated with either how much, or if, the artists are paid, I actually tend to associate the two term more with attitude, behavior, and skill. In this respect, it is possible that a paid actor may very well be amateurish in one respect or another, while an unpaid or under-paid actor might be entirely professional. And of course the reverse can also be true, and anything in between. But in any event, money is another matter.

    Also, your point about all theater being "community" theater is spot-on, I think, and so it actually seems quite odd that the "amateurs" were at some point granted the community connection while the "professionals" apparently didn't care for it. Is it unprofessional for a theater or artist to have a connection to the community? I assume nobody would say as much, in which case why the division in our theater lexicon? Maybe this disconnect speaks at least in part to why the theater is NOT considered vital by many of America's various communities.
    -Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 13, 2007 at 10:48 PM  

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