Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Towards a Definition of Terms

What? A post? I'm as surprised as you, honestly. I could blame the wide variety of commitments that kept me away (day job, An Enemy of the People at Stage Left, planning LeapFest, the 2011-2012 season, and playwright residency at Stage Left), but the simple truth is that I haven't wanted to blog in the last several weeks. I'm trying to get back into it, though, so hopefully more will show up soon.

To start, here's a discussion question. What, exactly, is community theatre? I'm inspired to ask this question by an excellent post by Monica Reida just under a week ago. For those too lazy to read it, tsk tsk, but here's a brief summary: she attacked the reflexive disdain for "community theatre" among so many people in the industry. For some, the term has become a synonym for amateurish, cheap shows that are a trial to sit through. She responded that she's seen plenty of superb community theatre and plenty of awful professional stuff. It comes down to the question: what is the actual difference between community theatre and non-equity theatre that doesn't pay any of the artists?

This led to a huge conversation--54 comments, at the moment, which would be any blogger's dream. And since this is a valuable conversation, I thought it should be presented to more people.

Here's my provisional take on it: I don't entirely agree that the only criterion to distinguish among types of theatre should be pay. Community theatre does seem to have features that distinguish it from other forms.

First off, there is the obvious issue of pay: as a rule, community theatres do not pay their artists. They are of course not the only theatres of which this is true. I have only once in my career been paid to act, for instance, and I'm sure many artists have had valuable theatrical experiences for companies who are unable to afford even a token payment.

Then there is the question of season selection. As a general rule, community theatres produce less adventurous, more audience-pleasing theatre: musicals, comedies, mysteries, American classics. This is far from a constant thing. Monica gives many examples of community theatres in her home state of Iowa producing adventurous fare. To take another example, Akron, Ohio's Weathervane Playhouse has produced a wide variety of plays in recent years: in addition to standards like Pippin, The Nerd, and Children of Eden, recent seasons have seen productions of Love, Valour, Compassion, A Doll's House, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. I have no idea how good the productions were, but that's beside the point: no theatre always succeeds, and ambition is always a laudable thing.

The question of "professionalism", while interesting, is ultimately a dead end. One could define it by the number of people involved who have training in theatre, but even the equity world is full of people who fell into theatre and made major careers of it without having a degree in it--and community theatres certainly have people with theatre degrees working there. Professionalism can be defined as a company and group of artists who have competence, class, and respect for those who work with them, but it would be foolish to say these qualities are missing from community theatre--or that they are always present in equity theatre. It's too slippery a quality to use as a good criterion.

An interesting point is one of geography: based on my observations, community theatre is most prevalent in locales that don't have paid theatre. They are usually seen in suburbs or smaller towns. When in large cities, they are often in neighborhoods underserved by larger arts organizations. It says something important about the human and societal need for art: even areas that can't support large theatres will usually make their own to serve their needs.

The difference to me seems to come down to mission. In general, community theatre's mission is right there in its name. It's for the community. What matters is involving local people in making art, having a worthwhile experience, and getting people in the community to come see it and have an experience together. This isn't to say that the excellence of the art isn't important. It is. But it's generally not a case of "great art at any cost". What matters is the community.

But I'm hardly an expert on community theatre, and as I said, this is just the definition that's running around in my head now. Does anyone have any thoughts to contribute?


Leonard Jacobs said...

Your post is right on. I read Monica's post and I imagine Nate as her nemesis and best friend.

For me, "community theatre" is a branding problem and a perception problem and, in the end, a kind of nihilistic wag-the-dog discussion that cuts across each fault line of the American stage -- its rigid class stratification, its pedagogy, its funding issues, its dysfunctional relationship with provocative content and audience building and elitism and values, on and on.

It's like when we say "American theatre" and so many people think of Broadway. (Well, maybe not in Chicago, but the higher you go in this business, the more likely it is, in my experience.)

For the sake of argument, check out the homepage of the American Association of Community Theatres ( Is there anything here all that different from what "professional theatres" or practitioners should want to read or know about or use? Not to me.

Look at AACT's advocacy page in particular: Is there anything here so different from what those in the "professional theatre" ought to be concerned about? No, not really. As you say, it sure as heck isn't about being paid and it sure as heck isn't about quality, for quality is always in the eye of someone else's beholder.

Now ask me, as an arts professional, if I'd prefer to work in the "professional theatre" or "community theatre." I prefer the former, please. So we're back to square one.

Kerry said...

Excellent questions. Not sure I have any answers. There are theaters in the Chicago area such as Theatre of Western Springs that actively seek "members" from the community, regardless of resume. You take a workshop there, and then you're in..., so it's not really an audition thing. Then again, TWS has had shows directed by Steppenwolf's Rick Snyder -- he staged Bill Jepsen's "Cadillac" for them, about a year after it had its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists, which wouldn't seem to fit the "Waiting for Guffman" negative stereotype of community theaters.

Of course, as a biologist/performer friend of mine pointed out years ago, "community" itself refers to organisms competing for resources. So maybe the definition process is even more fraught than we imagined! ;)