Why Community Theatre is Important to the Whole Theatre Community
By Michael H. Arve
As published in the March/April 2007 (LAST WORD COLUMN) issue of DramaBiz magazine
In 1788, Wilmington, North Carolina, formed the Thalian Association America to bring amateur theatre to their community. There were amateur acting companies in Boston before the Revolutionary War. One of the oldest community theatre groups in the country, The Footlight Club that was founded in 1877, still makes its home in Boston. Conestoga travelers brought Community Theatre to Salt Lake City in 1853. There isn’t a region or state in the country that does not have a long history of Community Theatre.
However, too often the phrase “Community Theatre” has been used pejoratively, sometimes, unfortunately, with cause, but more often not. And I want to make a case, perhaps even plead for your assistance to give Community Theatre its just dues.
Why is it important to ensure good amateur theatre? What effect does it have on professional theatre? In the grand scheme of things, why is it vital that amateur, “little”, or community theatre continue to thrive?
There are two things that Community Theatre contributes to the world of theatre:
1. Nurturing talent–talent that all theatre draws upon. It is in these hinterlands and in these communities across the country, where most of the theatre’s talent has come. Here in Rochester, NY, Rochester Community Players gave the likes of Mimi Kennedy and Robert Forster their first chance to hone their craft. Rochester ‘s Blackfriars, Inc. saw Donna Champlin (current OBIE winner for Dark at the Top of The Stairs) and Michael Park and on their stages prior to their jump to fame. Philip Seymour Hoffman cut his teeth in non-high school theatre in a thrilling performance in A BREEZE FROM THE GULF at Rochester ‘s Shipping Dock Theatre. I know that there are many community theatres across the country that can count major stars in their alumnae of actors.
2. Audience Development. Community Theatre is most often the first exposure people have to a live theatre experience. But much more importantly, if that experience is a negative one, the professional theatre has lost a ticket sale and a future theatre patron. The professional theatres from New York to Los Angeles , Chicago to Miami owe their audiences to Community Theatre.
In 1958, when I first became involved with the Rochester (NY) Community Players, I embarked on a life-long love affair with the theatre, a love affair which, since then, led me to work with virtually all the community groups in the greater Rochester area. So I have seen community theatre go through many changes, both positive and negative. But I still stand firm that Community Theatre makes many front-line contributions to the theatre community without getting the credit.
So I ask that you do whatever you can to support Community Theatre. Attend a community theatre production—think of it as a talent scouting mission. Offer to lend costumes and equipment to your local “little” theatre—perhaps it can be considered a tax write-off. Give back educationally by mentoring a struggling amateur theatre—and maybe get the city or local business to sponsor such a partnership. Whatever the ideas—don’t forget that we all can work together to make attending theatre more of a habit and not an afterthought.
And always remember that not only does Community Theatre nurture the talent of tomorrow’s stars but it also cultivates tomorrow’s theatre-goers and benefactors. So it is vital that the quality and availability of community theatres continues to grow.
Michael H. Arve,
Director of Development, GRRC (Greater Rochester Repertory Companies, Inc.)
Vice President of TANYS (Theatre Association of New York State ).
Rochester, New York