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I Used To Be Snobby About Community Theatre. You Should Stop, Too.

I didn’t just graduate from theater school. I graduated from a top high school and then a top college. So I have years of experience in being a snob and have honed my skills in it. But as I grew older and learned more of what went into different forms of art, I had more respect for the years of work they put into to be able to sing a song or write a short play. Slowly my snobbery went away.

In summer of 2021 I went and saw my friend in a production of Legally Blonde at The Barn in Stuart, Florida. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. If you’re a local who does any sort of theatre or is part of any local theatre Facebook group, you’ve heard of them. Otherwise, you’d have no clue because it’s not a top theatre. That night I saw college students who were all talented, many of them majoring in theatre at out-of-state universities, dancing and singing their hearts out to a packed room of moms in their 50s trying to usher their youngest teenage child into the theatre, the clusters of teens and young adults dressed up and excited to be there. There was an energy in that room and it was obvious that this show meant something to those people.

If that’s all the good that theatre does, then I’m OK with that.

This past summer my friend Nancy Andrade directed The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at a community theatre in the Kendall/Pinecrest area. It’s a long way from Fort Lauderdale but she asked me if I could volunteer as an usher. When I got there I saw one of her friends that I’ve met a few times, who also volunteers there. But then I kept meeting people who were there to volunteer because they knew her. Then a crowd of about 20 people came in under the last name of one of the cast members. Then families and friends in small groups started coming in. The venue is a high school for the arts, so the stage and auditorium are a good size, one of those newer theaters built in the last 20 years. Although the audience that Saturday night didn’t fill the over 200 seats that were in there, it still felt packed. There was an energy about it.

That feeling made me very sad in a bittersweet, nostalgic way. There was a time when theatre was like this for me, I kept thinking. Back when I’d do a show with all my best friends and afterwards we’d all go out to eat, and we were happy. We gossiped and had our jealousies, but we loved it. We loved being teenagers doing theatre before we knew what it was like to be working in it for years. How one day you’d stop going out after shows with your friends, because then they’ll be coworkers instead of friends, and you’ll be getting off work at 10PM. For a moment in that room I forgot those feelings I always have deep down about how I feel about my profession, and I just absorbed that joy of being in an audience with people so excited to see their friends perform.

It was great. It was one of the cleanest, tightest productions I’ve seen. My friend made an excellent use of space to take up more room on the gargantuan stage. The singers were also great actors and made some detailed choices. It was a great production.

Afterwards I hung out with the cast and learned that one is a judge who adjudicates drug cases, another is a defense attorney, and another just finished high school. The giant crowd that night was the defense attorney’s law firm and their spouses and families. I got the contact information from a woman who wanted to learn more about getting involved in an organization I’m part of.

We judge community theatre so much on its artistic worth rather than community worth. Sure, some community theatre is tasteless, irresponsible, and everything mocked in Waiting For Guffman. I understand the frustrations of community theatre. But there can be community theatre that does exactly what it should: it provides a way for everyone to enjoy doing theatre. Isn’t that beautiful? That someone is still able to engage in the fun of going in front of an audience of their friends and sing in costume, playing a child in spelling bee, and that’s what they did before going back to work on Monday on the bench presiding over some serious-ass felony charge. Community theatre is their outlet, their way to still use a skill they clearly learned growing up.

I finally get it. I understand the community part of community theatre.

If that's all that community is - bringing talented people together to do and share in theatre as a hobby, just as basketball players meet in a park or musicians jam in a garage - then it's done its job. We should judge it on that and for what it does for our community. It rarely competes with professional theatre. We can let the two be separate and judge them by completely different metrics.

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