Why a Community Theater?
Someone once asked me why I set my upcoming novel, Flowers of Dionysus in a community theater. I began to tell them several of the things I have mentioned here on the blog and in other venues; I wanted to explore what the arts in general and theater in particular can do for audiences and people in the show alike. I want to share the magic that can descend on a dedicated group of artists, resulting in a presentation that is greater than the sum of its parts. I wanted people to know how heartbreaking it can all be, as well.
I didn’t get that far with this person, though. They clarified their question. They wanted to know why I set the novel in a community or amateur theater. Why not put it on Broadway, or in a fictionalized professional company? Wouldn’t that have been more interesting or exciting?
Not necessarily, I told them.
To begin with, yes, “write what you know,” when taken literally means I have a leg to stand on when it comes to community theater, as I have been in it many times over years. Yet even if I had been in mostly professional theater in my life, I would have set my novel in the Little Dionysus Playhouse, the theater of my creation.
Wonderful things can happen on all levels of theater, from a tiny black box tucked away in a small college, to the Kennedy Center in D.C. When the combination of passion, dedication, talent and audience connection is present, everyone is exhilarated, on, off and behind the stage.
Yet, if I may say so myself, there is a certain element present in volunteer, community or amateur theater that you don’t find in professional or unionized productions with big budgets. It’s the element of personal choice to participate.
Of course professional actors choose their projects much of the time. But if you are a true professional actor, feeding yourself by way of performing regular in shows, you are probably going to be open to taking jobs that in a perfect world you may decline. Maybe you aren’t thrilled with the idea of appearing for two nights only in that experimental piece about gravy going up at the converted subway station. But, like anyone else, you have a job to do, it won’t kill you, and you have a car payment coming up. This will work until the next chance to be in something more in line with your particular tastes comes along.
On the community level, everyone is choose to be there on the day, the week, the eight weeks of your average rehearsal schedule. This doesn’t make them lesser actors or lesser techies by default, but it does mean they have more freedom of movement. They may audition for a role, but they have the luxury of choosing when and for what they wish to try out. Or they can choose not to be in anything at all for two years. By calculating their free time, and considering the other personal desires and requirements their life places on them, volunteer/community actors bring a whole different set of considerations to the table. All actors can be artists, but community actors can afford not to be as needed, and come back to it when their passion is at high tide. If paying your rent depends on your performing in something regularly, that’s not the case.
That free will to mix the creation of art into the other components and priorities of one’s life for the selected period of time provides for some interesting character and plot possibilities in fiction. That scenario provides a cornucopia of potential motivations for a character to be in a community production. The story I wanted to tell in Flowers of Dionysus worked much better with this type of commitment to the arts. How and why does each character come to be a part of the production depicted in the novel? I enjoyed exploring that.
Plus, having it be on the community level gave me, the author, a bit more freedom as well. There are things my characters could get away with as volunteer actors that professional actors could not without being fired. I wanted the freedom to delve into eccentricities and attitudes (not all of them positive) within theatre in a more open manner than setting the story in a professional company would have allowed. The considerations and boundaries are so different.
Also, though I’m reluctant to use the word “suspense,” there is more of it when setting a story in a community theatre. Things are a bit more fragile in an amateur production. On Broadway, if they guy playing Javert comes down with the flu, mechanics are in place to replace him, and the show continues without major incident. In community productions it can be a scramble when the third torchbearer with three lines gets the flu the night before opening. Maybe not the stuff of thrillers, but I like artistry mixed with a little bit of fear and finger crossing at times.
I did not set the novel in a community theatre because I think community actors are lesser artists than professionals. No because I think they are greater by default. The often ignored truth is that you will find terrible professional actors and geniuses in community theatre. You artistry and craft is not determined by how much or if you get paid to do it. Your love for what you do, and a desire to move people when doing it determines such things. I wanted that truth at the center of this particular story, without having to navigate the unique challenges of a professional theater setting.