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Community Theater; Art as Sustenance

A group of kids run around the green room, dressed in their stage garb, laughing, and joking, and living it up. An older married couple sit together in period clothing, ready for their first ever appearance on a theater stage. In the men’s dressing room on opening night a husband stands beside the speaker while his wife sings her big number for the crowd. His face becomes aglow as a smile wide as the grand canyon spreads across his face. 

Humans are inherent storytellers. That’s an idea that gets thrown around rather often—and for one simple, good reason; it’s true. It’s one of the most profoundly simple truths about us. We’re  storytellers, and by extension, artists seemingly by nature. There’s an innate desire within us to listen to and experience stories, and to create and share them with others. It’s been that way since perhaps the very beginning, since the first cave paintings depicting animals and hunts. We are storytellers. 

It’s my belief that stories, and the arts as a whole, are as important to our existence as food or shelter. It’s how we learn to understand one another, and often how we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us. How we begin to learn about our own flawed natures, and the flawed natures and corruptions of the world around us. It’s how we learn about one another’s loves, passions, hardships, triumphs, and sometimes how we discover our own. It’s a way we wrestle with loss, and hardship, and injustice, and sometimes it’s how we start to enact change. It helps hold us together as people. The actor Ethan Hawke did an online video talk a couple years ago on this very subject, and there’s a quote in there that I think most succinctly and aptly gets at this idea. 

“Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems, or anybody’s poems. Until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart—they don’t love you anymore. And suddenly you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and has anybody ever felt this bad before? Or the inverse, something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes, you love them so much you can’t even see straight! Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me? And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.”

Humans are inherently creative creatures. We learn to express that creativity in a multitude of ways. Through painting, drawing, and music, but in other ways that may not necessarily be expected. We learn to express it through how we decorate our homes, we learn to express it in our humor, in how we interact with others, in the way we cook, the way we make drinks, in our careers and in the ways we dress. But there’s one form of this expression that sticks out in my mind for some reason, perhaps because I’ve been so closely involved with it for quite some time. 

I’ve done community theater for a fairly reasonable number of years. I’m twenty right now and I’ve been doing it since I was nine, so it’s safe to say I’ve been doing it for little over half my life (so far). It’s become a fairly important thing in said life, and that’s something I hadn’t really thought about or realized until just recently. I’d always thought of it as a fun thing that I loved doing sometimes whenever I could as a kid and young adult. It wasn’t until just recently when the local community theater started doing shows again after shutting down due to Covid, started telling stories again, that I realized just how much I had missed it. Just how important a thing it had become in my life. How necessary it was. 

Chatter and quiet murmurs fill the theater, and then slowly fade away one at a time as the lights dim, and the theater darkens. A director steps onto the stage and addresses the crowd, telling them all how much it means that they took the time to be here tonight. Downstairs right under the feet of the crowd, cast members listen to the speech over the speaker in quiet anticipation. People go through the last of whatever little pre-show ritual they might have, they re-read lines and practice scenes. Up the stairs and backstage the first cast members to appear silently await their cues. The prompters on either side of the stage sit with flashlights and open scripts to make sure everything moves smoothly. The director walks behind the curtain and off stage and gives a thumbs up to the people waiting backstage. Wheels creak as they turn to open the curtain. Slowly the lights come up, and a world comes to life. 

Local community theater is something that I think sometimes doesn’t really get the kind of appreciation that it should. People may think ‘Well I mean it’s nice, but it’s not like it’s anything serious.’ or just simply don’t give it the time of day to think about at all. And sure, it may not always be the best. Not every production hits quite right. It isn’t professional. And that’s what makes it beautiful, I think.  

Community theater is a very unique thing. It’s a melting pot of various people, talents, and ages. It’s a small conglomerate of local artistic and creative minds. It’s a gathering of people with primarily two goals—to have fun, and to create. But it isn’t a distraction, or a frivolity, or even an afterthought. From the first day of auditions to the final curtain call, this is something special, something meaningful, something spectacular. It’s something everyone in the room takes seriously, but still understands how to have fun with. It’s art. It’s expression, and understanding, and connection, and hard work, and not a soul gets paid for any of it. That’s another thing about community theater.

 It’s not professional. It isn’t a paying gig. Nobody goes home at the end of a rehearsal week with a paycheck. And yet, people still show up. People still devote hours a week for rehearsals. They devote hours of their life to show up to an empty theater and work at bringing something to life. And this isn’t even mentioning the hours spent off stage reading and re-reading and still yet re-reading lines and cues to memorize. Or the hours during a musical spent singing songs in the car over and over, or running through choreography in your head, or the extra hours spent rehearsing just choreography and getting the timing and rhythm just right, or time spent digging through a thrift store to find pieces for a costume. All without any pay or compensation. And that’s just the people on stage. That doesn’t mention the hours spent by the director and assistant director reading over the script and working out blocking, set design, casting, and scheduling. That doesn’t mention the work of the choreographer to plan movement to music and then teach it. That doesn’t mention the work done by technical crew working sound and lights. That doesn’t mention the time spent by stagehands working the curtains and setting up scenes and keeping track of props and actors and cues and dialogue. That doesn’t mention the people, family members usually, not even directly involved with the rest of the production who show up to help raise and decorate the sets. And all of these backstage jobs, all of the things done by people who don’t step onto the stage until the show is over, are still artistic, and are still creative in their own right. There’s another quote from the talk that Ethan Hawke did that I quoted earlier that I think also applies to this idea very well. 

“My great grandmother, on her deathbed, wrote this little biography in the hospital. And it was only about thirty six pages long, and she did about five pages on the one time she did costumes for a play. Her first husband got like, a paragraph. Cotton farming of which she did fifty years, you know, gets a mention. Five pages… on doing these costumes.” 

An audience sits in hushed silence as the final scenes of the play are enacted before them. Backstage the stagehands are making any last adjustments needed. The director watches and listens backstage in silent admiration. Downstairs kids get antsy as they haven’t been allowed to be loud and rambunctious for the last two hours. Supporting actors with minor roles lounge on the couch listening to the speaker, and talking as they wait for the curtain call. On stage characters die, leave, are heartbroken, or reunite triumphantly. In the crowd most watch in silence, completely taken in. Perhaps one or two people even shed a tear or two. The lights dim, darkening the stage and sending the world into temporary blackness. The curtain closes, and the room erupts in a wave of applause as the overture begins and the cast break the facade to take their bows. 

When one shows up for a community theater production, I think it’s rarely realized just how much goes into even a simple, straightforward production, and that at the end of the day nobody gets paid for the work that goes into it. Sure you pay for tickets at the door, but ultimately that goes back into the organization to recoup budget losses on sets and costumes and props and food, and sometimes it may not cover the whole expense, which is where local sponsors come in. When people show up to be involved in a community theater production, they’re there because they really want to be there for one reason or another. Maybe it’s their first time and they’re curious. Maybe they’re just looking for something to do in their off time. Maybe they’re veterans who fell in love with it years ago. Maybe they’re looking to make friends. But all of them are there to create. All of them are there to make something, to be creative, to put on a story—a piece of art just for the sake of… creating something. For the sake of expressing themselves, expressing something about the world. To feel and to make you feel, to remind us that we’re still human and that we’re still alive. To answer the question ‘Has anybody ever felt this bad before?’ and ‘Has anyone ever felt this good before?’ 

To answer the question, ‘Has anyone ever felt like I do?’ or, perhaps to simply let you see the world through a different lens for a little while. To let you see the world through someone else’s eyes, to understand them and what makes them, what makes us tick. To let you see how the world is, or was. Or how it could be. They do it for you, the audience. They do it so that people might have a brief rest from the drudges of life and the bleakness of the outside world. Or perhaps to make you leave the theater and see that bleak world with a little more hope, or to allow you to appreciate it more than you already do. There could be two hundred people sitting in the theater, or only a handful of sixty or seventy, and it wouldn’t matter either way. The show would still go on and everyone involved would give it everything they possibly have to give no matter how many or how few people showed up. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about numbers really. It’s about creating, and sharing that creation with someone else. And if one, if just one person, walks away at the end of the night with something stirred deep inside them, then every ounce of work put in for the last two months was worth every bit of effort. And even if nobody leaves that night changed, or stirred, it will still have been worth the effort to simply make something for those involved. It will still have been a form of sustenance for those involved, in a multitude of ways.

A week has passed and now the show is over. Much like at the beginning, kids are running around playing, being loud, being rambunctious, and living. This time around though there’s no period clothing in sight. There’s no jitters or nerves about walking onto a stage, or possibly forgetting lines of dialogue. Now the cast gathers at a park, or in the green room for food and drink. Extended family members not involved with the production are there as well. The director makes short statements. Everyone eats, and drinks, and laughs and jokes about life and the production and the future. People sit together and share anecdotes, others talk about recent happenings, and some just talk about whatever comes to mind. Everyone is loose, and happy, and for the moment content. At that moment, everybody is part of a small community. A family. The afternoon fades, and one by one everybody trickles off until they’ve all gone separate ways until the next time they reconvene to create together. 

Art and human creativity can be a form of sustenance in a number of ways and through a number of mediums that we could talk about for hours on end. 

One of the ways that community theater, I believe, transforms the art from hobby to sustenance is in the very name. Community theater. When you walk away from a production, you’re not just walking away from a cast and a crew. You’re walking away from people you’ve spent hours of the last two and a half months interacting with and getting to know, even if it’s just cursory. Kids aren’t just walking away from their fellow castmates, they’re walking away from new friends that they’ll have and know for possibly years to come. When you start a production, you’re starting with castmates and a small crew. But over the months, over the course of rehearsals, that changes. Once it ends and you leave the theater on the final night, or leave the cast party, you’re not walking away from the same cast and crew you started with. You’re walking away from a community. At the end of the show’s run you walk away from a kind of family. 

That’s what makes community theater so special, so beautiful, I think. It’s creation and art in its purest form I think. It’s people from varying walks of life and occupations and experiences and ages coming together to create. To tell a story together, and share it with others. And this doesn’t only apply to community theater, this can apply to community murals, where people come together to piece together a large mural on the side of a building, where people come together to make something lasting. It can apply to open mic events, where people or little groups can come to play for people on their own, or to jam together. But community theater is interesting to me in this regard because in a sense, it's more alive than other forms of community art. Performances can change from show to show, in small ways or in large ways. Each person brings their own little thing to each reading, rehearsal, and show that changes the whole just slightly. It changes and evolves with the people who mold and form it. And in the end, regardless of if the final product is “good” or not, it’s beautiful. It’s important. It’s necessary. 

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