Now, depending on where you are in the world there are a multitude of options for the “non-professional” actor. This is not to say the individuals involved are not necessarily very capable and worthy performers in their own right of course but I’m talking unpaid productions here. For some, this may be a stepping-stone or starting point. For others it may be an outlet for something they would not otherwise pursue. For others yet it is a playing ground to meet like-minded people and explore a world outside their own socially or for the fun and love of the craft. Let’s have a talk then shall we about Am-Dram, Amateur Theatre or as it is most known and preferred to be titled in Australia, “Community Theatre.”
What makes it community theatre?
Well firstly we are talking in general non-for-profit organisations that are creating essentially an outlet for the “community” to pursue the arts. This does not mean it is limited to the local catchment but there tends to be a reflection. Usually no-one involved in the show is paid (often including the creative team) and any profit from the show goes into funding future productions for the company. Generally a season is short (from a day or weekend to a few weeks) and the rehearsal period is long and spread out ( 2-4 rehearsals for 3 to 5 months). Usually the length of rehearsals are also quite short (usually 2 – 4 hours on week days with perhaps a little longer on non work days) and are outside of work hours generally after 5 and on weekends. Often the theatre you are performing in belongs to the community or is used by many companies and schools as well or in some situations belongs to the organisation itself – this is generally because of the accessibility to the audience and the cost and diminished need for bigger venues to house the show. If this sounds like your production – it is probably community Theatre. This is of course quite different to “professional theatre” where generally the show would be rehearsed in a short period of time with long rehearsal days condensed together (often for less than 2 months) with generally ongoing seasons of months long with need for covers, swings and understudies to ensure adequate rest to the cast.
Why do community theatre?
The short answer is there are lots of reasons and lots of people who can benefit from community theatre. Let me give some examples of what I have personally seen.
- For the aspiring actor or creative who has no or little experience under their belt – a community theatre field can be a great place to get a feel for what is involved in performing and preparing for a production. You can learn valuable skills, put performances to your name on your CV (resume) and often shadow or learn from other more senior performers with assistant creative roles and understudy allocations with no pressure (or opportunity depending on your perspective) to actually get a show (That is unlike in a professional production being an understudy in a community theatre production may not mean you will ever perform as that character on stage.
- For the actor or creative who does not intend on pursuing a more professional career – a community theatre stage can be the perfect place to express their joy and love of their craft without feeling the pressure associated with “working” and without the need to have it consume their lives entirely. As these positions are unpaid and essentially voluntary you will get all levels of these people from the artist finding or re-finding themselves to the person who just wants to have a hobby on the side. It is of course important to remember that most people in community theatre still take it very seriously as no-one wants to put on a substandard show – so as much as it should remain a fun and enjoyable environment for all that should not be mistaken for wasting time or not being prepared to put in the effort expected. If you commit to doing a show it is good practise to follow through and do your bit. But certainly as much as playing in a community soccer team might be a fun thing to do after work a community theatre production can be a good escape from the daily grind if you are so inclined.
- For the actor or creative wanting to find other likeminded people – community theatre can be a great place to go. If you are doing something for free out of your own time there is generally an implication that you enjoy it somewhat. As such, community theatre is a great place to find people who feel like you do about what you love. These are all people who likely are passionate about similar things to you and personally I have met some of my best friends through my experiences in community theatre. But this need not just be for friendships. It might be to find people you might want to work with in other forms of performance, it may even be a place to find teachers (or students as it may be) as you get to know people and communicate about your personal aspirations.
- For anyone wanting to learn more about performing and theatre – community theatre is a very kind and welcoming platform to express your interest and test the water. This means it tends to be a safe space for children, students or even adults who may feel unsure about their level of ability. Often this may mean taking on smaller roles or parts or even helping with sales or committees depending on the skill level of the group and the audition process. Either way, it is certainly a good ground for working your way up from no experience at all if you think the stage is something that interests you. Auditions for more major productions are often more selective of those who can apply and it can be a good way to get an idea of where you are at and in fact if it is even what you want to be involved in.
Things you must remember if you want to perform in community theatre
- The creative team, while sometimes paid something minimal, is often voluntarily giving their time. Often due to the level of work in these positions these people are highly trained in some regard and are often worth learning from and respecting. The amount of work they put in to a show is enormous and can be a lot more difficult in less professional shows where teams do not always have their roles clearly defined. Be patient and be kind. Learn what you can both from the good and the bad. And remember that at the end of the day these people have their names on this production too even if they are not on the stage – and often (at least within community theatre circles) these are the names that get remembered – they want it to be a success as much as you do.
- All of the cast are giving their time freely and while they are doing it for many reasons they all have a right to be there and want to put on a good show. They may place varying levels of importance on the production but for many they want it to be the absolute best it can be. Be kind to your cast mates and always put in your best effort. For some of them this is their only opportunity to perform; for others it is their only opportunity to showcase themselves; for others again it is their only escape from their everyday lives that they feel somehow need to bring to the stage. These may all seem like very different things but ultimately it means that everyone will benefit from a smooth running, well received and valued performance.
- Your audience wants you to succeed. While yes these are paying customers; more often than not a percentage of the audience are patrons of the theatre company or friends and family of the performers, band and creative team. Even general public viewers who come to see the show tend to have lower expectations of a community theatre show (whether or not that should be the case is another story) and will usually be pleasantly surprised. Even the reviewers of these shows tend to be community theatre performers or creative in their own right.
At the end of the day, as with anything, I think it is important to realise why you are there and what you want to get out of it. Have a read through this and a think about which of these most applies to you. If you know what you want to get out of it, you have the best shot of feeling like you’ve achieved something. And always keep in mind that even within the banner of “community theatre” there is a scale ladder depending on the age, experience, reputation and expectations of the company, cast and creative team. I have seen and been involved with many rungs within this ladder and the important thing to remember is that all of these things have lessons you can take with you and finding that out the hard way is not always a bad thing. At the very least you will meet some incredible people and learn from both your own and others mistakes and at the very best you may be involved in some incredible pieces of theatre you will be so proud to take with you always.