Thursday, November 8, 2007

Confessions of a community theater critic

Confessions of a Community Theater Critic ran in the The Smart Set, a web site out of Drexel University. It's a first-person account of some poor writer who writes theater reviews in the Baltimore area.

Having spent about 12 or 13 years in community theater in and around the Boston area, I can tell you this is pretty much spot on, from the so-so acting to the business about the audience being composed of the actors' friends. He even nails community theater by going easy on the theater in his review. Community theater critics are just as weak-kneed as the people they review. Most reviews consist of the writer giving a synopsis of the play and giving the names of the actors playing the characters. Renfield, played by Kirby Dolack, eats spiders by day and confounds Butterworth, his Cockney caretaker, played by community theater veteran Bill Danko, by escaping out the window at night. I recently read a review of The Batting Cage, a play in which the first act pretty much consists of a monologue. One of the two lead actresses bumbled around on the stage as unfocused as a blind bat, but by God she spit out all those lines. The fact that she could have been simply replaced by a tape recorder didn't phase the critic. He said she looked great wearing all her many costumes and too bad the playwright wrote all this long-winded dialogue. God forbid that something like a script should get in the way of a pretty actress showing off on stage. And I'm pretty sure this actress couldn't have cared less. I'm sure she was happy with her mediocre work, plus she got her name in the paper. That's about as good as it gets most of the time in community theater.

Community theaters really are like churches, typically heavier on the community than the theater. Community theater actors will bristle at that statement, citing what they call quality, but any production where the actors form a circle and hold hands before going on stage, or give presents to each other on opening night are looking for something more than artistic standards. They're looking for friendship and something to combat loneliness, and that, my friends, can go a long way into sinking a production. You tend to compromise in a situation like that, and eventually the artistic quality of the production ultimately suffers.

Over a year ago I was in a community theater production of Buried Child. The actress who played Hallie was a close friend of the director and never learned her lines and was actually reading her off-stage monologues on closing night. It's hard to reprimand one of your best friends. The director never fully understood the play, so instead of having a single vision he let the actors determine what was happening on stage, so at any given moment you would actually have maybe five or six actors on stage working under a different interpretation of the play. The stage manager, also a friend of the director, let the crew play drinking games in the booth. Hell, by the second week of the run, I started drinking in the green room myself because in the third act I only had to walk on stage carrying a bag of bones. I figured drunk or sober, it wouldn't make a helluva lot of difference. That's the last time I acted in community theater.

What community theater really does is preserve all the old chestnuts. Every February, community theaters composed of white liberals all around the county put on Raisin in the Sun in honor of Black History Month, even though that play is 48 years old. It's timeless, I can hear the board members and the people on the play-reading committees say, and it's message is just as relevant today as it was 48 years ago. Horseshit. I work on Downtown Crossing in Boston, and that play is about as relevant to the black kids I see there as Amos and Andy. Who it's relevant to are the white liberals who put the damn thing on every year. Neil Simon. Agatha Christie. Every foot-stomping musical from Hair to Sweeney Todd to Fiddler to The Sound of Music are all kept on life-support thanks to community theaters. And the same actors will be playing all the same roles, because community theater tends to be more incestuous than a Mississippi family reunion. Community theater actors hang on because they can. They're like the people in your office who stay and ultimately get promoted because, frankly, they can't get a job anywhere else. Or they don't have the gumption and the drive to push themselves. But they're steady and reliable so that's something. Not all community theater actors are like this, but a lot of them are and there's no fighting it. Every time you're cast in a community theater production it's a crap shoot, and the chances of having a really great cast with a great production team are slim because it's all voluntary. Sometimes you just have to take what shows up.

If you think I'm bitter, you'd be wrong. I had a good run in community theater. I met a few nice people, some of whom I still mess around with, although there does seem to be an overly amount of people who definitely need to work out a few personal quirks, if not serious personality disorders. But I definitely refined my acting chops on community theater stages, and I'm still my own worst critic. I do know on a bad night I'm still better than what you'd see on a good night on your average community theater stage, and if you think that's arrogant, well, that's too bad. This is just the voice of a man who knows when it's time to move on.

So, when you plunk down your $18 or $20, up from when a community theater ticket used to cost maybe $8 or $10 (I know, I know, everything's gone up and for your value you're really getting Broadway-quality work cheap) you might see some nice sparks, and that's about it.

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