Are we losing the ‘community’ in our community theatres?

 

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I can still remember the opening night of my very first show. As a 15 year old, you are a messy mix of wanting to be noticed and being horrified when you are. Oh, the ‘actoring’.

The joy was that I was surrounded by experience; people who helped me learn to perform and become brave enough to grow. The community in ‘community theatre’ was strong and, while I learned that there are good and not quite as good ways to approach a piece of theatre in the amateur world, I became aware that it was what participation in community theatre did for individuals that made it most appealing to me.

I love the ones who struggle with nerves, but do it anyway; who are brave; who step out of their comfort zones and into the cushioned and understanding arms of fellow performers in their local community theatre company.

Since I began the Idiot project, I’ve studied the challenges of many companies and developed ways to make things better for them. This has exposed me to many wonderful theatre communities who love what they do and support and respect the people who do it with them.

But there’s a disturbance in the force that is really starting to tick me off.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I am passionate about encouraging and equipping community theatre to expect more and to be extraordinary. I see this approach in so many productions, performers, producers and companies and it thrills me to pieces.

But this drive to improve should never be at the expense of people. We should always respect the time and talents offered to our companies. We should never treat our volunteers like staff, we should keep our heads out of our asses and seek to include the diverse range of people who seek to participate in the arts.

It saddens me to see some community theatre companies be overcome by what can simply be described as a sense of embarrassment about who and what they are. They’ve leapt over the line of ‘community theatre doing the very best they are capable of’ and landed right smack in the middle of ‘we’re going to be better than anyone else’ – a very, VERY different attitude.

Working to create a piece of theatre that is the very best that your team is capable of, carries a beauty and value, not measurable at any box office. This attitude empowers individuals to reach further, respect everyone’s efforts, and encourage each other to create something far bigger than themselves.

Once you enter the realm of wanting to be better than everyone else, you do so by stepping over people to get there. Theatre companies make decisions that jeopardise their future. They insist on hiring theatres that are too big and expensive for their budget, everything becomes about ticket sales, and volunteers burnout at an alarming rate.

“But we have to sell tickets,” you cry!

Then let’s step sideways for just a moment.

I have recently come across companies making major decisions for their future based on false information. They have struggled to sell tickets and interpret this as a need to go bigger, change their culture, drastically alter their show choices in a way that does not reflect what their audience wants and build shows that force them to price themselves out of the community theatre market. These changes in and of themselves are not bad. It’s the reasons these decisions are being made that is challenging.

The statement, ‘we can’t sell tickets’ is false. It can be complex, but when it comes to community theatres run by volunteers without marketing skills, it’s false, and here’s why.

You are not marketing your shows! You think you are because you post a few things on social media, maybe spend money on print ads in your local newspaper and badger the cast to sell more tickets but, from experience, I can almost guarantee that YOU ARE NOT MARKETING AND THAT FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT YOUR SHOW/COMPANY EXISTS.

The mistake people make is thinking that the world is no bigger than their own – “I think this way therefore everyone else does. I know the show is on, I’ve posted on facebook so everyone else knows what I know.”

FALSE. WRONG. NO. NO. NO!

Marketing 101 – Do not market to yourself! And, I’m sorry, but that is exactly what you are doing. Please, please, for the love of all the gaff tape you have used in your career, stop making decisions based on these assumptions.

Improve your marketing first. You haven’t even scratched the surface of ticket sales yet, I guarantee it. It doesn’t matter what the show is. I’ve sold thousands of seats to Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein through to contemporary theatre simply with good, basic and inexpensive marketing techniques. Learn the basics, do the basics consistently. Everything else is a bonus but not necessarily sustainable.

DISCLAIMER: I still can’t sell crap! End of conversation.

Stepping back to what’s really important!

Our theatre communities are all different and extremely valuable, making up a smorgasbord of creativity that provides training and companionship, a place for our creativity to thrive and even explore the potential of making it a profession. Size does NOT matter. Bigger is not better. It’s simply different. Whether your season is a series of plays, musicals or cabaret, or whether you perform in a 90 seat hall or a 500 seat theatre, know that you are family to thousands of creatives who need to feel accepted, challenged and seen.

I do not want to be part of a local theatre community that is embarrassed about their amateur status, who feel the need to be better than everyone else or want to be considered ‘professional’, and fail to cultivate a culture of belonging, joy and humility.

I want to be part of something great, but that greatness comes from all of us working together to do our best, not from a company driving their cast and volunteers to be a product, simply for the purpose of selling tickets and satisfying individual egos.

Actors and creatives who have worked with me could tell you that I love the people I work with, I will challenge them and expect them to challenge themselves, I will protect them and I will fight for their joy in what they are doing, but I will never waste their time telling them what they want to hear, only what I believe will make them better – for their sakes.

I love you, community theatre. You are joy, family and passion.

Don’t forget who you are and what you are worth.

It’s everything.

Sher.

 

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How your integrity influences your theatre life.

Integrity and An Idiot On Stage

What does integrity look like to you? Is it even a thing anymore, and how does it play out in our world of community theatre?

On the surface, integrity can mean simply being a person of your word but, move deeper and it can influence how you treat people and allow others to be treated.

Let’s take a quick survey, and be brutally honest with yourself. No one is watching, so tell me which one of these statements applies to your current way of thinking –

  1. Integrity is like breathing to me. It says who I am and what I believe in.
  2. Integrity is something I put on when I need it. I wear it like the jumper Grandma gave me for Christmas last year – it’s itchy and uncomfortable but I have to put it on when she’s watching.
  3. Integrity – “Can you put it in a sentence?”

Here’s what I think. Integrity is that part of you that says –

  • Even though I’m tired, I will turn up to rehearsal, because my absence inconveniences those working on the stage with me.
  • I would love to accept that role but I have already committed to another show, and to pull out now would make things very difficult for that production.
  • I will learn my stuff and turn up to rehearsal prepared because that shows my respect for the team and our show.
  • I have to accept a work roster so I will let the stage manager/director know immediately so that they have the opportunity to reorganise the rehearsal.

Do you see the common theme of all these? They’re about other people and our respect for them. Our attitude/actions say, ‘I respect you and I am self aware enough to know how my actions may affect you.’

In a world that tells us that we must look out for ourselves, we often interpret this as at the expense of other people. In life and definitely in the theatre, this attitude will always come back to bite you on the behind.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you are developing a reputation, in real life and online. What do you want that reputation to say about you?

SIDE NOTE: For those of you wanting to build a career in the arts, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your online life won’t come into play. It’s your voice to the world. What is that voice saying about your integrity?

So, how does integrity play out in casting?

Let’s say I’m choosing between two equally talented performers. Both of them have a reputation that precedes them.

#One is very professional in her approach. Always turns up to rehearsals prepared, is a great team player and is fully committed to the show.

#Two has an ego the size of the state of Queensland, half arses rehearsals because she “needs an audience to really bring it”, and is a complete pain to work with.

Who do you think I’m going to cast? For me personally, I would go so far as to say that I would rather take a performer who will require a little more work on my part, than try and incorporate a diva into my team.

Integrity doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It says you are working to be better and that you take responsibility when you stuff up. And in life, we all stuff up.

Integrity is something you will take a lifetime to develop. It requires us to be life long learners and seekers of the truth about ourselves.

Seek out integrity, feed it, enjoy it. The world needs more of it.

Cheers, Sher.

sher-profile-image-2016The Idiot’s purpose is to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraodinary.

Learn more at anidiotonstage.com.au. Follow the Idiot on facebook @anidiotonstage and instagram @anidiotonstage.

“Just Begin!” Taking back your passion for community theatre.

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As I took my seat at the meeting table, I struggled with the overwhelming desire to scream. Scream at the people sitting around me; scream in the face of every decision made; scream at the fact that I couldn’t develop any enthusiasm for the one place in the world I loved so much – my local theatre company. I was angry at the world for using me up and taking advantage of the fact that I was a passionate ‘doer’ of things.

The passion and enthusiasm I had once shared with my team members had dissolved into a cynical, bitter, angry mess of tears that threatened to spill out with the least provocation. I couldn’t remember the days of freedom to create, joy in sharing my passion with my theatre community, excited by the goals the team was working towards.

A beautiful woman serving on the team with me, noticed my unusual state and privately challenged me to acknowledge my burnout and reconsider my approach. As I sat on my couch all those years ago, considering what my friend had said, I was shocked to realise something.

I recognised that I was the problem!

I had allowed myself to get beyond passion into being driven. Once I got over myself, I determined to make the changes necessary to allow me to function effectively and have the positive impact I dreamed of. Change is constant and ongoing but what I learned has been the basis of many conversations with colleagues experiencing what I did all those years ago. So fire up your ‘self awareness’ and think about this –

Being DRIVEN means

  1. Boundaries are exploited and you say ‘yes’ too much;
  2. You stop listening to others and yourself; and
  3. You feel you are the only one who can fix everything.

Being PASSIONATE means

  1. You set boundaries that ironically making you more effective. You are deliberate in your choices and ‘no’ is acknowledged as valuable.
  2. Passion wants the input of others, to share ideas, to be encouraged, and to encourage. It listens and values other opinions and it is self aware.
  3. You are not alone, you acknowledge the team and seek to include others.

So how do you get from there to here? How do you recover from burnout or even a loss of passion? All I can offer is what I learned for myself. It involved being willing to make decisions, large and small, and began with one simple thought – just begin.

“Just begin!”

Begin by acknowledging what you really want.

Do you want to help out front of house or are you excited by encouraging change within the culture of your community theatre company? Every role in your local theatre company is valuable, regardless of its prominence. Be prepared to help out where and when necessary but don’t be pushed into a role you know you’re not suited to, long term.

Begin by recognising what you’re good at or what really fires you up.

You have a gift for something. Don’t give me the humble bit – “I’m not good at anything.” – That is total rubbish. You are. Find it, own it and do it! The mistake you’ve probably made is trying to work outside your gifts and talents. You compare yourself to others and try to function in a role that doesn’t suit you. Choosing to do something you’re not suited to will lead to stress, burnout and being a pain in the behind to all who have to work with you.

Let me figuratively slap you around a little here. You will never be happy trying to be something you’re not built for. Acknowledge your gifting, work in it, and get good at it. There is nothing to compare with the feeling you get when you know you’re doing what you were built to do, and seeing the positive impact you can have will bring you immeasurable joy.

Begin by learning to be really good in your gifting.

Get better. Study, learn and practice your skills. This is a forever thing. Enjoy the process. You’re going to make mistakes. Acknowledge mistakes as a step to improvement, not a wall to stop you. I know it’s cliche but if I could get back all the hours I wasted letting my mistakes bring me down, I would be ecstatic. It is the biggest waste of freakin’ time!

Mistakes don’t make you a bad person, they don’t make you a stupid person, they don’t mean you will never get where you’re going. They mean you are taking a risk and actually living life, and anyone who tells you different needs to get out of your way and go back to sitting on their big fat behinds, achieving nothing in this world!

Keep seeking. Keep moving forward. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t talk so much. Listen more. Learn more. Say ‘no’ more. Be deliberate in your plan for your theatre life. Don’t let it just happen to you. You’ve got this!

Cheers, Sher.

sher-profile-image-2016Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the “Idiot On Stage”.

The Idiot exists to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Learn more about the Idiot at www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

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