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.

 

Who the heck cares about your theatre legacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about legacy in community theatre. The legacy we leave and the legacy that we inherit from others. Some legacies are absolute rubbish but so many are valuable beyond measure. The privilege we all enjoy of working in community theatre comes from years of dedication by people who probably wondered if anyone even noticed them. Managers who pulled companies through economic recessions, determined not to let the company die on their watch; lighting technicians who rig lights show after show; those who quietly sell programmes in the foyer or make sandwiches in the kitchen; everyone of them is building a legacy and they’re the reason our theatre companies exist today; the reason we can enjoy what we do.

But where does your legacy begin? How do you make sure you’re building a positive legacy of your own? And, who the heck cares anyway?

As I considered my own legacy, I remembered the moment when the very concept actually entered my brain. Years ago, I was performing in the chorus of a musical and I was bored. out. of. my. brain! The show was old fashioned and the director struggled to release the chorus to do more than “enter as a single pile” (Victor Borge, you are magic). As rehearsals continued, I grew more belligerent. My attitude was rank with self righteousness and while I kept my thoughts to myself, I didn’t even try. In other words, if I was working with a ‘me’ now, I’d be sticking a boot pretty far up my immature behind.

One day, I noticed a friend who had created a little story for herself within the upstage action of the chorus. This story went far beyond the ‘whisper behind your hand, nod at the people either side of you’ stuff. This was well thought out business that added to the depth of the story without pulling focus. She continued to create this little lone character and pull her life onto the stage every time the chorus entered. She was wonderful and, it was at this moment that I realised how little value I was adding to the show and, just as importantly, to the team I was part of.

I learned several things in that show:

  • You set your own attitude. No one is responsible for your work ethic but you. Precious, self absorbed actors are useless on stage and add no value to the story or the team. Flush a bad attitude and get on with the job. Someone is learning their bad attitude by watching yours.
  • You can learn something from everyone you work with, even a director with limited skills. They’re working their butts off, are probably well aware of their limitations and don’t need anyone else to point them out. It’s theatre, people. You work together to create something bigger than yourself and, to do that, EVERYONE needs to think with the team in mind (and when it gets too much, stick a straw in a good bottle of red and enjoy some quiet time ;-).
  • As a future director, I learned the value of releasing chorus actors to create; that they are more than an homogeneous blob. Each performer on the stage has enormous value and I needed to learn to release each person to participate fully in the story. They aren’t there just to be a moving backdrop. They can be so much more.
  • Chorus work takes skill. Remove the phrase ‘just chorus’ from your theatre vocabulary. It takes time to learn how to create stage business that adds to the production without drawing focus. It’s a fine balance and takes maturity in performance, not to mention humility.
  • Finally, I learned that leaving a legacy does not require a high profile. Don’t ever think that what you do goes unnoticed. It’s noticed, all right. So make sure that what you are projecting is positive. Someone will notice you thanking the sound technician who removes your microphone for you but they will also notice when you are rude to a member of the stage crew. The thought that an act of immature behaviour would be mirrored by a less experienced performer should horrify us.

So, does legacy matter? Aren’t we all just desperately trying to make our own mark on this world, eager to be noticed and acknowledged? In my opinion, our legacy is one thing that really says ‘we were here’ in this theatre community. And before we get any deeper and force my head to explode, let me remind you of something.

Every single one of you in the theatre does something that the average person would (I’ve said it many times) pee their pants doing. On and off the stage, everyone involved in a community theatre production exhibits courage when they create community theatre in spite of ridiculous limitations and challenges. You are therefore the very people who should be demonstrating what it means to create and grow a positive legacy.

So, before you release your ‘attitude’ at your next rehearsal, remember that each word and action will become part of your legacy.

No pressure 😉

Cheers, Sher.


Sherryl-Lee Secomb

Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the founder of An 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 the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

 

 

 

 

Gaff Tape Fixes Everything and Other Advice for New Theatre Performers.

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Dear New Theatre Performer,

Welcome to the mad and wonderful world of community theatre. We’re glad you’re here to put your own mark on the stage. Your enthusiasm reminds us of our own beginnings –

  • the first time an audience laughed at our lines.
  • Sitzprobe with a 20 piece orchestra.
  • Nerves that made your body shake involuntarily as you waited in the wings for your very first entrance.
  • the euphoria you felt when the final curtain closed on opening night.
  • the fear you experience when you forget your lines on stage or part of your costume falls off or you choke during your big song or … wait a minute … what? Excuse me …

So many wonderful memories.

We’ve been here a long time, dear new friend, and have seen many actors come and go. Theatre can be tough. We will stand by you and encourage you to do what you never thought possible but there are some things we want you to know. Things that will carry you through many shows and will go with you well after you have walked through our stage door and into the big wide world.

Keep these things in your makeup box, your rehearsal bag, in your dance shoes. They have been tried and tested by many who have left their mark on many theatres and lives. Heed them well, dear New Theatre Performer for they will determine what sort of player you will be.

  1. You are here because someone else is not. Your position in this cast was hard-fought and you deserve it but never forget that many equally talented people missed out. Walk humbly and remember that pride always comes just before you fall on your face.
  2. We’re not your parents. We will love you like a brother/sister but we expect you to be responsible for your own performance. Learn your stuff and come to rehearsal prepared. Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be.
  3. You have two ears and one mouth. You’re new and your brain needs filling with all the good stuff. That’s not going to happen if you’re not listening to others that actually know stuff.
  4. You don’t know what you don’t know. Oh, the things that you’ll learn. Exciting things like gaff tape fixes anything; makeup isn’t just for girls; and you can change a complete set of clothes in 30 seconds.
  5. Manners are not dead! “Please” is worth more than silver and “thank you” is worth more than gold.
  6. It’s not about you – it’s about all of us together. We will walk on stage with you and cover your dropped lines, improvised blocking and forgotten choreography because we know you’re nervous. Know that we will always be there to share your bad days and celebrate your good but we expect the same from you. Here, in this theatre, we support each other as we step onto the stage and do what most of the population avoid – performing in front of hundreds of people. It takes guts, dear friend, but we do it because we know you are standing there to catch us if we fall. Don’t be an ass and only look out for yourself. Make sure your decisions reflect your understanding that we are all working together to create something greater than ourselves.
  7. The technical people in our production never get to take a bow for all their work. Respect them and never be rude to them. It’s also good to remember that they have the power to have you sing your solo line in the dark or trap you behind a piece of scenery (only joking).
  8. We will ruin your experience of singing Happy Birthday for every party you ever attend. No one can beat 45 people singing this song in 30 part harmony. That’s right! We’re a little competitive!

Dear New Theatre Performer, we want you to know that we’re a team and we look after each other. Mr and Ms Diva don’t really last long around us because we don’t take no crap. We will pick you up off the floor, boost you up the ladder, share your load, and any other team building cliché you can come up with.

Just know that we’re glad you’re here – and you’ve brought lollies.

Cheers, Sher.

An Idiot On Stage exists to equip and encourage community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary.

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