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.

 

How to remove the fear and trembling from your tech weeks.

As I sat in the theatre watching the crew hang set pieces in the fly tower, I recognised how hard working they were.  People who turned up when no one else did, spending the hours necessary to get the stage ready for performance.

The technical people of your productions are unsung heroes who are often overlooked and over worked, happy to never take a curtain call but starving for a simple thank you from the people who rely on them.  They install a complete set in the theatre in eight hours, they move it around without killing anyone, install lights and sound equipment, create wigs, costumes and props and they have their own stories of challenge and achievement within the dark recesses of the wings.  Look after your crew and you’ll build an infrastructure that will support your company for years.

Stage crews need strong leadership based on knowledge and experience.  One of the worst things you can do as a company, director or stage manager is be unprepared for technical rehearsals but this is often where community companies struggle.  Organisation and planning is key to tech week but rarely is it achieved and the result is disastrous and unnecessary.

I remember working with one company a few years ago. We had spent two nights and a full day installing the sets and now the cast were in the theatre, eager to get on the stage.  The stage crew were tired from the installation and looking for leadership.  The problem was the stage manager didn’t know what he was doing.  He was a keen and a very friendly person but the wrong personality for this sort of job.  This is not a problem in itself if the role is supported by training, but it wasn’t.

Stage crews need strong leadership based on knowledge and experience.

As we started what was loosely termed the technical rehearsal, it became clear that no one knew what they were supposed to achieve.  They did not know the purpose of the rehearsal so it was aimless and frustrating.  30 minutes in, the director exploded with frustration (the futility of this is for another post). We achieved nothing.

All this downgraded the dress rehearsals that followed to unproductive and stressful for all involved.  You can brush all this off as “part of community theatre” but I believe that to be amateur in the worst sense of the word.  It doesn’t have to be that way, especially when the internet provides any number of free training possibilities with endless stage manager’s handbooks available for download online. You can belong to professional stage manager’s forums online, allowing you to follow discussions about the role and YouTube videos showing it all in action.  There is simply no excuse for ignorance. By the way, directors should be familiar with this content as well. You’ll find yourself in situations of stage management and leadership more than you realise.

In my naivety, I used to think that all community theatre techs were wading through all this available training to equip themselves for the carnage that was tech week.  I was wrong. In fact, what I realised was that they didn’t even know that they should.  They didn’t know what they didn’t know.  They had no idea that tech was supposed to be anything other than the mess they had always experienced.  I realised that many community theatre people do not look for training.  Worse still, there’s the attitude that “we’re only doing this for fun, we don’t have to know”.  What a crock! Don’t put your company through it.  Don’t put your cast and crew through it.  Get organised and prepare for tech week so that everyone can enjoy the experience.

Technical rehearsals allow you to test and experience all the technical elements of the show, practising them until you get them right.  You can’t do this in a run of the show because you would be there for hours and you just end up rehearsing what doesn’t work.  Break down the technical requirements into sections.

  1. Spike the stage:  go through the show, scene by scene and mark the stage positions for each piece of stage set; set the drop positions for all flys (no cast).
  2. Without the cast around, let crew move the sets through each scene change, rehearsing any choreographed changes until they are familiar with them.
  3. Cast should rehearse set movements that they are involved in, for example, the operation of the boat in The Phantom of the Opera.
  4. Allow time for the whole cast to walk through the set, scene by scene. They have been working from their imaginations until now, in a rehearsal space with chalk outlines on the floor.  They will get a shock the first time they stand amongst the set, adjusting to the realities of space and place.
  5. With cast and crew together, go through the show from cue to cue, checking that everything works, that space is correct and that timings for things like quick changes are sufficient, adjusting things as necessary before dress rehearsal. This is where your planning is very important.  Have a list of the cues and the items you need to check.  Skip whole sections if nothing changes within it and move onto the next cue.
  6. Give sufficient time to sound and lighting. This is the one area that community theatres stuff up big time and it’s a whole post in itself. These people don’t get enough time to work through their processes (or too much is asked of their equipment and skills) and I get sick of hearing people whine that the sound and lighting isn’t working, or uninformed reviewers talking out of their various orifices about how bad the technical work is. It’s bad because you haven’t set up a process and design that works within your company’s resources of skill and equipment.

So much of this post can be directed to the management of theatre companies. It is their responsibility, NOT the responsibility of a director or stage manager alone. As a company you should be developing systems and processes that make your technical rehearsal period productive, respectful and allows everyone to keep their dignity. I’ve seen so many that haven’t and things have to change if you want to grow.

Tech week should be progressive. Don’t expect it all to be correct at the beginning. Add levels of experience in each rehearsal so that by the time you get to dress rehearsal, you’re actually running a show that works.

It’s a challenging, busy and tiring time but it doesn’t have to be rude, unproductive or overly stressful.  Get organised and respect your volunteers’ time – they don’t work for you; they’re volunteers and they have day jobs.

I know this is tough to hear but community theatre deserves better than me telling you you’re wonderful and perfect. We’re not! We are part of something that provides a platform for our community to participate in the arts and that comes with great responsibility. There will always be things to learn and improve. Someone needs to be fearless and courageous to lead your company to better things. It won’t be the charismatic extrovert who speaks the loudest. It will be you, the person who gets off their behind and does something with this information.

Turn up, give it everything you’ve got and expect great things.

Cheers, Sher.

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Finding the grace of a Disney heroine.

 

An Idiot On Stage Blog Post  16July15

“Red Wine for Idiots” is a series of filmed conversations with community theatre performers, producers and directors and it’s my way of bringing the experience and teaching of others to the amateur theatre community. Its sole purpose is to equip and encourage, not to mention having some fun.

My first guest was Kate Milward, who scored the role of Belle in a large-scale production of Beauty and the Beast straight out of high school. Might sound like a fairytale but you soon learn you have to bring your game on when you’re working with a professional director and other cast members with years of experience and training.

This young lady did it with style and grace and shares some of her biggest lessons in this interview.

This theatre thing is a lot of fun but it’s absolutely BRILLIANT when you share it. Have a great week.

Cheers, Sher.

An Idiot on Stage is written by Sherryl-Lee Secomb to equip and encourage community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary.

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