Community Theatre in America little Theatre Movement

Volunteer, or community, theatre is the ambassador of the art across the United States. From its early days, founded in the work of the Little Theatre movement, community theatre has proliferated and kept theatre alive and well. Connecting to audiences with fully diverse seasons, these smaller companies far out-number our professional regional theatres.

The Little Theatre movement was a product of the reformist era in the early part of the twentieth century. Theatre groups were founded across the country often producing their own work in the hopes of bettering American life. Dedicated to non-commercialism, these groups sometimes hung on by the skin of their teeth. They worked to develop a strong audience base that continued to value theatre’s place in civic life on into the future. The community theatre was a natural step taken after the Little Theatre movement.

In the twenty-first century community theatres are still fighting the good fight well outside of the mystique of Broadway. These busy theatre companies are sometimes the first to mount the newest plays right after they close in New York. Their seasons are packed and offer a broad appeal that speaks to the diversity of their audiences.

Professional regional theatres take care in creating each season with a keen eye towards keeping their revenue safe. Community theatres can be found going out on a limb and producing edgier material alongside safer fare. They are spaces for experimentation that often is supported by audiences who have been carefully cultivated over the course of many years. Their audiences remain loyal because they feel they are an intimate part of the theatre’s survival.

Most community theatres have an educational component to their mission whether it’s manifested in acting classes for adults or a fully operational youth theatre company. Their adult education programs are helping to train the same actors who appear on their stages. Therefore the acting community surrounding these theatres may be receiving more opportunities to learn and grow than their professional counterparts who have so few opportunities to work.

Yes, it’s true that most community theatres don’t pay their actors. Many, however, have initiated a stipend or honorarium to reimburse actors for transportation costs. Some are evolving into a more semi-professional model. In her book, Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen talks about her transition from amateur to professional actor. She points out the word “amateur” means lover, or someone who works for love of what they do. This was her experience so when she began to be paid it was “incidental to the love.” (7) This love of the art has always been the foundation of a community theatre’s following.

The fact is, the days of everyone and their cousin Nellie getting on the stage and embarrassing themselves with an appalling lack of talent and technique are all but gone. Many community theatres have been in existence for such a long period of time they’ve built a stable of competent performers and gifted staff who keep coming back season after season. Productions in these theatres draw reviewers from newspapers and are more often than not quite excellent.

The Little Theatre movement hoped to make a love of theatre an integral part of American life. The network of community theatres is seeing to it this love never fades away. They are valuable contributors to the art, tradition, history and culture of our country.

Sources:

1. Chansky, Dorothy. Composing Ourselves, The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience. Southern Illinois University: 2004.

2. Hagen, Uta. Respect for Acting. With Haskel Frankel. New York: Macmillan, 1973.