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So You Want To Do Some Theatre

This will be the first of a series of posts, giving some thin semblance of technical advice for anyone dabbling in community theatre.

I love going to the theatre.  I love brilliant plays beautifully put together.  I love working in professional theatre, putting on great plays to the highest standard we can, and I get a buzz from being part of it.  Sometimes professionals behave badly; sometimes well; sometimes we make terrible shows; sometimes fantastic.  It varies, but to one degree or another we are all trained to do this, and it’s our livelihood.

Community theatre- what’s lovingly termed am dram – can be a very mixed bag.  Untrained actors, often untrained directors, untrained technicians – much of the time, let’s not kid ourselves, we go to watch am dram because we love the people who are in it, rather than because we necessarily expect a triumphant theatrical experience.

That said, standards vary from the painful to the sublime – both some of the very worst and very best theatre I’ve seen has been community productions.  More to the point, community theatre is a wonderful thing in and of itself.  Enthusiasm and excitement rolls off the stage, and if we are to say that theatre should be an elitist thing done only by people who have the time and money to pay for the training and live their lives as ‘pros’ then frankly, two fingers to us.  Theatre should be universal; it should be experienced, made by and delighted in by all.  More community theatre, please!  More outreach, more joy, more passion and delight.

However, there are certain things which, having worked professionally on a few community productions, I’d like to throw out as good advice.  We’ll begin with some generals today, and there’ll be more specific technical advice later.

  • If you are going to commit, commit.  Don’t audition for a part or apply for a role and then not be there.  On the day, you’ll look like a fool, and you’ll injure the rest of your company by your failings.  (And if someone doesn’t commit: please don’t be afraid to sack them.  Two strikes and out is not a foolish thing here.)
  • Think about your choice of play carefully and don’t be shy of mucking around with casting.  There are more parts written for men than women, but a lot of women who want to get involved in a play.  Sometimes it’s worth looking at Macbeth, looking at your 50 female actors and 2 male applicants and just saying ‘meh, fuck it’ and that’s ok.  Gender is no barrier to a comprehension of human character.  Equally, when casting, please do take outreach seriously.  Community theatre still seems to be dominated by retired middle class white dudes, (just like professional theatre, really, and I say this as a white middle class not-dude…) and while that’s ok, it’d be more ok if it was more aptly representative of the actual community.  You are doing a thing for love: loving and celebrating the whole community is also groovy….
  • Don’t be afraid to muck in.  If you’ve got one stage manager trying to prop a show with a full-blown medieval feast and bit with a tank, please do offer to help.  More than in most, you really are in it together, and again, it’s about being decent, and it’s about avoiding looking like a twat.  And if you’re told to back off, also be willing to back off – let people find their limits.
  • Same theme: don’t try and do too much.  You’re probably still working 9-5.  Doing that, and rehearsing for 10 extra hours a week, AND playing Hamlet, AND doing the marketing, AND designing the show… something’s going to give.  You’ll do a pants job on one, if not all these things.  Focus, and think about what’s practicable.  You’d be astonished how eager people will be to help, if you ask.
  • Fight the ego.  So you’ve been cast in the lead role… so you’re directing a play… neither of these things is the same as assuming you are now infinitely capable.  You are doing this for love, and in celebration – behaving like a twat is contrary to both these idols.  The play will be what it will be; you will give to it what you can; and in a few brief shows, it’ll be over, and the world will turn.  As a lighting designer I’ll be doing more than ten shows a year, and I struggle to let go emotionally sometimes.  You may be doing one or two plays a year, but you still need to have some sense of perspective.  Remember the sacred motto: ’tis only a play, not a cure for cancer – and stay human, and have fun.
  • Even though I’m advocating mucking in, sooner or later decisions must be made.  Up to a very late stage, decisions can be team-work, but when you’re five hours from the performance, now is not the time to argue with a director.  Make a choice and stick to it; time is no longer on your side.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a professional venue staffed by professional crew, please do remember that this is precisely what they are.  Yes, you feel vulnerable and afraid, no, they don’t know your show and don’t care how much love and energy you’ve put into it.  But if they tell you that this bit of steel deck isn’t safe and needs to be changed, they’re not doing it to piss you off.  It’s hard to put your faith in strangers, but they also have a world of experience and this can be used for you.  In other words: we’re not the enemy.  The very basic things we expect from incoming theatre companies, you probably won’t know about, because that’s not your world, and we’ll struggle with that disparity and so will you, but ultimately – we will move heaven and earth to help you, but you must let us work.  Please be courteous even if you are impatient.
  • Prepare prepare prepare.  If you are going into a technical rehearsal and only the day before do you think, ‘hum, we need some sound effects’ then you have screwed yourself over.  Under no circumstances should you find yourself using the phrase ‘this is a tricky bit – let’s look at it later’.  Later never comes.
  • Be careful with money.  Commit to a budget and by commit, I mean commit.  Professional theatre rarely makes money.  Community theatre is the same.  In the name of all that’s holy, don’t predict any returns on your investment.
  • Research.  So you’re doing Henry V.  Don’t be shy of thinking about good theatre tricks you’ve seen done well.  Not everything you do has to be re-imagined in a Yungian style.  Also: you’re going to have to invent new tricks.  You want to do the battle of Agincourt and have a cast of eight.  Now is the time to throw out your big battle plans and try and work out whether there isn’t something simpler, more appropriate you can do.  Keep it simple, stupid, is a great phrase to celebrate.  Simple that works is infinitely more brilliant than complicated that fails.  Be ambitious: be realistic.  Be prepared; be flexible.
  • If there are children in your show, you are obliged to take a serious, long look at your responsibilities.  I can’t offer direct advice, but you’ll be at the very least, wanting to see what the association of stage managers requires in terms of child protection, or calling your local council for advice.  It’s the closest to a full-blown professional responsibility you may have, and you must take it seriously.
  • Have fun!  If you’re crying at the end of rehearsals, you’ve kinda missed the point of theatre and need to stop and ask what’s going wrong, and how you’re gonna address it fast….