Monday, June 23, 2008

There's No Business Like Community Theatre

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props,
The audience that lifts you when you're down

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that
lifts you when you're down

By now, the quality and strength of Washington’s theatre scene is undisputed. From Arena to Woolly Mammoth, the live stage is thriving in Washington.

What is less recognized but equally phenomenal, is that Washington hosts a remarkable number of community theatre groups, mounting upwards of 150 shows a year, from musical comedy to Shakespeare, from Tennessee Williams dramas to original one-acts.

The public spotlight does not shine brightly on community stages here in the Greater Washington area, but somehow, audiences, players and stagehands have come together in large numbers to create a highly experienced cadre of journeymen artists and artisans at many stages around the region to round out the arts scene.

“I could go to two shows every week of the year and still not see every show,” notes Jane Squier Bruns, artistic director of Montgomery Playhouse and actor.

Indeed, on one weekend in the fall, theatre lovers could choose from a preview performance of “Dracula, the Musical?” at Montgomery Playhouse, “Agnes of God” at Silver Spring Stage, and “Mr. Pim Passes By,” at Cedar Lane Stage. That same weekend, attending the Opening Night cast party for “Dracula,” the talk was on who-was-performing-what-where, coming auditions, and whether certain performances and productions were WATCH-worthy.

WATCH is the acronym standing for Washington Area Theater Community Honors, and it is literally the Tony Award for Washington’s community theaters. The awards are awarded in grand style at the Birchmere in Alexandria each March to celebrate the achievements of theater groups, performers, directors and technical designers.

The roster of WATCH members continues to grow, and today is comprised of 29 companies from Annapolis to Warrenton. Because they are locally based, the companies often take their cues for production choices based on what the audience has come to expect. Montgomery Playhouse, for example, takes a traditional approach, while Kensington Arts Theatre concentrates on musicals. Cedar Lane Stage has built a reputation for “classics of dramatic literature, rarely performed works by well-known writers,” and overlooked “gems.” The St. Mark’s Players on Capitol Hill initially performed only Gilbert and Sullivan, but have expanded their repertory.

As its name implies, community theatre is all about players and producers with a passion for performance -- not for the paycheck but the payoff of bringing well-produced, high quality plays to a wide and diverse audience. Because each performance is locally mounted by an all-volunteer cast and crew, most productions are affordable and accessible in a way a night at the Kennedy Center might not be. If the theatre also draws in new audiences to live theatre, so much the better.

Payment is not the mark of quality, as the many volunteers involved in the activity might attest -- the sheer joy of putting on something provocative, comic, classic, or tragic before an audience is its own reward.

Let's go on with the show!