The Negative Connotations of “Community Theatre,” or, Theatrical Elitism

I was recently reading a Facebook status that a friend of mine in Cedar Falls posted about the low attendance at a production of The Sunshine Boys he just directed. The production was at Cedar Falls Community Theatre and since I haven’t seen The Sunshine Boys and I generally like what my friend directs, I would have been interested in seeing the production. On his status, another friend commented that “community theatre” has a negative connotation and that might be turning people away.

After living in Chicago for six months and talking with people that work in theater in Chicago, I have to agree with that point.

I know a lot of people that sneer at community theater, even though some of those people do what is basically community theater. They don’t get paid for what they do. Instead, in Chicago, these productions are called “non-Equity,” which is a term that refers to any production that isn’t unionized; a number of them do not pay their actors at all. To the people that sneer at community theater they view it as bunch of ho-hum productions of Larry Shue, Ray Cooney, and mediocre musicals. The acting is stilted and the performers are obviously amateurs. (Their ideas, not mine.) Community theaters would never encourage new work or have avant garde designs. The plays will be fun for the uncultured locals, but true fans of the theater would never enjoy them. (Again, their ideas, not mine.)

There is a huge problem in this idea: I have seen plenty of productions in Chicago at both non-Equity and Equity companies that fit this idea. Except that the actors have theater degrees, their designers have theater degrees.

But so do some actors at community theaters in Iowa and many designers that I know at Iowa community theaters.

I have seen plenty of productions in Chicago that have made me wonder why on earth I go to the theater because of the bloated, pretentious, or flatout awful productions out there. The acting can be stilted, the design poorly thought out, and the scripts are so poor that you wonder why they chose it. I’m sure Larry Shue is produced in Chicago and maybe Ray Cooney. Some would feel as though Proof might now be only community theatre worthy, but a theater company in Chicago just did Proof in September.

Listen: I spent twelve years of my life seeing plays in Iowa, four of which were spent reviewing plays. There are plenty of “community theaters” in Iowa that can go toe-to-toe with the biggest theaters in Chicago and possibly produce a better play. I’ve seen plenty of productions in Iowa that were better than the last play I saw at Steppenwolf, which generally does a lot of terrific productions.

Although a majority of community theaters in Iowa might not be representative of the community theaters in the rest of the nation, the problem is that ultimately turning up your nose at community theater is elitism. A theater company could still remove the word “community” from their name, but if they identify as being a community theater in their about section or on their home page on their website, they are still a community theater. I speak from experience after I was mentioning something about Theatre Cedar Rapids when someone in Chicago theater asked me for more about them. While I was speaking, they were looking up TCR’s website on their phone, only to see on the home page the words “community theatre.” The person sneered and told me that I needed to see more theater in Chicago since I felt as though a community theater could be so great. (It should be noted that Chicago is the same city that is hosting a symposium on how Chicago is the “theatre capital of America”)

A community theater can be great. I haven’t seen a single musical in Chicago that came close to Waterloo Community Playhouse’s Into the Woods or Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story, Cedar Falls Community Theatre’s Kiss Me, Kate!, or Theatre Cedar Rapids’ The Producers. While Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre was good, I still could look back and say I had seen better productions at community theaters in Iowa. (Note to self: See Porgy and Bess at Court.) I’ve also seen a lot of lousy plays in Chicago, some of which were new works, some of which were not.

But how many people would turn their noses up at a theater company in Chicago because they’re non-Equity and don’t pay their artists? They don’t identify that in their name, so for some people it might be difficult to know what is and what isn’t an Equity production. Maybe if community theaters identified as non-Equity they wouldn’t be ostracized. After all, in Iowa, you have Dreamwell Theatre, which has a similar mission as at least five theaters in Chciago. Waterloo Community Playhouse is along the same lines as at least three theaters, Cedar Falls Community Theatre about four, City Circle Acting Company about six, and the only thing separating Theatre Cedar Rapids from the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, and Court is that Theatre Cedar Rapids is a community theater. Actually, a union contract is all that separates Theatre Cedar Rapids, Waterloo Community Playhouse/Black Hawk Children’s Theatre, and Cedar Falls Community Theatre from the Equity theaters of Chicago, especially since Theatre Cedar Rapids will be holding a New Play Festival later this year.

And, no, not everyone on the stage in a community theater production is someone with a theater degree. But ultimately they’re hard-working people that want to make a production that people will love, enjoy, and remember.

I fail to see the difference between a community theater and a non-Equity theater that doesn’t pay their actors. If someone would like to make a convincing argument, please do because I can’t come up with any ideas other than the name.

Yes, community theater does have a negative connotation because of stereotypes and that there probably are community theaters in America that aren’t that great. But currently, theaters all over the nation are hurting. It might be that theaters need to work harder to draw in their audience and and connect with new people. But this problem isn’t limited to community theaters; it’s hitting big Equity theaters in this nation. So it seems as though it’s time for theaters, regardless of if they’re community, non-Equity, or Equity, to collaborate with people and the community. After all, collaboration is the heart of theater.