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.


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

  1. The thing these Chicago actors need to realize (and it’s not just Chicago, it’s every market) is that ANY non paying job basically is COMMUNITY THEATRE. And that’s not a bad thing.

    Here’s my view… non Equity doesn’t mean non professional. It means you’re not in a union. So saying a non eq show is community theatre isn’t right.

    Non Eq, but PAYING gigs are still professional gigs (in the view of the licensing houses that grant permission to do shows, that is).

    What irks me, particularly about Chicago, is when NON PAYING gigs (community theatre) market themselves as a professional entity. If you’re not paying your artists, you’re not being professional. Simple as that.

    It’s common everywhere but happens CONSTANTLY in Chicago. One of the (many) beefs I have with the Chicago theatre scene… which upsets me because I really love Chicago, its theatre, and I love producing there… but there’s still a lot about it that bothers me (as someone who has worked in almost every major market).

  2. I do agree with you that it isn’t a bad thing. Because of the work I did in Iowa with community theaters, which is what most of Iowa theaters are, I have a theater resume that in full detail is three pages long.

    And I have edited it to make it clearer that I’m referring to non-Equity companies that don’t pay their artists since I know of non-Equity companies that do pay their artists. Thanks for pointing that out.

    In my experience, it seems as though most non paying gigs in Chicago do market themselves as professional. If anything, they might be scrappy, edgy companies, but heaven forbid they’re community theaters. Professionals get paid. You could do professional quality stuff and not get paid, but that doesn’t make you a professional.

    I really didn’t encounter that with marketing of plays in Iowa, but that was possibly because I mostly focused on Eastern Iowa with Iowa City being the furthest south. I think the only professional companies are Equity and they make it very clear they’re professionals. The community theaters might not have “community theater” in their name, but they make it clear that most or all of the people involved are volunteers.

  3. Exactly. I refer to many of the companies in Chicago guilty of this as “poser companies.” It’s a problem, I think, that is pretty broad in the storefront community, and in the end will only hurt the storefront world.

  4. Monica, we are not elitists. And you know that Chris Jones turns his nose up at non-Equity theatre, so I don’t know why you’re ignoring that. My theater company doesn’t pay our actors, but that would cost too much. Does that make us a community theatre? No.

  5. @Director: then what are you? You are a theatre that serves your community, yes?

  6. Nate, I have to wonder if that might be contributing the abundance of storefront companies in Chicago. Just a thought.

    Director, would you like to explain what makes your company, that doesn’t pay your actors, not a community theater? Also, bringing a tired complaint into this argument is irrelevant. There are 200+ theater companies in Chicago. Do you expect Chris Jones to see a play at every one of them?

  7. I agree with you that the nomenclature around companies and productions is inadequate and fraught. If I could put a nutritional information type label on productions to help me decide which would probably be most worth my attention, the label would tell me two things.

    First, how many hours of dedicated rehearsal the production had.

    Second, how many of the involved artists had worked together on prior projects.

    My observation is that when you maximize time to rehearse and team members who have worked together and therefore have established methods and relationships, you are most likely to wind up with quality performances. Interestingly, institutional companies are best able to provide time to rehearse but usually staff and cast each show ad hoc. Community companies are usually rehearsal hour challenged, but often have core teams who work together production after production. Each production may soar or sink under either model.

  8. Pete, I think you have an interesting theory. I would like to point out that every community theater production I worked on had at least 100 hours of rehearsal, not including dry tech rehearsals. But that might vary depending on the theater company.

  9. I worked for about 6 years in Omaha, Nebraska. That was a almost 100% community theatre environment that supported 36 companies (at that time), and, flat out, the highest level of production stagecraft I’ve ever worked with. The Omaha Community Playhouse sports a full-time, paid production staff, but volunteer performers. That may put it on the edge of a “community” label, but they were proud to call themselves a “community theatre.” There was very high-caliber work done there, and I describe it as my graduate program. Working there made me ready to work in Chicago.

    I’m not proud of everything I did there, like anywhere, there was garbage on stage, but there were productions that put to shame 95% of what we see in Chicago. Nate’s description is technically accurate. If you’re not paying anyone, you are a volunteer community theatre, you are not a “non-Equity professional company.”

    Director’s response is textbook, that we’re not community theatre…because we say we’re not. Oh, we’re not going to pay our performers or designers, even a token. Personally, I’m attracted to the project, not the paycheck. I’ve done a show I liked for free, and I’m certain I’ll do the same again. That said, believe me, when I get a check for $20 from a company that I know is on an absolute shoestring, that means something to me. It says something about the mindset of the people running the show.

  10. Mark, I think that with community theater, people are probably going to do a play because they really want to do it. Like you said, they’re attracted to the project, not the paycheck. If you are going to label yourselves “non-Equity” instead of “community theater,” I personally think that it’s better to pay your actors and artists something rather than nothing.

  11. Perhaps I wasn’t clear, Monica, because that’s exactly my point.

  12. Director: “My theater company doesn’t pay our actors, but that would cost too much. Does that make us a community theatre? No.”

    Well, you’re not a professional company either. What are you? What do you describe yourself as?

    The theatre company I founded doesn’t use the term community theatre – we call ourselves a volunteer theatre when we have to describe ourselves. This is better than saying non-professional (who wants to describe themselves as NOT being something else?) and also avoids the connotations that are associated with community theaters. I agree with Monica that there is amazing work being done by paid and non-paid artists. Having paid artists doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great production. Having volunteer artists doesn’t mean you’re going to get a bad one. Judge each theatre company on its merits, not its designation.

    As for this elitist attitude that Monica mentions, I say enh. I know who we are and know the amazing talent we have in our company. I am extremely proud of the work we’ve done for the past 13 years. If people want to look down on us because we’re all volunteers, they’re missing out and it’s their loss.

  13. You know, I’d always made this distinction in my head, and I’m realizing I’m not quite sure how to back it up. There is a difference, to me, between nonequity professional and community theatre, but I can’t define it. The only ad hoc definition I can come up with is whether the focus is on art or enjoyment, and I’m sure that many exceptions can be found. Can anyone come up with one?

  14. Matt, I looked around on Dreamwell’s website to try to find what they refer to themselves as, so thank you for clearing that up. And to go with what you said, don’t criticize something you haven’t experienced. Or don’t make generalizations. (Really wish I could have seen a production they did because the season programming is always very good, in my opinion.)

    Zev, non-equity professional would mean that you would be paid but not have a union contract. Community theater means that you are not being paid and you are never promised that you will be paid. That’s how I see it.

  15. The difference between non-equity professional and community theatre is non-equity professional should pay their artists. Paying an artist is really the only difference between being professional and not. So if you’re non-equity and you don’t pay, you’re a volunteer theatre, not a professional one.

    I think mixing the terms is confusing people. Keep them separate.

    Here’s a scene to help:

    Dude on the Street: So young theatre dude, is Skyfantasia Theatre equity or non-equity?

    Excited Young Theatre Artist: We’re non-equity right now.

    Dude on the Street: Okay, coolness. So you professional or volunteer?

    Excited Young Theatre Artist: We’re totally professional.

    Dude on the Street: Great, I used to like act and stuff. So what do you pay your actors?

    Excited Young Theatre Artist: Well, we don’t at this point. It’s too expensive.

    Dude on the Street: Oh, young theatre dude, that means you’re not professional. You’re so volunteer. And don’t bother putting the word non-equity in front your name, because like all volunteer theatres are non-equity. By definition, man.

  16. I think Matt just won the theater portion of the internet today. That really does explain that quite easily.

    Will you mind if I repost that on my Tumblr?

  17. Feel free. Consider that in the public domain. 🙂

  18. brilliant. matt wins!

  19. Meghan-Annette

    All of this talk about “winning” is poorly timed.

    But I’m going to ask, if a theatre company is paying their actors, how much do they have to pay them before it is considered “professional”? I think we can all agree that to pay them $1 each would be absurd. But to expect Equity pay scale from a budding company is also unrealistic.

  20. That’s a good question, Meghan-Annette. I know that in order to become a TCG member theater, you have to pay your actors a certain amount and it is less than what an actor being paid in an Equity pay scale would be paid. I don’t know the number off the top of my head. But the salary is a pretty decent number; it isn’t, you know, ten dollars per actor per production. But, going off of what Mark said, do you pay an actor $20 if you’re starting off and are a bit cash-strapped or do you pay them nothing? It is a very good question though.

  21. Why not start at a travel stipend? Say $50/week? or $20/show. Even 15/show. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough to give them a little something for their work.

    And, if you can’t afford it now, that’s FINE. There’s no shame in being a community theatre that aspires to grow, and growing what you can pay gradually to elevate yourself from community, to semi pro (travel stipend?), to pro (a “decent” amount).

  22. A travel stipend is a great idea because it is compensation of some form.

    All theaters have to start small. I think that if you intend to go professional, it might be realistic to start off as a community theater or with a small travel stipend. But if a theater gives a travel stipend, can they call themselves professional?

  23. I personally think it depends on the stipend.

    With a travel stipend (say 50-100.00 for the cost of a metropass or what not), I’d say “semi pro.”

    If you’re talking a flat stipend for a whole run in leu of a weekly salary, say 3-500.00 or more for a 3-5 week run… I’d put that in the pro column.

  24. I HATE the distinction “community theatre = lack of pay”. HATE IT. And what surprises me most is that a group of people who support community theatre (which I totally agree with) are touting it here. Why can’t community theatre pay? Why does community have to be equated with theatre that can’t quite make enough to pay out?

    For me the distinction of ‘community theatre’ has always gone to theatre that is OF the community, not for it. If your theatre is made by people who have been trained to make it? That’s not community theatre. Those are specialists, whether they are being paid or not. If you have members of your community (regardless of what they do, take interest in, consider their ‘normal life’) in your theatre? That’s community theatre. Again, whether you pay them or not. As far as I’m concerned there is very, very, very little community theatre in Chicago, purely because there is enough non-community (call it professional, amateur, whatever you like) theatre to cover it. Albany Park Theatre Project is probably the best example of actual community theatre in Chicago I can come up with. (There’s a whole different argument in much of the theatre community only performing for itself, but no one else has brought that up, so I’ll leave it be.

    I don’t necessarily agree with Director’s arguments, but the idea that the company in question must be community theatre purely because they don’t pay is insulting both to the company and to community theatre. If the first boundary of community theatre is wages, it is instantly assigned all of the dregs of the theatre world (as well as the quality non-paying work — it’s not all dregs). By doing so you automatically qualify community theatre as lesser as a whole, which is exactly what this post is speaking against.

    No sir, no ma’am. Community theatre is not about money. It’s about community.

  25. Hate it or not, community theatre is, essentially non paying theatre. It’s an industry standard.

    Mind you, it’s just a label. You can call it community theatre. You can call it amateur theatre. Non-Paying theatre. Non-Pro theatre. It’s all lumped into the same category, with many names.

    Such is the standard by which show licensing works.

  26. Nate, I think that sounds fair in regards to the stipend.

    Meghan-Annette, in regards to what I mentioned about pay and TCG eligibility, the requirements state that “Payment to actors equivalent to the Equity minimum for the area (theatres need not operate on a union contract) or at least 20% of the theatre’s annual budget dedicated to total artist compensation (including but not limited to actors)” (Theatre Communications Group).

    Bries, I think that it is possible to serve a community and not necessarily be a community theatre. Albany Park Theatre Project is an example of this. Because of the programming and events that Court Theatre does in conjunction with their seasons, it can be said that Court Theatre serves their community, the Hyde Park area and the University of Chicago campus. I think that in America, community theater is what “amateur theater” or “volunteer theater” is referred to. If a theater in Chicago that could be considered a “community theater” using your definition were to call themselves a “community theater,” even if they paid their actors, I think it would be safe to assume that there would be an immediate negative reaction because of what that term suggests. (I would also like to point out that all of the community theaters in Iowa that I’ve mentioned in this post can still be considered community theaters with your definition, although their communities have expanded as time progressed.)

    Since in licensing there is the differentiation of “amateur” and “professional” theater made, does that mean that community theaters need to start calling themselves “amateur theaters”?

  27. We use professional actors and have challenging programming. Would you find that at a community theater? Do community theaters try to start a conversation? Because we do.

  28. I know many that do, across the country. The guest artist contract allows them to do so.

  29. I have seen plays at community theaters that have had actors that are part of Equity. I’ve also seen plays at community theaters that have had actors that aren’t part of Equity, but have performed at the Equity theaters in that area.

  30. And by saying “Do community theatres try to start a conversation? Because we do,” makes you sound elitist yourself.

  31. Director said –

    (By the way, do you have a name? It’s more fun to have a conversation with a person and not a title. You could call me director, too. Or playwright. Or financial aid advisor. Or father….)

    “We use professional actors and have challenging programming. Would you find that at a community theater? Do community theaters try to start a conversation? Because we do.”

    Do you pay those professional actors? If you don’t, you’re not professional. I brought this up at a meeting of local theaters today – pro and vol – and everyone agreed – if you don’t pay, you’re not professional. As for how much is required? In my view, $1. That’s it. Terms like “semi-professional” don’t really mean much. You either are professional or you’re not.

    As to your second question, director, many do. The theatre I founded, a volunteer theatre, does theme seasons. We did “Taboo Bijou” last year, where every question dealt with taboo subjects and how we as a society approach these issues. Shows like Blackbird and 9 Parts of Desire were part of that season. Right now we’re doing “War and Consequences” – a four show season that deals with war from different angles. We’re doing Stuff Happens and Henry V in the coming months and then we’ll end with a play written collaboratively by local playwrights. So yeah, we do start conversations in the community, my friend. And we’re not the only ones. if you want to know more.

    Bries brings up a great point about community theaters. Why don’t we pay? Well, Bries, we can’t afford to do so. Our business model doesn’t allow for it. If you can come up with a way to make it work, please let us all know. We need innovative ideas that will push us forward. And I’m not sure if you were referring to me when you wrote, “but the idea that the company in question must be community theatre purely because they don’t pay is insulting both to the company and to community theatre.” but I just wanted to point out that I used the term “volunteer theatre”, which does not have the same connotations as community theatre, re: the community. Community theatre could be, I suppose, either volunteer or professional theatre depending on its mission. However, I’ve never known of a community theatre which paid its artists. But then I don’t claim to know about every theatre in the country.

    I have to say I am really appreciating this conversation.

  32. Matt, I hadn’t gotten to responding to “Director”‘s comments because I was a bit busy, (I’m currently typing this up on my phone while sitting on a bus) but you pretty much said what I was going to get at. By licensing standards, if you pay your actors anything, you are a professional theater.

    And in Iowa, I know Dreamwell isn’t the only one. There’s even a youth theater that a friend of mine started, Parabola, that I think did a play about abusive relationships last year. I’m almost 100% sure that the members of the group don’t get paid.

    I think Bries was referring to the theater that “Director” has. But I don’t think that most volunteer/amateur/community theaters have current business models that would support it. I think it would be outrageous to ask some community theaters in Iowa to pay their actors because some have had financial difficulties, some of which have been very public. Currently, a lot of theaters, both professional and amateur/volunteer/community, are struggling to get butts in the seats. Wouldn’t it be a better use of money for “community theaters” be to find new and more effective ways of marketing than to pay their actors?

  33. hey matt. hi monica.

    i began acting in Follies in Cedar Rapids, then Theatre Cedar Rapids, then Riverside Theater. then i moved to Los Angeles – and now i’m back in Milwaukee. your post, monica, hit the nail on the head.

    i’ve talked briefly with matt (and we still need to talk more, matt). but monica and i have never met. as i’m forming my own theater producing company in order to produce my own plays, it behooves me to know people in various theater markets – Chicago being one of them. i’m slightly hip to the Chicago theater scene but i could use your help, monica. let’s talk. my email is

    and let’s talk as well, matt. my first foray into producing will include the Milwaukee and Iowa City markets.


  34. Matt,

    Sorry if my tone made it seem otherwise, but I’m all about community theatre (as well as professional theatre). I wasn’t at all implying that community theatre should buck up and pay. I don’t run a theatre, but I do front an independent theatre project ( and also don’t pay my actors for similar reasons, I’m sure. Whether or not I’m termed professional is moot to me (although my actors have worked for pay elsewhere — are they only part-time professionals?), but I will actively deny that I am community theatre. Not because of any denotation of the term (again, I’m down with comm. theatre), but because the function The Nine serves is very much not the function of community theatre, IMHO.

    Sure, I would love for everyone to be able to pay their actors, but that brings up another misgiving I have with the argument. In this ideal world where Artist is suddenly a viable career path and everyone can pay, does ‘community theatre’ suddenly disappear? You say you want to pay your actors. Does that equate to you saying you don’t want to be community theatre? Because the professional = pay argument would imply that. It’s easy to use that idea to say ‘oh, you don’t pay so you’re not professional’. It’s much harder if you reverse it: ‘oh, you pay so you can’t be community’.

    And as for the bit about licensing? Letting Sam French and Dramatists decide the terms I use is like letting the cart define the horse. These terms have been around long before they needed to define them for their purposes. Nah. We can do better than rely on them.

  35. “Challenging programming,” and “starting a conversation” aren’t alien to a community theatre program. I did “Gross Indecenty” at a community theatre, even got picketed by one, lonely member of Fred Phelps crew. It was distrubing to a lot of our audience, but many people, who would not have seen that play, saw it.

    My wife did “Our Country’s Good” at the same theatre. Yeah, those pieces aren’t ‘cutting edge’ now, but 10 years ago, in that environment, with that audience, they were unexpected and challenging. You don’t have wave your cock in somebody’s face, or slaughter a pig on stage to challenge or start a conversation with your audience.

    “Director,” I’m just struck by how hard you fight the “community” label. There’s a really easy way to assure that your company is never labeled that again. As a lot of people here have said, carve $10, or even $1, for each actor out of your budget. Like I said before, that gesture it’s appreciated, and it makes you, for a relatively tiny cost, inarguably professional.

    As a note, I’ve been on the administrative side of the theatre question on many, many occasions, as well as the performance and tech sides. Both in amature, professional and large-scale non-Equity professional enviroments. I know that “gesture” money ($10 or less) can be found, if the company wants it to be a priority.

    I tend to wonder, however, if the real motivation isn’t that, in the Chicago enviroment, where you can get so many performers to work for free (including myself), your company has, as many others have, decided that cost isn’t something you want to make a priority, even as a gesture. And that’s fine, it’s how supply and demand works…but if you’re going to make your professionalism such a burning issue you want to argue it on a blog, put your money where your mouth is.

  36. Hi Jeff! Good to see you. We have an interesting opportunity coming up next year that I’ll email you about.


    I checked out your website and your project sounds fascinating. I am going to try to make it to the May show.

    I don’t think that paying actors means the theatre isn’t community theatre, necessarily. Community theatre involves individuals from the community making theatre for the community. If there’s a business model that allows for the theatre to pay those members of the community for the work, that’d be great. I guess I can’t imagine any business model where that pay would be enough so that the actors could only be actors and not have other jobs in the community as well. Therefore, it’d still be community theatre. And you know, as I’m writing, it occurs to me that if they did pay enough so the actors could just be actors, wouldn’t the actors be part of the community and therefore, it’d still be community theatre? Hmm. I don’t know.

    I do wonder if we’re getting too hung up on terms. 🙂

  37. Going with what Mark said, I can think of two community theaters in Iowa that did The Laramie Project and in one case they were protested by the Westboro Baptist Church, and in the other case, Westboro said they were going to protest, the theater organized a counter-protest, and then Westboro never showed up. (Do they try to send someone to every Moises Kaufman show that isn’t 33 Variations? Just curious.) I mean, there are community theaters that do rather “low-brow” work, like Ray Cooney plays. But there are also community theaters that do thought provoking work. Also, what can be considered thought provoking depends on the area and the audience. There are probably a few places in America that Our Country’s Good might still be edgy.

  38. I’m going to jump in here, because I think it comes down to the intent of the company and of the artists. Is creating theatre their full time career or the career they are training to have? Or it is something that they are doing in their spare time, because the love it?

    Bries wrote, “For me the distinction of ‘community theatre’ has always gone to theatre that is OF the community, not for it. If your theatre is made by people who have been trained to make it? That’s not community theatre. Those are specialists, whether they are being paid or not. If you have members of your community (regardless of what they do, take interest in, consider their ‘normal life’) in your theatre? That’s community theatre.”

    I have seen some absolutely WONDERFUL community theatre. I have seen some TERRIBLE professional theatre. And I have worked on shows that I would absolutely deem to be professional that were non-paid non-equity gigs.

    In some cases, those shows were profit-shares (I can remember making $56 for three months work on one of them!) but in each case the people working on them were trained in theatre with intentions of making professional careers out of it, or who were doing it for no money because they felt the story was important to tell regardless of the financial situation.

    The intentions of the company matter. That is why companies get to decide if they are Community Theatre or “Non-Equity Professional.” We don’t get to make that decision – the company already has.

    It is up to us to not judge the work of that company based on the label they have chosen, but rather on the work they are doing. And if I’m honest, I don’t judge companies that label themselves community theatre as harshly as i judge a non-equity professional company because I think that their intent is different, and that is okay by me.

  39. By suggesting that the licensing houses shouldn’t be the ones deciding the terms amateur vs. professional you are basically ripping the writers of one of their rights. Professional productions should be charged a different rate than amateur productions, because their financial structures are inherently different.

    If they don’t set the terms, who will? Or should?

    And the idea of community theatre being amateur theatre goes back a long ways. It’s not “just” the licensing houses.

    But this is an INDUSTRY after all. Show BUSINESS. And the people running the royalties for the shows are right up there at the top of the heap. We need them. They need us. Writing off Sam French and company as someone we shouldn’t pay attention to for such matters doesn’t do anyone any good.

  40. Lois, the last play I stage managed was at a community theater and because of the work ethic of everyone involved, the equipment used, and the quality of the show done, it struck me very early on that it was the closest I was going to get to doing professional theater. (Of course, I wasn’t paid so I don’t see that as professional theater.)

    If you think about it, what a company defines themselves as is a label. If you define yourselves as “Non-Equity professional,” then you’re a professional theater. Equity is obviously professional. If you define yourselves as volunteer or amateur—although I think that publicly saying “volunteer” sounds less harsh—then you’re clearly saying that you don’t pay your actors and this is how licensing affects us.

    If we go with the definition of “community theater” that has been thrown around, I am more likely to view a theater as “community” based on wheat they do, and education has a huge part in that. Take Albany Park Theatre Project in Chicago; they use local youth to create original work that depicts situations affecting the people of the Albany Park neighborhood as well as Chicago in general. Looking back at Iowa, I think about two theater companies, Waterloo Community Playhouse-Black Hawk Children’s Theatre and Theatre Cedar Rapids. Both of those have classes and summer camps, which helps educate people in the community about theater and the process that goes into theater. A majority of the people involved with each production come from the immediate community. I think that community that is served might be a bit harder to define because I view it as that there is an immediate community that is served, and then there are people from other areas that see those plays or work on those plays.

    And I’ll be honest, I am a bit harsher on the quality of work done by an equity company and what they program their season with than I am with a theater that labels themselves as community theater because I do expect more.

    So based on the conversation, is “community theater” a term that should be thrown out because there are clearly a lot of different interpretations of what that term means? Should what we commonly define as “community theater” be “volunteer theater”?

  41. Nate, it’s a thought, but maybe Bries is suggesting licensing equality since a professional theater has to give a portion of their revenue, while an amateur theater has a flat fee.

    But generally professional theater is going to cost more than amateur theater. (I say generally because that depends on whether or not a theater is Equity or non-Equity and I’ve been to plenty of amateur theaters where I’ve paid more for a student ticket than I do at Goodman and Steppenwolf.) You might have more insight into why the rules for royalties are different, but I think that there’s a reason as to why they’re different. Like you said, it’s show business.

  42. Fascinating conversation.

    Director proves Matt’s point by sneering at the very term “community theatre.” What should matter is, what is the product going up on that stage? Is it provocative, daring, executed with confidence and skill, entertaining? As Matt says, there’s many, many community theatre productions that fit this definition, and many professional theatre productions that don’t. But that’s what matters … the performance on the stage.

    I think many folks are getting wrapped around the term “community theatre” and think that’s automatically a lower-level, less accomplished, “hack” theater. That ain’t so. I’ve performed at many community theatres, and also as a professional at Riverside Theatre. There really isn’t a difference in approach or commitment.

    Sure, some community theatre ends up being less provocative. Some community theatre has less than stellar acting performances or technical expertise. That still fills a niche – and it’s totally unfair to paint every theatre using the term “community” with the same brush. You have to take each company, each show, each performance, even, for what it is … not stereotype and turn up your nose because of a word.

    To me, a community theatre exists within and for its community. It draws its performers, crews and technical support from that community, and creates attractions that serve that community. That can mean a lot of different things based on the community you’re in … but one should take pride in that label, not think it “less” or “not worthy.” If you do … too bad for you, because you’re going to miss out on a LOT of really good theatre.

  43. And let me correct my embarrassing mistake in my first post of crediting Matt with Monica’s excellent article. Director proves Monica’s point … although Matt makes many good points as well!

  44. “We use professional actors and have challenging programming. Would you find that at a community theater? Do community theaters try to start a conversation? Because we do.”

    Director: Often and often. It sounds like you do some very good community theater. Instead of proving Monica’s point, why not embrace the label?

  45. So maybe instead of eschewing the label, people should embrace the label?

  46. Here’s a fun fact: Monica doesn’t work in Chicago theatre. She barely even goes to plays in Chicago, and when she does, she only goes to Steppenwolf. So I don’t think she has any authority and I don’t know why so many people are paying attention to her.

    Like Bries company, there are a lot of theatre companies in Chicago that can’t pay their actors and we can’t call ourselves “community theatre” because of our missions and seasons. Most Chicago theatre companies are also without a permanent home, which makes it harder to be a “community theatre.” More importantly, we use actors that are doing it for a job or to build their resume. They’re trained as actors. Our stage managers and designers are trained as such. We’re sorry that some silly blogger is misinforming you about our theatre scene, which is the best in the world.

    There’s no room for community theatre in Chicago. Maybe if there weren’t so many community theatres or volunteer theatres in America, more people would go to the theatre and the head of NEA wouldn’t be telling us that there isn’t a large demand for theatre.

  47. Hey “Hey”,

    (What is it with people not being willing to stand behind their words and use their names?)

    “Maybe if there weren’t so many community theatres or volunteer theatres in America, more people would go to the theatre and the head of NEA wouldn’t be telling us that there isn’t a large demand for theatre.”

    You seem to be implying that the community theatres (and the volunteer theatres, of which community theatre is one type) in America do such a bad job that we’re driving people away from theatre. Is that really what you mean? If so, do you wonder why you’re being called out as elitist? And I think what we do is keep people excited about theatre and create opportunities for new generations of actors. Without us, I think your industry be hurting all the more.

    I think you’re right that your company isn’t community theatre just like Bries’ isn’t community theatre. It does sound like you’re volunteer theatre since you’re not paying anyone. I don’t care how much training your actors have – if you want to be a professional theatre, pay your artists. It’s really that simple.

    And I do take offense when people denigrate volunteer theatre. We work our asses off to create thought provoking, exciting work and as a fellow artist not to mention a human being, I would expect you to support other artists’ endeavors.

  48. hey “hey”.

    i was paying attention until you referred to this blogger as “silly”. you can simply refute what she said by stating your opinion. i mean this post is based on her opinion – what she’s experienced in Chicago. that may not be what you’re used to but it’s the theater scene in her mind.

    to call her a “silly blogger” is – silly.

  49. …yeah, matt…email me about the project. and email me your email again. 😉

  50. “Hey,” You’re right, I don’t go to the theater often. I have to study, do homework, and write papers. Going to the theater is expensive and there are often a lot of plays I’m not interested in. But at least I do go to the theater.

    I feel like the point has been brought up multiple times in the comments that if you don’t pay your actors, you’re not professional.

    Also, why are people still talking about Rocco Landesman’s comment about Supply and Demand in the theater? That happened a month ago.

    Look, if you want to denigrate “volunteer” and “community” theater, feel free to. But not on my blog. (Also, everyone will have to start signing their comments because while I know who “Director” is, everyone else doesn’t.) You’re also not doing much in regards to refuting my comment about dismissing community theater being elitist, unless you didn’t want to.

  51. Matt,

    Is it weird that I read the beginning of your comment and heard that with a Fat Albert voice?

    I think that if anything, community theaters, because of the volunteer base used for those, maybe make theater more accessible to people. I don’t have any evidence to back up my idea, but it’s a thought.

  52. Jeff,

    It is a anonymous commenter that didn’t even leave a real email address. I don’t think there was much substance before they called me “silly.”

  53. “Hey?”


  54. Mark, the sad thing is that I have seen worse names for anonymous commenters.

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