Why I’ll always love community theater
It seems like everywhere I go, I meet someone who once considered themselves a “theatre kid.” Usually it becomes apparent via some kind of pop culture reminiscence — a chuckle of recognition at a Les Mis reference (or even the use of that casual shorthand), or the immediate ability to conjure the line following “December 24th, 9 p.m., Eastern Standard Time…” But there’s something else there, too — a certain sensitivity, a lightheartedness, a playful self-deprecation. Some of these people I encounter are still involved in the theatre, and their connection to it runs deeper and is more evolved. But most of them are like me: kids who found theatre as a way through adolescence. I have since moved on (to the point where my only theatre references are clearly from the ‘90s), but the memory of that world will always spark a sense of fondness, and gratitude.
In the humble downtown district of my small Illinois hometown stands the Orpheum Theatre, built in 1916—an opulent, elegant theatre with deep red velvet seats and brass flourishes. Rumor has it that the Marx brothers performed there in the ‘10s, and fact has it that Eddie Money performed there in 2003. Though its heyday had come and gone by the time I was growing up, the Orpheum served as an important center of the community, and the main hub for multiple theatre groups maintained by dedicated community members, who devoted countless hours of time outside of day jobs and school to everything that goes into doing a show: constructing sets, blocking scenes, arranging harmonies and herding large groups of varying skill levels together for hours of jaunty “jazz hands” choreography. From my third grade debut in a production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which I didn’t understand in the slightest) through my senior year of high school, I spent many hours in and around that theatre — onstage, in the sweaty basement dressing and make up rooms, and in the back alley where we gathered for breaks when we wanted to be loud.
As a child, I didn’t become “serious” about theatre until I had my first taste of the spotlight — I was cast as “Tootie,” the largest kid role in Meet Me in St. Louis. I endured a lot of rehearsal time for a nine-year-old, singing and dancing and fretting secretly that I would let everyone down and break one of my props or put my costume on inside-out (both of which happened). But I felt very special, and doted-upon, and decided that from then on I would consider myself an actress-singer and Broadway would be my ultimate goal. I started auditioning for every play with kid parts, and in sixth grade started taking acting classes with the other spotlight-loving kids in my town. Whereas in elementary school, theatre was another on my list of activities, in junior high it became my only real focus outside of school. In an increasingly sports-obsessed school system where I felt I didn’t quite fit in, the theatre world became a lifeline.
My Broadway dreams surged on, though my early success as Tootie didn’t prepare me for the disappointment to come. I was a fairly middle-of-the-road performer, and at an awkward in-between age to boot, which resulted in losing out on lead roles in favor of the more minor. I played Pepper the mean orphan instead of Annie, Glenda the good witch instead of Dorothy, the singing magic mirror instead of Snow White (I suffered for my art by wearing fabric paint on my face). These were decent roles for theatre-loving kid, but crushing disappointments to me at the time. Because of the way I threw myself into theatre as my one and only extracurricular interest, I wanted to be the best, of course ignoring the spirit-crushing hard work and rejection it would take to succeed professionally one day (not to mention the fact that as a good singer, passable actress, and awkward dancer, I was merely a single-threat). So I soldiered on, trying out for everything and not getting anywhere, wanting to be the best but not working that hard at it. But as time wore on it mattered less and less to me, because I realized that above all else, theatre was fun.
For better or for worse, the world of community theatre in my town was distinctly separate from the world of school. “Theatre friends” were often different than school friends, with cliques consisting of people from different age groups and different towns. There was very little high school theatre to speak of, and many of the town’s best performers didn’t deign to associate with those lesser productions. With typically two community productions a season to go out for, who had the time to waste? Though this friend compartmentalization occasionally resulted in a Breakfast Club-type disconnect (“So on Monday, what happens?”), theatre friendships are some of the most intense friendships a person can have: there’s the time spent together in rehearsal, going out to eat during breaks, the late-night hysteria of tech week, the inside jokes, the dramatic hugging, the cast party Rent sing-alongs. By nature, theatre inspires such a strong sense of camaraderie among everyone involved — adults and teenagers alike — that friendships form fast and reach the kind of closeness that only camp can approximate. While they weren’t always the longest-lasting friendships, I remember the giddiness and joy of each and every one of them.
Committed as many of us were to my little town’s community theatre, I think we were all thoroughly aware it wasn’t Broadway (and it was sometimes closer to Waiting for Guffman). Though throughout high school I still harbored dreams of studying acting in college, I learned not to take my rejections quite as hard. More than anything, I was always happy to be involved in a show (even as a member of the chorus, a very common position in which I found myself), and felt a sense of aimlessness whenever one ended. I felt proud to have this sense of belonging outside of school (where I led a bookish existence with my small group of friends), and I felt unfailingly proud of those of us who grew up together in community theatre could do. I remember being slightly miffed when I raved to my parents about how amazing a particular performer or number was in the show, only to have them casually respond that it was “pretty good…” They clearly saw it as it was — local theatre, charming but wobbly, with some talented actors and singers, some not so much, some appropriately cast and some clearly ill-suited to their roles. But to take part in a show is to live with it for months, to see it come together, and to be overzealously invested in the whole endeavor, even if to audiences it is exactly as lame as Corky St. Clair’s Red, White and Blaine.
Yes, there’s something infectious about putting on a show, no matter the size of the stage; it creates a momentum that carried us, as theatre kids, through — through the long dress rehearsals, through the endless school days, through those years that we often felt a pronounced discomfort inhabiting our own skin. It’s a world where character-building hard work lives alongside giddiness and goofiness, where one learns to deal with rejection while also learning what it feels like to belong. it’s one of the few acceptable ways to still play, a much-needed outlet when we start to be told we’re too old for such things. And that’s the quality that continues to draw me to these former theatre kids, wherever I go. I see people who found a way to traverse adolescence while retaining that ultimately uncool quality to a teenager — a sense of innocence. And when we emerged on the other side, knowing stage directions and dance steps, knowing all the words to Rent; we emerged better people for it.