Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Play's The Thing! Community Theater Is Alive And Well

Even though on average people watch over 4 hours of TV a day, we still hunger for the experience and thrill of a live show. Elizabeth Hunter didn’t dream of founding a theater company when she was young, but she has always had a fondness for theater. “I first adapted and directed a modern take on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ when I was 8,” she said. “That was a sufficiently challenging production that I told my mother I wasn't going to direct again until I was 20.”
However, when she moved to the greater Boston area and started spending time around Somerville’s Davis Square, she felt that something was missing. “I knew of space available in the Davis area, and that it was a vibrant community of intelligent and creative folk,” she said, “[but] there was no active community theatre in that area when we started.” In late 2003 she got together with a few friends and relatives to put together Theatre@First (T@F), the first modern community theater company based in Davis Square. Response has generally been good. “[Our] first show (in 2004) was wildly successful and proved that there was a community of people interested in doing and seeing theatre in Somerville[.]” The company has gone on to put on many more shows, running the gamut from old masterpieces written by Shakespeare to completely new material written expressly for them.

from Shaken up Shakespeare, performed by Theatre @ First, July 2010
photography by Rachel Sommer
Ms. Hunter followed in the footsteps of others who had similar dreams, such as the Arlington Friends of the Drama (AFD). According to Dick Santos, current president of AFD, the company was founded in 1923 “by a group of Arlington ladies that were interested in theater. It has been in continuous operation ever since.” Their repertoire is perhaps a little wider than T@F, but an extra eighty years can do that for a company. With greater resources and longer-standing tradition, AFD routinely does more contemporary pieces than their neighbors in Somerville, with “Hair” and “Death of a Salesman” on this year’s docket. 

Permanent home of the Arlington Friends of the Drama
photographer unknown

However, the Firsties, as they are sometimes called, may be catching up. Earlier this year they put on a run of “Equus” that received considerable critical acclaim. They also ran a re-imagined production of “The Lady’s Not For Burning” that was moved from medieval England to early 20th Century Appalachia, and just three weeks ago finished a free outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
This isn’t to say that Ms. Hunter is the most recent person to found a community theater company in greater Boston. Ms. Hunter’s brother-in-law, Neil Marsh, had been burning to put together a radio drama company since the late 1990s, but only managed to realize his desire after T@F produced its first play in 2004. “The following year, a local filmmaker by the name of Chelsea Spear was trying to raise money for a project, so we pulled a group together and performed our first radio play around Halloween,” said Mr. Marsh, who founded the group and currently serves as Artistic Director. “I loved the idea of telling stories with words and sounds and leaving the rest up to the listener's imagination.” This was the genesis of the Post-Meridian Radio Players (PMRP), which is also based in Davis Square and has a good deal of talent overlap with T@F. The company has a somewhat different focus from the other two companies, with recordings of serials and one-shots for sale and podcast as strong a focus as its live shows. However, all of PMRPs live shows were and remain staged readings with scripts in hand instead of actual plays performed without scripts.

from The Big Broadcast of 1946, performed by the 
Post-Meridian Radio Players, October 2010
photography by Rachel Sommer
While each company fills a different niche from the others, some geographical, some in terms of material, there are some similarities between each of the troupes. All of them are committed to putting on high-quality productions for the community at a fraction of the cost of the commercial stages in Boston, with tickets generally staying well under $20 except for expensive productions. Each show also has a similar story regarding attracting talent. Good actors willing to volunteer are relatively easy to find, but that’s hardly all you need to produce a show. In fact, finding the background crew can be the hard part. Ms. Hunter put it succinctly. “It's usually easy for us to find a good pool of fiercely talented and enthusiastic actors,” she explained.  “Finding support staff, particularly for the entirely unglamorous administrative work, is a constant challenge.” Mr. Santos concurred. “The hardest part is getting enough people to fill all the offstage positions.” PMRP usually has an easier time finding crew for its live shows, but has greater difficulty finding talented people to help with post-production of live recordings. “Most people who are really good at it are professionals and aren't willing to do the work for the love of the art. The rest need to be trained, which can be a laborious task if they don't have some of the instincts all ready,” according to Mr. Marsh.
Community theater may be less expensive overall than a commercial production, but it still faces production costs. While labor costs are generally nonexistent, there are still costs: renting space, materials for the stage, costuming, printing scripts and handbills, keeping actors and crew hydrated -- all of these can add up. Bare-bones productions by T@F and PMRP, which are basic staged readings with minimal costuming, tend to cost on the order of $250 to $300. Standard shows vary by production and by group, but each group reports costs in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. Extravaganzas, like AFD’s musical productions, T@F’s recent outdoor Shakespeare and PMRP’s yearly “Big Broadcast” shows, easily quadruple the price of a standard show. Ticket sales are usually the bulk of a show’s revenue, but sometimes this isn’t enough -- and when you’re producing a show that is free to the public, you have to work out alternate revenues to keep the show afloat. This can be a nightmare for a theater company.

Is it safe to come out yet? I'm scared!
photography by Rachel Sommer
Yet for all the headache in behind-the-scenes setup, there is still a magic to a live show, the energy flowing back and forth between the actors and the audience, that is not easily felt from watching a recording. T@F’s recent production of “As You Like It” dealt with significant problems on opening night, ranging from sound problems to dog poo to a failure of the lights right after the end of the first act, but the audience remained undeterred. After the fifteen minute intermission hit the thirty minute mark, director Kamela Dolinova went on stage to apologize to the audience for the technical issues and to make an offer. “If you want us to, we’ll do it in the dark!” she gamely told the crowd, who whooped in the affirmative. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the flashlights used as improvised lighting until the main rig went back online. The show went on to much applause come curtain call, even with technical difficulties that would have put a recorded piece out in the cold. The remaining performances went much more smoothly, as if the first night earned karma for the rest of the performances, and the audiences were even more receptive.
As Mr. Santos says, "‘Live Theater...’ just the name itself has excitement; the possibility of being in the presence of an event that will never happen in exactly the same way ever again, possibly seeing a future star or a once outstanding aging actor.” Those are the moments that make live theater shine for young and old alike. Even in the age of television, even with the instant gratification of the Internet, the feeling of watching a show live - where the actors can hear your cheers and you can feel the warmth of the audience - remains as potent today as it did in William Shakespeare’s time.

Curtain call of As You Like It, performed by Theatre @ First, September 2010
photography by Rachel Sommer
Arlington Friends of the Drama’s next show will be the musical “Hair," performing October 28-30, November 4-6 and 11-13. Theatre@First’s next production will be a Bare Bones staged reading performed on November 17; its next large production will be “Pride and Prejudice,” performing 2012 March 23-31. The Post Meridian Radio Players next show is “The Big Broadcast of 1954," performing October 19-21, 27-28 and 30. 
For more information about each company, please visit AFD at, T@F at, and PMRP at

No comments:

Post a Comment