10 Things the Church Can Learn from Community Theater

Dwayne’s brother played Snoopy in the Warren Players’ production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”  It was his first musical theater experience since High School.  So, of course, being community theater geeks, they couldn’t keep Dwayne and me from making the drive to northwestern Pennsylvania to see the show this past weekend.  Hearing Corey’s excitement for the show and his experience in this intergenerational cast, I couldn’t help but think of the many aspects of community theater which are touchstones of good spiritual community … and which the Church may need to be reminded of occasionally.  Here are 10 things I believe the Church can learn from community theater:

1. Open auditions …

When the theater welcomes everyone to auditions, they really mean it.  Maybe that’s why so many theater geeks consider themselves misfits in some way; because the theater openly welcomes misfits.  Old and young, men and women, smart and not so smart, gay or straight … and everything in between … the theater welcomes you with open arms.  And, even if you can’t sing, dance or, yes, act, there is a role for you to play on stage or off.  The one thing that unites theater geeks is the commitment to put on a great show.  I have often wished that our congregations could be as welcoming as the community theaters I’ve been a part of.

2. There are no small parts …

The saying goes, “there are no small parts, only small actors.”   It’s true.  We learn very early on that the show needs to have highly committed people in every role.  Even if your part has no lines, it’s vitally important for the production that you do your best and contribute your part.  In a good show, no one is on stage for no reason; there is something the director and playwright are trying to accomplish in you being there.  Think 1 Corinthians 12: “There are a variety of gifts … for the common good.”

3. For everyone on stage there are a myriad of off stage workers …

Building sets, gathering props, setting the lights, working the sound board, operating the spotlight, reading scripts, playing in the pit orchestra, sewing costumes, selling tickets, ushering, selling concessions … there really is a place for everyone to be a part of the production.

4. The show must go on …

When an actor gets a cold, or sprains an ankle, or when the venue is destroyed by a fire, hurricane or runaway driver who crashes into the side of the theater, every member of the theater community works extra hours and works through pain in order for the curtain to go up as promised.  The mission of the community is clear — to produce entertaining and thoughtful and well produced theater experience.  If you have no show, there is no “fruit” of your work.

5. “Intergenerational” is not a program …

While there are some theaters that have youth programs or senior programs, most community theater is organically intergenerational.  Actors are needed of every age, size and shape.  You don’t have to be a particular age to run a spot light, you only need to be able to operate the light.  I’ve seen 80 year olds working beside 8 year olds, changing costumes in the same dressing room, sitting in front of the mirror in the same make-up room, or dancing in the same musical number.  The friendships that develop are not forced or “programmed” but naturally a give and take of actor to actor, set painter to set painter.  Bringing the generations together is not the mission, but the mission is what brings the generations together.

6. Community is born in tight spaces …

Most of the community theaters I’ve known have limited space backstage or in the wings.  Things get tight … very tight.  Dressing rooms are crowded, we sit on each other’s laps in the green room waiting for our next cue, or we get tangled in each other’s curling irons while fixing our hair.  We see each other under the costumes, we sweat together, we smell each other, we know each other.  One of the first things to get over in theater is always trying to seem “together.”  On stage, it’s a show; backstage, though, it’s as real as it gets.

7. That’s my cue …

For most actors a good portion of the show is spent waiting for our next scene in the “green room.”  Waiting is a very important part of the mission.  Timing, after all, is everything.  The waiting, however, cannot be inattentive.  There is usually a video or at least an audio feed into the green room, and (because of the proximity to the stage) it’s usually very quiet.  The actors may be doing tonight’s homework or playing a game of Words with Friends, but their primary attention is always focused on the show, ready to move when the time is right or when the “call” comes.

8. Everyone messes up …

Even the most experienced actors and techies mess up.  They forget their lines or miss their cues.  This is, what I think, what gives live theater its energy and power.  No matter how many runs of the show you have, no two shows are ever the same.  And every actor can tell you about the time they skipped a page of dialogue or tripped on the hem of the costume or fell off the risers.  The best theater skills aren’t the ones that perfect a performance, but the ones that forgive the mistakes that will inevitably be there.

9. Improvisation is always key to a great performance …

So, how do you “forgive” mistakes onstage?  It always takes quick thinking and improvisation.  The knowledge of the character and story and script is so well ingrained in you, that you can “cover.”  Make up dialogue, circle back to a key line you missed, change the blocking a bit to pick up the dropped prop.  It means the actor has to be well-versed in the story, but living in the moment enough to change in an instant.

10. We learn from those who are more experienced …

Experience is the best teacher.  In community theater it doesn’t matter what degrees you have or what school you went to.  You learn by getting involved.  You learn to build sets from those who are hammering alongside you.  You learn how to run the soundboard from those who ran sound for the last show.  You learn to answer “thank you five” when the stage manager shouts “five minutes” into the green room from the other actors in your first show.  Eventually you might move from set building to set designing or tech director; you might move from actor to director; you might move from usher to box office manager.  You learn from those who came before you, then you bring the best you have to offer to the job.

After seeing my brother-in-law, Corey, rock it as Snoopy, Dwayne and I could see he had “caught” the community theater bug.  In fact, the whole family was hooked.  Nephew Andrew, recently played Christopher Robin in a youth production at the same theater.  Corey’s wife, Jen, was ushering the night we saw the show, and, rumor has it that nephew Connor may be interested in auditioning for the next production, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”  This is theater evangelism; it’s  being a part of something greater than ourselves.  It’s sharing in a spirit of shared mission and purpose.  It’s community.  And, despite the fact that it’s acting, it’s real … very real and very true.

 

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Featured image was taken by Jen Bailey at dress rehearsal for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at the Struthers’ Library Theater in Warren, Pennsylvania, July 22, 2015.  It features Michael Sternberg as Charlie Brown and Corey Bailey as Snoopy.

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