What community theatre is and isn't...

One thing I've been hugely surprised by since starting my own theatre group is how many people do not seem to understand what "community theatre" is.


I've been doing this type of performing since I was a child, so trust me, I am well-aware of what it's all about.


But there have been more times than I can count when I've been asked the following question about a play my group is putting on:


"Is it paid?"


I have never, in my nearly 40 years doing theatre, seen a community theatre production where actors are paid, with one exception: An actor in one show became ill the week of the production, and another one was brought in to take over the role, with a bit of cash thrown his way for what I'm sure was a lot of quick memorizing.


I once went so far as to tell a person that community theatre is voluntary, and they were completely baffled by my response, like I'd slapped them in the face with a fish.


So, for the record: community theatre is when people who do not do theatre professionally (have day jobs) come together to do a play or musical out of the love of the hobby, not for the paycheck. I mean, the word "community" itself means a group of people working to accomplish a task or activity, not uniting to mostly make a buck. You're thinking of a job. And sure, producing quality theatre can feel like work, but that's also part of the joy of it. You're doing it because you care and value the experience.


When I ran this by friends and fellow theatrefolk, their responses ranged from "If someone told me I was being paid for community theatre, I'd think I'm being scammed," to "I assume anything theatrical is unpaid unless I'm told otherwise."


A difference exists, I suppose, between a non-profit (which still makes a profit, by the way) and a group established as a business. It seems that with a non-profit, it's understood actors aren't paid, even though several other people I've spoken to about this had no idea about that caveat either.


It's worth nothing that you can't just be a non-profit; In addition to copious amounts of paperwork, you need a board of directors who likely will work for free (not paying them is ok, I see. How easy do you think it is to find 3-4 people who will volunteer their time and energy (and aren't related to you) for bupkis?


Indeed, it seems, to some, that theatres should remove the passion part of the work and treat it more as a business entity: It's there to make profit, and if you can't pay your actors -- in addition to the exorbitant production costs -- then you shouldn't be operating. This is perhaps more tragic to me than any Shakespearean play.


It is true that the production staff of community theatres, like the producer, directors, and stage managers might get a small (and I mean, small) stipend. But in terms of the men and women trodding the boards, I can recall only the aforementioned single instance where this has happened. If you have been paid for community theatre, that is more the exception than the rule.


Trust me, as a theatre creator, I believe everyone should get paid to do this work, because it can be work, and good work should be rewarded. But not all work is created equal; for me, carrying a sofa up three flights of stairs is work I'd want to get paid for, while performing a role is work I cherish to my soul. Just because you believe one thing should happen, doesn't mean it's feasible. For instance, I believe that olives should be outlawed, but I don't see that in the cards. Ask yourself, is the level of energy and time required for anything fulfilling or not? If not, then find a place where you can have it be that way, and if it isn't, don't do it, but avoid casting judgment of those who do. Easy as that.


Are you paid when you join a community soccer league or bowling league? No, of course not; in fact, you usually end up paying the league to take part in those organized activities (and don't get me started on membership fees for theatres which gets people up in arms...that's a whole other can of worms). So why is community theatre any different than sports or other leisure activities? I'd go as far to argue that, if anyone has the money to pay its participants, it's sports. Any theatre person will tell you there's very little profit in this industry.


There are theatres that hover somewhere in that spot between community and professional that do compensate actors. However, these groups will often say right up front that they are an Actor's Equity show, or some verbiage to indicate it is a paying production. And while I'd like to take it as a great compliment that someone sees the quality of my group's work and equates it to the type of theatre that does pay, I bristle at the insinuation I'm scamming actors and pocketing money for myself (that's a laugh!). I assure you, I receive no added income from doing this, any "profit" that is made goes directly into the next show (or paying the guest directors -- yes, I pay them, often out of my own pocket, too), and that this is and has always been a passion project for me. I wish it was that way for everyone else, too.


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