Sunday, July 12, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer at a Community Theater

As someone once said (Irving Berlin actually), "There's no business like show business ... and no people like show people." I've acted in a couple of community theater productions over the years - and my immediate family members played roles in many more - and I can confirm the sentiment notably belted out by Ethel Merman. There's a particular kind of "high" that comes with performing before an audience, whether in the local high school gym or on Broadway - and, although I've never had the latter experience, I'm guessing that the quality of the "high" is not that different.

Happily, you can experience a similar adrenaline rush even if you are invisible to the audience. There are lots of opportunities to participate in the experience, to become engrossed in the often frantic preparations for opening night, to listen intently to the audience reactions, to laugh and drink at the cast parties (especially drink), and experience the relief and let-down when it's all over.

Many volunteer jobs don't even require special skills or unusual talents. And these theaters need lots of help, so time, energy and dedication will take you very far indeed. If you're new to a community, it's also a great way to meet friendly, committed folks who will welcome you warmly - and pile on as many assignments as you're willing to shoulder.

The good news continues - no matter where you live, there's almost certainly a community theater in your town or within easy commuting distance. According to the American Association of Community Theatre, 7,000 are spread across the country, annually involving 1.5 million volunteers with 46,000 productions performed in front of 86 million audience members. With statistics like these, anyone with a hankering to get involved can surely find an opportunity.

What roles might you play (using the word "roles" in the broadest sense)? Acting, directing, choreographing and producing are obvious ones but there are many others. In fact, for every person in front of the footlights, there are probably several more behind the scenes, literally and figuratively. (Isn't it interesting how many figures of speech we use that originated in the theater. I guess "all the world is a stage" is as true now as in Shakespeare's time.)

Here's a list of opportunities you'll find in most community theaters:
  • Box office - besides staffing the box office on performance nights, there's mailing of tickets, ticket exchanges, and maintaining the database of ticket buyers.

  • Costumes - virtually all shows require some sort of costuming other than the performers showing up in their street clothes (or in no clothes, but I would guess that's a rarety for community theater). This could involve anything from ransacking your own closets, combing the racks at thrift shops for period numbers, renting or borrowing costumes from other theaters, up to designing and creating custom-made costumes for your show.

  • Stage manager - the job description could go on for pages, but the AACT mentions these specifically: scheduling and running rehearsals, communicating the director's wishes to designers and crafts people, coordinating the work of the stage crew, calling cues and possibly actors' entrances during performance, and overseeing the entire show each time it is performed.

  • House manager - duties include assigning and supervising the ushers, coordinating with the backstage crew and the box office, resolving customer complaints regarding seating, accounting for all tickets, overseeing press passes or other special tickets and providing a count of attendees, among other duties.

  • Lighting - this could include designing the lighting for the show as well as setting lighting instruments and operating the light board during performances. The ability to walk on elevated, narrow catwalks without taking a plunge to the stage or house is a definite asset.

  • Sound - as with lighting, someone needs to design the sound and run the sound system during performances.

  • Sets - designing the sets in consultation with the producer and director (and within a too-small budget) could be a great HarvilleQuarter activity. If you're not quite that creative but can hammer nails, paint, or paper, your skills will be most appreciated.

  • Props - the shear number of props (short for "properties") required by a show can be daunting. Finding just the right props, almost certainly within a Scrooge-like budget, can be time-consuming but very rewarding when, for example, you find the perfect 1930's lamp for You Can't Take It With You at an estate sale for $2.50.

  • Stagehands - During the show's run, there is a whole backstage crew who sets the stage before every performance, changes scenery and props quickly and quietly between acts, and makes any fixes required from one night to the next.

I could go on. There are always things to do and never enough people to do them. If you're multi-talented, you may end up taking on tasks you didn't expect, and if you're not multi-talented, you probably will be by the end of the show.

The photograph was lifted from the AACT Website and shows a scene from the Tacoma Musical Playhouse's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." (Wouldn't you love to be the costume designer for that show?)

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