The Purpose of Theatre*

I think that it is fair to say that theatre is essential to human existence. It has been around for nearly as long as civilization has existed in multiple forms from religion to pure entertainment. In fact, most popular forms of entertainment today – movies and television for example – have their origins in live theatre.

A Public Art

It’s also fair to say that theatre is common in most communities. You may never get to be a part of a Broadway audience, you might not even get to a large regional production, but most of us have been to a local community theatre and certainly a high school, elementary, or even church performance of some kind (I’m talking Christmas pageants by the way, not the regular Sunday service). Theatre in some form or another is ubiquitous in our society. It is not, as often ironically portrayed on stage, films or television, an activity of the idle rich. It is an accessible art form with millions of participants and as such is uniquely able to serve as a public forum for thought and ideas.

How Theatres Choose Their Seasons

Photo by Ruca Souza on Pexels.com

Now, a few of you involved in theatre may disagree with what I’m about to say. But, I have been active in theatre nearly my entire life. I was in school plays, going back to elementary, some college classes and started a Reader’s Theatre Group as a student, and a ton of community theatre for the past 39 years. My community theatre work includes acting, writing, directing, etc. and I’ve served on multiple boards of groups at both the local and state level. This broad experience has allowed me to make note of some similarities among theatre groups. Especially among smaller groups which do not have abundant resources and endowments to draw upon.

I have heard the same basic arguments from different theatre boards and members when selecting shows, especially when the bank accounts get a little low. The discussion tends to center around what shows will sell. So as a result, because of the pervasive belief that casting children in shows sells tickets, many seasons of smaller struggling groups tend to be filled with children’s theaters, musicals, or the holy grail of ticket sales, musicals with children!

The Real Question Theatres Should Ask Before Selecting a Show

A question that I think theatres don’t ask enough is what is the purpose of theatre? And, just as important, how is that purpose being fulfilled? Regardless of how you answer these questions I think we will all agree that the purpose of theatre is not to sell tickets. Selling tickets is just a tool to raise funds to help us fulfil the higher purpose of our craft. It is an unfortunate fact that all groups need funding to continue to put on shows. But has your group become dedicated to just selling tickets? I believe that the purpose of theatre is to show a slice of the human condition in a safe environment and to give the audience something to reflect on and think about long after the final curtain call. If your board’s only goal is to make money without consideration of the important voice that theatre has are they doing the right thing?

Obligation to the Community – More than Frivolity

All theatres have an obligation to their communities and that obligation is not just to present shows that are entertaining or that can be easily cast. It means that on occasion at least that your group should be doing what I would call difficult pieces. Works that are often not associated with community theatre in fact because they are too controversial or use “bad” language (gasp). Works that deal with the troubling questions of our day like gun violence, homelessness, sex abuse, inclusiveness, and so on and so forth. I maintain that as soon as a member of your theatre’s board says something along the lines of “that won’t sell tickets” or “our community isn’t ready for this show” then that is exactly when you should produce it!

A Place for Every Type of Show

Now I’m not being dismissive of children’s theatre or musicals. Both have their place and both can also be educational and thought provoking. In fact, the best scripts and productions always are. Even old standbys like The Music Man are full of social commentary and you don’t have to dig deep to find it. But if your only purpose in picking a show is because you think it will sell tickets you are missing out on an opportunity to not only help further educate your audience – and I bet your theatre is organized as an “educational” 5019c)3 – but to develop an entirely new audience as well.

Risk and Reward?

Will your risk pay off? In terms of finance, possibly not the first time or two you perform something a little more daring. But in the long run, I think your community will learn to appreciate the intellectual debate that your productions inspire.

There you have it, my two cents. I’d love to learn what you think on this issue. Am I right on or all wet? Let me know in the comments and get the discussion started!

Admittedly, some shows are harder to justify as thought provoking than others. But sometimes just having fun is okay, too! The cast of Monroe Community Players’ production of Gilligan’s Island. Photo by Robert Yoman.

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

*I don’t use the word “theatre” with the “re” for any hoity toity artistic reason. I use that word to describe the act or art of putting on a play. If I’m using the word “theater” I’m talking about the performance space. I just find it an easy way to distinguish between the two.

Management Lessons from the Stage: When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

As I did two years ago, I participated with my local community theatre group, the Monroe Community Players, in the Michigan State AACTFest competition again this year (see Management Lesson from the Stage: Competition for details). For those of you unfamiliar with the competitive side of theatre, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. This year the festival in Michigan was hosted by Owosso Community Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM).

Me and the three Arials who made me look good. Left to Right, Martina Petit, Dillon Sickles, and Besty Brockman.

For the record, the talent pool at this year’s festival was very deep and all the participating groups brought their A game to the competition. Sets were imaginative, costumes on point, the acting was well prepared and rehearsed. It was a weekend of high quality theatre. But, only two groups would be selected to move on to the regional competition by the adjudicators. I did not envy their task this weekend.

For my part, I felt that our production was top notch. In particular, to toot my own horn as they say, I thought that my personal performance was on point. During my big soliloquy the audience was dead quiet (always a good sign) and I could feel them all watching me and sensed that they were right were I wanted them emotionally and intellectually (anyone who’s been on stage knows what I’m talking about).

When the show was over the applause was generous. Afterwards good comments came from the adjudicators and audience members who approached many of us afterwards through the weekend. All signs indicated that we might have a winner on our hands.

But, (and you knew this was coming right?) when the awards were handed out the big prizes went to other groups. We were recognized for several good points of our production – including choreography which is rare for a production of The Tempest, but our director was unique in his vision of this play, and ensemble work for the three actors who jointly played the character of Ariel (pictured above with me). None for me…alas, but not a bad haul as they say. But, our competition journey ended that weekend. Our best, my best, just wasn’t good enough.

So, what do you do when your best just isn’t good enough? How do you react when you know that you’ve given it your all, that you were well prepared, that your ideas were solid and still someone else walks away with the prize? This is something that has happened to most of us, either in a competitive setting or in business. I can tell you what not to do:

Don’t dwell on the defeat.

Don’t blame anyone else.

Don’t complain about bad luck.

Don’t complain about bad decisions or judges.

Do pick yourself up and move on.

Yes, you can take time for introspection. Ask what might have been done better? Maybe you didn’t have the skill set necessary to complete the task (or win the bid), maybe you didn’t have the vision, maybe you were just outclassed, maybe the stars were out of alignment. But, sometimes, surprisingly, the answer is nothing could have. Too bad. It happens. Athletes know this. On any given day even the most talented team with the best leadership can fall to opponents who are less gifted.

And guess what? It has nothing to do with the other team or person having more “heart” or “drive” or just “wanting it more.” Sometimes it was just the other team’s day. Whether on stage, on the field, or in the C Suite, sometimes your best just isn’t going to cut it.

All you can do is to accept defeat gracefully, try not to take it personally (something I often fail at) and prepare yourself to give your best again next time.

Because one thing is certain, if you don’t keep giving it your best you will never find yourself on the winner’s podium!

Prospero's staff lays in wait on the stage.
Prospero’s magic staff lays in wait during rehearsal at the Michigan AACTFest Host Theatre – the Lebowsky Center in Owosso, Michigan. Home of the Owosso Community Players.

Management Lessons from the Stage: Competition

For those of you who don’t know, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of participating this past weekend in the Michigan State AACTFest, hosted by Bay City Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM) and I took away a few observations that I feel may apply to enterprises everywhere.

  • Deadlines are crucial: each group performing in an AACTFest works under the same rules. 10 minutes to set up your production, 60 minutes to perform, and 10 minutes to strike (take down). Exceed any of these deadlines and you are disqualified regardless of how brilliant the show is. LESSON: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Get your work in on time. There may be an opportunity to fix or update something later – but miss the deadline and the sale/project/etc. is gone forever.
  • You will be judged on your work regardless of resources: all groups at AACTFest are judged by the same criteria. Obviously, some groups had more resources to work with than others, but the goals remained the same. LESSON: do your best no matter what resources you have (or lack thereof).
  • Innovate: don’t come into a project trying the same old thing that others have done before. The shows at AACTFest which do the best, with judges and audiences, are the ones that literally bring something new to the stage. Hamlet is a hard sell to most audiences. Give it a steam punk look and a fresh techno hip-hop vibe and you’ve just blown peoples’ minds. LESSON: you can start with the same old service or product, but be sure to freshen it up often. Don’t be afraid to dust off an idea that’s been sitting around a while and see if you can make it new again.
  • Celebrate excellence: only two groups move on to the next level of competition at the state AACTFest (plus an alternate) but many groups are recognized for smaller outstanding contributions. LESSON: find the good in everything you do. Maybe the whole project isn’t a winner – but there are things you can still take away and celebrate. Maybe even learn from!
  • A little competition never hurt anyone: win or lose it the groups who participate in AACTFest come away with a better understanding of how they compare to others in the same field. They better know their strengths and their weaknesses and become better groups in the process. LESSON: you don’t know how good you are until you compare yourself to someone better or, at least, just as good.
  • Someone is always watching and judging: I don’t think this needs to be explained any further.
  • Popular opinion does not always carry the day: occasionally, a play that everyone seems to like won’t win. This is because the judges have their own ideas and criteria that differ in critical ways from the audiences experience. LESSON: remember who you are really selling your product to. Just because you and your team likes it, doesn’t mean that the customer will.

These are just a few thoughts I had. I’d love to hear yours regarding mine.

Onward!