One of the biggest insults to a professional theatre is to be called a “community theatre”. Your average Joe in small-town America who goes to see Arsenic and Old Lace at the local American Legion Hall doesn’t understand why that’s a problem, but theatre people sure know the difference. Even we 99-seat theatre rats here in L.A. consider ourselves to be professional. I know I do. And I certainly consider our shows to be professional. So whenever we’ve been referred to as a community theatre, no matter how innocent the intent, it always gets my hackles up. The nerve!
Having just returned from a professional international theatre conference in Austin, I was feeling particularly professional. On my first day back to work I noticed Willie, a local homeless man who lives around the theatre, leaning against a wall with a couple of guys gathered around him. I went to make sure everything was okay. Willie, it turns out, was soaking wet from the rain and shivering so badly he couldn’t even hold the cup of coffee I put in his hands. Hypothermia, I figured. I went into our costume shop and pulled some dry pants and a shirt for him. I couldn’t find any socks, so I went to the store next door and bought a few pair. Eventually, we called the paramedics, who loaded Willie into the ambulance and took him to the hospital. I gathered his smelly wet blankets, slung them into his shopping cart and rolled them into our parking lot to keep them safe.
Shortly thereafter, a bruised mother from the community came in with her kids seeking refuge from a domestic violence situation at home. One of my staff played games in the lobby with the kids while another staffer listened to the mother, comforted her, and counseled her. The oldest child spelled out words in Scrabble like SAD, HURT, and ANGRY. It was tragic, though I was honored that this mother recognized our theatre as a safe place where she could come in an emergency. She’s never bought a ticket to a show here, but this told me that she holds our theatre in high regard.
I realized that I’d spent half of that first day back to work dealing with these very urgent community issues. Not production logistics for our show in rehearsal. Not marketing our new school show. Instead our work was to help members of our community with things which had nothing directly to do with theatre. I wondered if any other theatres were dealing with these types of things on that day. Probably not. But we are about community, I thought, so it makes sense for us. We are a (gulp) Community Theatre. Those two dirty words, which have always made me bristle and get defensive… now I wore them like a badge of honor.
Written by Executive Director Jay McAdams, originally posted on Bitter Lemons