What is 'community theater'?

May 5, 2013 

I've been writing about theater for 35 years, and I've been attending theater for 50. I've followed companies that called themselves "community theaters." I've followed others that did not call themselves that, but were called that by others.

The other day it occurred to me that I didn't really know what the term meant. I knew what community theater was when I saw it, but I couldn't define it with certainty.

I asked some theater professionals, through social media and in person. It turns out it's a topic that raises some emotion. Some friends who saw the discussion I was having online contacted me directly. They wanted to share their strong opinions but they didn't want to get in the middle of the melee that was brewing.

It had seemed like such an innocent, straightforward question.

Does it matter? I think so.

Joseph Oshry, a lighting designer who lives in Bradenton and works regularly for Manatee Players (which is often considered a community theater) and at American Stage in St. Petersburg (which is, by anybody's definition, professional) told me that his wife often meets people who attend everything at Asolo Rep, because that's a professional theater, but would never go to Manatee Players, because that's a community theater.

Even Janene Witham, the executive director of Manatee Players, didn't have a firm definition. When I asked if she considered Manatee Players a community theater, she said, "I consider us a performing arts center."

The traditional definition is that community theaters don't pay, or pay only a couple of people. But these days some community theater companies pay directors, designers, musicians and administrators.

And although it's not talked about a lot, these days community theaters often pay their actors.

Jeffery Kin, the artis

tic director of the Players Theatre in Sarasota, proudly embraces the term "community theater." He was recently at a community theater conference, and more than half of the artistic directors said they paid their actors.

Decades ago, the theater world was pretty much divided between the professional companies, which were governed by the very strict rules of Actors Equity (the actors union), and community theaters, which weren't.

But as Equity rules have been tweaked to make it easier for actors to make a living, the line has blurred. There are a lot of professional companies (none in this area, but several in Pinellas and Hillsborough) that are not affiliated with Equity. And more community theaters have been paying more of their people.

So where's that line between "community" theater and "professional" theater? No one seems to know. When Witham polled her friends inside and outside of theater, several said that community theater was defined by the use of local talent and affordable tickets.

But some theater insiders think the terms "community" and "professional" theater have become so arbitrary that they're meaningless.

"It's a spectrum," Oshry said. "And I believe we need a new term or set of terms that allow for the vast spectrum that currently exists between professional theater and community theater."

Kin said he wants his company to be "the most professional community theater in the country." But he acknowledges that there's still a stigma attached to the term. Some people think of community theaters as those groups of theater hobbyists that their grandmothers were involved in up north that staged "Arsenic and Old Lace" in a rented gym.

His definition, though, is that community theater is "volunteer-driven." That's as good a definition as any.

But asked if he thinks that the time has come to retire the term from the theater lexicon, Kin said. "It very well may have."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411. ext. 7919. Follow him at twitter.com/martinclear.

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