Having just opened a three weekend run of A Christmas Carol, my thoughts turn again to the particular theatrical arena most commonly labeled community theater. This term is at once usefully descriptive and, sometimes, unfortunately misleading. The problem is that it groups together performances that vary dramatically in the quality of the effort.
Though the same could be said, of course, of the professional arena as well, with community theater not only do the actual achievements vary dramatically, but the nature and intent of the work can be strikingly different. Often, the community comes first and the “theater” is secondary. The object of such work is to bring together a group of people who are already connected to each other to have fun putting something together to show their friends, neighbors and family. Although those involved may fantasize that this is the beginning of an awesome career in theater, most are aware that they are just playing at theater. They do sincerely hope to put on a wonderful show and many times they succeed admirably. The audience recognizes the context and understands its role is to enthusiastically support the spirit of the ensemble. Gaffes, unbelievable casting, postured acting, clunky set changes, and so on, are to be accepted as simply part of the process. It is the enthusiasm and commitment to the project that are to be appreciated. This is a wonderful thing. Even if only a tiny proportion of actors in such performances go on to become professionals, the corollary is nevertheless true: Most professional actors, directors, and theatrical technicians began their careers in community theater settings, especially if school-based performances are included.
There is, however, another level of community theater where the theater part of the community-theater balance takes a bit more precedence. This primary emphasis on theater and secondary emphasis on community is played out in multiple specifics: Casting is done on the basis of who is the best available person to play a particular role, drawing from as wide a “local” pool of talent as is possible. No one is cast simply because they are part of a given community and must be given a chance to play a role. Secondly, although the goal still includes an enjoyable process, hopefully replete with humor and good will, the primary focus is on making the theatrical experience for the audience that is rewarding above and beyond the pleasure of seeing one’s friends and family up on stage. Different plays “reward” their audiences in different ways, some by being thoroughly entertaining, some by raising disturbing questions or perplexing enigmas, but the common denominator is that the theater-goer leave the performance knowing that they have gained something from the experience.
Community theater of this sort succeeds or fails by the same criteria as professional theater: Is the work effective? Does it move them, stir them, excite them, unsettle them? Billy’s mom will always be thrilled to see her boy up there playing his role, but who doesn’t know or care about Billy be affected by Billy’s performance? Yes, there is and should be some leeway allowed for the fact that these are not professionals and this is not Broadway (and tickets do not cost upwards of $100. per seat!), but the basic criteria are still there: Are the actors performances credible? Do we forget that we are seeing people playing roles and believe that we are seeing real personages take form before our eyes? Are we moved by moments or unsettled by deliberately disturbing elements in the performances, led to think about questions raised by the work? When the performance ends, is our applause only a polite expression of support, or does it flow from a deep appreciation of what we’ve witnessed, participated in by being present?
A Christmas Carol is a perfect example of this dividing line. Few parents of school-age children have not seen Ebenezer Scrooge played by a teen or pre-teen. We have also nearly all seen some fine actors (Michael Caine; George C. Scott; Albert Finney; and many more) take on the role. The Dickens’ story offers all that one could wish at both ends of the theatrical spectrum: roles for a zillion characters with characterizations that are clear and easily taken on, on the one side, and, on the “more serious” side, a complex tale of what changes in self-awareness are necessary to lead a person to change the fundamental direction of that person’s life.
I would like to think that our current (the Vermont Theater Company’s production at the Hooker-Dunham Theater in Brattleboro; Friday, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees through Dec. 21; 802-258-1344) fits in this second category. The ensemble has worked strenuously and continuously over the past two months to put together as thoroughly credible performance as possible. There are standout performances by so many actors, several playing multiple roles, that it would seem a slight to others to single out individual work But the total effect is of this new adaptation of the play and its thoughtful and incisive direction is to evoke the full nightmare that Scrooge must endure in order to change his ways. No, this is not a million dollar Broadway mega-show, but what it lacks in “star appeal” and expensive “production values” is more than made up for, I believe, by the wonderful intimacy of the characterizations in the intimate setting of the Hooker-Dunham Theatre.
For more thoughts on performing Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, check out these short essays: