One of the more exciting possibilities for small, local theater productions — often called “community theater” although the name is often inaccurate and somewhat demeaning — is to tackle themes that are particularly challenging. This includes many of the “canon” of significant works of drama. “Well worn” as these may be, they became classics because of their enduring power. While reprised occasionally on Broadway, usually in limited runs with big name stars, they provide fertile territory for theatrical exploration in the more intimate context of regional theaters. Other fascinating, less familiar or entirely original, material is available to small theater performances. Concept works and original stagings of more well-known material — all are fertile ground for small, local theater.
Much local theater, of course, does not attempt to take on challenging material. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, for filling houses with patrons enjoying an evening out, away from world and personal troubles and the din of television commercial monotony. There’s nothin’ wrong either with a troupe of actors having a ball with a traditional song-and-dance or farcical silliness. There’s no substitute for sheer unadulterated fun. God knows we all need it in these trying times.
Many small local theaters are wonderful venues, though, for a different kind of theater: theater that, in one way or another, challenges their audience. In recent times, our area (southeastern Vermont) has been graced by some outstanding work that is, by no means, “easy” from either an actor/director or audience perspective. Whether it was the reprise of the achingly painful Death of a Salesman, the gender-bending interpretation of Jean Genet’s classic, The Maids, the family-from-hell tortuous drama, August, Osage County, or the complex, mind-twisting Copenhagen, among many other wonderfully-enacted serious and comedic works, local audiences were treated this past year alone to innumerable fascinating and demanding theatrical performances. Sometimes, these challenging works attracted full houses, sometimes only the few and the brave, but all gave their audiences something to think and feel about, something meaningful.
Sometimes I think “small theater” should be movement like “slow food.” I wish we could get away from judging our artistic worth by the size of our audience. Everything today is market-rated. I remember when I started writing the book that forms the main body of this website and began seeking a publisher. I realized my personal goals and any publishing house’s were completely out of sync. I felt that if a hundred people took my work seriously enough to read it, that would be a significant accomplishment. Publishers needed press runs in the thousands to even consider a work. The internet changes the game, but it’s still difficult not to look at website statistics as the ultimate measure of value. Certainly they do give some sense of the interest one’s work attracts. And since audience size is also tied to whether a theater can be a going concern, it’s both natural and appropriate to be concerned with it. But equating the number of patrons with value reduces the artistic process to a commodity, an extremely deleterious consequence in the realm of creativity.
Small theater has the opportunity of inverting the equation and judging success by the quality of the work rather than the size of its audience. How many times have I heard people remember a performance from many years previous with the words “I was six feet away” from the performance? In our local area, I think of how wonderful and memorable it is to hear music played in an intimate setting — jazz at Wendy’s house concerts, at the Vermont Jazz Center or the Open Music Collective; chamber music performances at Yellow Barn, Next Stage, or at our local little old schoolhouse — rank right up there with performances I’ve seen at Lincoln Center in New York.
There is a chance, in small theater, to try things that don’t appeal to everyone, that may disturb or unsettle, that may even leave some audience members wondering “what the heck was that?” There is chance to experiment, to “stretch out” as an actor or director. And it is a chance for an audience to experience something entirely different from what anything they’ve seen before.