Community theatre - if you do it right - is full of joys and woes; an activity where you can expect the unexpected. It is hard work to do good work. Creativity is the name of the game, which results in great fulfillment and satisfaction. To be successful you have to leave your ego at the door and embrace your fellows, for it takes many hands and minds to reap a rewarding play. Community theatre is a microcosm of life, full of happiness and sadness, love, hate, marriages, divorces and demises. Community theatre has it all. Embrace it!
Experience community theatre from the inside out. Live it. Live theatre is an activity a family can enjoy from cradle to grave. The wages of a volunteer are great – really nothing to speak of, so experience the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the joys and tears of the volunteer. As a commonality most of us have arrived at our level of incompetence from the ground floor. We have engaged in and shared at least many of the disciplines connected to our involvement in community theatre. This avocation is not all peaches and cream. Aside from plain old burn out, the downside is attrition of people for many reasons. Some of these are disillusion stemming from auditions and not being chosen for a coveted role, or for any role, for that matter; failure to attain star status; organizational and operational inefficiencies; unresolved personal issues and other people’s animosities; thwarted love; inadequate adulation; moving out of the area; etc. The essence of community theatre is working together for the good of the whole. Those who have stood the test of time realize it.
We have learned we must have a well functioning organization to teach acting, learn direction, select and do good work, develop audiences, raise money and contribute to our communities plus a myriad of other things, but mostly the attribute of patience to become and remain successful. We require dedicated, creative, caring and progressive people to attain an appreciative community level. Nothing is free and that is our challenge. The doing of community theatre enriches our lives and the lives of others. Interest starts with the individual and spreads.
We invite our theatre people to respond to forthcoming articles in the form of questions, comments, and rebuttals which we hope to answer in as prompt a fashion as is practical. We encourage dialogue, that being how we all mostly learn.
I probably should at least leave you with a practical theatre tidbit. If you wish to shoot the editor, do it in the following fool proof (I hurt easily) manner. Place a foot on one end of an approximately three foot board, pick up the other end and let it smack down on cue. It makes a sharp crack when it hits the stage floor and timing of the shot can be very controlled by the operator. Multiple and random shots can be effected by three operators and three boards. Try it. It is simple and failsafe. I have ducked, so you can now start shooting.
Sherman C. Ward Jr.
The Joys and Woes of Community Theatre
LEGG UP the TANYS blog
Articles and interviews about community theatre, inspired by our late past President and adjudicator, Ruth Legg
Original editor: our late adjudicator Sherman C. Ward, Jr.
First of all, it is wise for a company to maintain a written list of the criteria you as an organization determine to be important from year to year, to give balanced offerings to your audience and varied challenges to your company members to maintain interest and be active in your programs and community. It is helpful to whoever is/are charged with recommending a season for your community theatre.
Here is a suggested list of questions from which you may want to develop your specific manual of operation.
1. Does the play we want to do satisfy the company criteria? 2. Will the play satisfy our audience? 3. Does our play season provide variety, fun, deeper thinking challenges? 4. Do we have a balanced yearly production schedule? 5. How many performances are planned per play? 6. What type of theatre do we plan? Matinee, evening, dinner/dessert, or competitive, long plays, short plays? 7. What kinds of plays are we interested in doing - children’s theatre by children, children’s theatre for children, classics, comedies, dramas, farces, melodramas, musicals, mysteries, no-royalty public domain, one-acts, original works, readings, revues? 8. Have we chosen plays that are possible for our production people to execute, i.e. even though melodramas can be great fun for the players and the audience, do them only with directors who understand the style. 9. Should we do in-house plays to provide our actors a place to hone their skills, try out new plays, and do plays of limited audience appeal? 10. Does the play appeal to and/or educate the audience we wish to attract? 11. Does the play/season appeal to us and/or to the play selection committee for some specific reason? 12. Should a play we don’t like be selected? 13. Do we have the facility and ability to do a particular play? 14. Can we do sophisticated plays of the Noel Coward style? Do we have people to teach sophistication of a particular era?
Choosing a Play or a Theatrical Season for Your Community Theatre
LEGG UP: Congratulations Paul on being selected as one of the adjudicators for the 2013 AACT National Festival in Carmel, Indiana! How did that invitation come about? How long ago did you know?
PN: I was asked about two years ago. I was working with Ruth Legg and Joan Luther on AACT Fest 2011 in Rochester, managing volunteers for the event. Kathie Maldonado (AACT Festival VP) left me a voice mail. I called her back the same day and she offered me the opportunity to be one of the adjudicators for the 2013 AACT Nationals in Carmel, Indiana. I was much surprised and flattered. I have been looking forward to the event with anticipation, excitement and fear.
LEGG UP: What have you done to prepare?
PN: First, I have stayed active with TANYS adjudications. Often I learn more from the theatre folks that I interact with than I may leave with them. I learn by watching and working with people like Pam Rapoza, Cindy Appleton, Matthew Parent, Ruth Legg, Mary Rolick and Colleen O'Mara, with a special nod to Annette Procunier and Shirley Cockrell, whom I consider at the top of the art form. Additional preparatory work has included familiarizing myself with the AACT Adjudication Handbook and reading the scripts for selected festival shows.
LEGG UP: When did you first begin adjudicating?
PN: I started adjudicating for TANYS in 1997. I was trained by all the existing TANYS adjudicators with Shirley Cockrell as my primary instructor. And I was mentored by Mary Rolick in the field. I learned about approach, style and ways to establish a rapport with individuals and companies from each of those adjudicators.
LEGG UP: Roughly how many TANYS adjudications do you do a year?
PN: On average I do between 20-35 company adjudications in New York State, including one-act festivals.
LEGG UP: You have also adjudicated at AACT state festivals within and beyond the ESTA Region II. Can you tell us more about these?
PN: I have not been adjudicating out of state in the last two years due to the pending AACT Festival. Prior to that time, I would do 2-3 state/regional festivals a year. Since being trained as an AACT Festival Adjudicator by Annette in Charlotte, I have worked state festivals in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Additionally, I adjudicated for the Region I and Region III Festivals. The opportunity to see the work of companies outside of New York, the chance to work with other adjudicators in the new panel format as well as getting to watch peers adjudicate independently of each other was a privilege.
LEGG UP: Do you think your AACT Regional experiences may have led to being chosen as an adjudicator for the Nationals?
PN: I'm unsure if AACT Regional adjudication led to the 2013 AACT National Festival invitation. I know that AACT Executive Director Julie Crawford (Angelo?) saw me work at one of the Ohio State Festivals and I thank the Ohio State Festival team for asking me back on multiple occasions. Ginny Morrison took a chance on me after my Charlotte training and deserves credit along with Sherman and Ann Ward for any success I have had as an adjudicator outside New York State.
ESTA Dialogue with Paul A. Nelson
LEGG UP: An adjudicator is part educator and part performance artist, would you agree?
PN: I agree that the prime focus is as an educator. My background as an educator and a mental health practitioner serves me well in knowing how to present information in a way that is both engaging and non-threatening. There is a different skill set required for various audiences. We should always be guiding them towards continued growth in their craft. What new information can we leave them? What theatrical tools can we leave them? And what can they teach us that we can carry on to other companies that we adjudicate along the way?
LEGG UP: How do you weave these two strands together into a personal presentation style, given your background and experiences?
PN: The performance art is making sure that you engage and connect with you audience. The company needs to know that you are as invested in their work and that your perspective is respectful and thoughtful. They are the experts on their production. We are informed colleagues who are reacting to what came off the stage on that particular evening. If we can accomplish this, we will stand a better chance of having a truly meaningful dialogue about their work. Finding ways to suggest growth and change in those less-than-successful moments on-stage is the “art” we do.
LEGG UP: You competed in multiple past festivals and your "One Man" monologue won the ESTA Festival several years back. What can you tell us about those competition experiences and how have they shaped your view of adjudications today?
PN: I have had the privilege of performing multiple times at the TANYS Festival and once at the ESTA Festival, yet attending festival as an audience member is so different than that of participant. Past festival performances sensitize me to the feelings and expectations of those sitting in front during an adjudication. People want honest, respectful and thorough feedback. They want to know how they can grow. So how can an adjudicator fail? Very easily! It is not the nature of the information that’s controversial; it’s the delivery of that information.
LEGG UP: You've obviously devoted a huge part of your life to theatre as an avocation and so our final question is: Why?
PN: I cannot imagine a time that I will not be involved in theatre in some way, shape or form. I have not been directing or acting in almost six years due to my return to school to complete my Masters as an Adult Nurse Practitioner. That work is just about completed so I hope to become more active by year's end.
LEGG UP: What drives you to still excel at it after all these years? And do you think you can or will ever stop?
PN: I cannot think of any other avocation that has brought me such joy, such a significant creative outlet and linked me to so very many wonderful people over the years. Whether on stage or sitting in the auditorium, the opportunity to see a live theatrical production brings a sense of emotional engagement, contemplation, laughter, tears and a strong sense of belonging to a larger community.
I would not walk away from this for anything in the world!
LEGG UP: Ionesco has been dead for some time, yet his plays still speak to us. What do you think are the important lessons one can still draw from "The Lesson?"
NJ: The difficulty I have verbalizing an answer to this question is an illustration of my answer. Even with today's technologies and instant communication, how useful is language as a tool for achieving mutual understanding with another individual? Our desire to be understood is more often than not complicated by too many words. The Lesson highlights what Ionesco saw as the meaninglessness of language and other social conventions and expectations.
With this in mind, I believe some of the important lessons to be taken from the piece are:
Lesson #1: Actions speak louder than words;
Lesson #2: Things are not always what they seem;
Lesson #3: Arithmetic leads to philology, and philology leads to calamity; and
Lesson #4: A bad pronunciation can get you into trouble!
LEGG UP: Some may argue that the "author's intent" was not to amuse, yet your production provides us with genuine, if unintended(?) moments of dark humor. Do you feel that laughter violates or validates Ionesco's legacy, and why?
NJ: The audience absolutely validates Ionesco's legacy when it can find humor in the absurdity of the character's situation. Ionesco indicates that The Lesson is a "Comic Drama." The script is sprinkled with humor. Who are we to hide it from the audience? When the lighter moments are recognized by the audience they provide a drastic contrast to the tragedy playing out on stage and the play's overall impact is greater! I believe this is part of Ionesco's genius!
LEGG UP: Some famous directors of "The Lesson" chose to accentuate the sexual assault upon the student with the student, the knife being a metaphor. Your production seemed to address it with more subtlety. You and Vivian must have had some thoughts about how far that aspect could be realized before a community theatre audience. Can you share them?
NJ: I'm not sure we discussed any boundaries for a community theatre audience. We are simply telling the story as we believe it goes. The show is so much more than the pupil's tragic end. It is about our inherent inability to know for absolute certain what another person is thinking. It is a tug of war for power over someone. It is a tragic fight to understand and be understood. In applying these layers to the characters, it became obvious to us that the Professor's sexual "dance" is just one more piece of that puzzle. It swells up at times throughout the show, so to speak.
ESTA Dialogue with Neilson Jones
LEGG UP: The armband that the professor dons after the murder was originally specified as a German Nazi party affiliation symbol in the script, was it not? What caused you to make another choice for that post-war political statement and why do you think it is still consistent with the author's intent?
NJ: The script calls for the Maid to "take out an armband with an insignia, perhaps the Nazi swastika." While in rehearsals for the initial production in June 2012, the US Presidential Campaigns were underway and the Occupy Movement was going strong. We decided to use a symbol that would appeal to the current time and our local audience, the "1%." The playwright was suggesting that those with power enjoy a certain privilege and are not always held to the same rules as the rest of us. The "1%" symbolizes this same idea for many.
LEGG UP: Confetti Stage has consistently tackled controversial issues, in both period and modern drama. You rent space from the Masonic Lodge, a very conservative social organization, in downtown Albany to perform these works. When "The Lesson" opened in Brussels, the audience there demanded their money back after the performance and the lead actor had to flee the building for his life. How do you not suffer some the same fate with your local productions? What artistic glue gives you confidence that you are doing the kind of theatre that community audiences are willing and anxious to see?
NJ: We choose our shows because something about them excites our creative mind. In many cases, these shows are not overly popular pieces, and it is up to us to get the word out and let the community know that YES they should be as excited to see what we are offering as we are to create it for them. Here's the rub. As a group, marketing is not our strongest skill. However, we work hard to maintain a high quality and tackle productions that challenge and force us to grow artistically. It is through these challenges, both successful and not so successful, that we grow closer as friends and continue to learn from each other and become better community theatre artists. Since Confetti Stage began, we have been fortunate to see a slow, yet steady growth in our core audience. This continued growth, no matter how slow, instills in us the confidence that we are filling a void for our community of both artists and audience.