Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Difference

What is the difference between community theater and professional theater?

Aside from the obvious difference that one is a volunteer organization and the other pays its performers, how are the missions different?

There are many people who want to define the difference by creating some measure of quality. There is some validity to that measurement, but what is it that contributes to that quality?

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a huge supporter of community theater. Yet, you will not hear me say that community theater is as good as professional theater. To me, that would be a bit like saying a strawberry is as good as a carrot. They’re both good, but both different in core ways. They both provide different but necessary vitamins to the human body just as the different types of theater provide different but necessary forms to the arts community.

Why do I value community theater?

I value community theater because it gives a wide variety of people a chance to participate in the art as an avocation. It enriches their lives and makes them more committed to the community in which they live. It helps them to form long-lasting bonds with people who share a geographic home with them. They’re able to connect to people who have similar interests, temperaments, and personalities.

Community theater, when it is true to its mission, is focused inward on the participants.

Why do I value professional theater?

I value professional theater because it elevates the art form and allows audiences to participate in the art as a transformative experience. The performers matter less than the story being told and the effectiveness with which it is being told. The story is the medium in which people are talking to people about things that matter to them. Theater becomes a way of exploring issues, experiencing catharsis, and laughing deeply.

Professional theater, when it is true to its mission, is focused outward on the audience.

In community theater, production values can take on a lesser role as what is important is providing the support and structure for the performers to be able to explore and create. Choices are made based on whether they challenge, encourage or distract the actor. The audience is coming to see their friends, co-workers and families. They’ll be far more forgiving and far more inclined to praise a show because the priority isn’t what the audience was able to feel, but what the performers were able to do. Performers want to be treated with respect because they have given up their free time and worked hard at something for an extended period of time.

In professional theater, production values are of extreme importance. Even a bare set needs to be executed well. Choices are made based on whether they will challenge, encourage, or distract the audience. The audience is coming to be entertained, moved and transformed. They’ll have high expectations for the time they are spending in the theater and will have high expectations. They want to be treated with respect and have the show creators think that the audience was worth the effort.

In community theater, the performers are learning on the fly in an invigorating, collaborative effort that allows them to transcend their daily lives. A show’s success can often depend on whether the cast is able to bond with each other in mutual respect and admiration. The participants should be given a chance to learn, grow, and develop. Once the show ends, the relationships can continue and all are likely to be given opportunities to perform together again.

In professional theater, the performers are already proficient and trained in the skills the art demands. A show’s success depends on the strong collaboration of artistic and technical staff that is focused on the work and not the personalities. When the show ends, the artists will go their separate ways, maintaining a professional respect and connection, but no longer a part of each other’s daily lives until they once again end up at the same theater.

In community theater, it is essential that an effort be made to draw in new people who may not know much about the art or the craft. There needs to be room for participants to grow as performers. They should not be required to be great performers when they first show up. A community theater stagnates when it doesn't allow "less talented" people to be part of the shows.

In professional theater, it is essential that every performer from the lead to the walk-on role, from the stage manager to the box office manager, have all of the skills required to do the job. The theater should make sure it is hiring the best people possible for each role and job and not just the performers and technicians with whom they are most familiar and comfortable.

Community theater fails when it treats its performers poorly or ignores their needs and abilities. They succeed when they select work that allows their participants to stretch without asking the impossible.

Professional theater fails when it ignores the needs and desires of its audience and gets caught up in what it wants to do to the degree that it shows contempt for their patrons.

Community theater enriches society by giving people the chance to perform.

Professional theater enriches society by giving people the chance to experience performance.


Anonymous said...

This is a great way to articulate the difference between community and professional theatre, Bridgette.

Speaking from the standpoint of the (currently) lone producing professional resident theatre in a community theatre-rich area, it gets frustrating having to correct people who call us community theatre. While we completely value the contributions that community theatre organizations make to our society, and think they are vital to a vibrant and diverse cultural scene, we are not community theatre for all the reasons you’ve just laid out.

If I might add another element to the equation – economics. The economic picture of a professional theatre is very different than community theatre, both internally and externally. As an Equity theatre, we are required to pay our union actors a certain wage for a certain amount of work time. We contribute to their pension and health funds for each week that they work for us. We also pay our non-union actors. Actually, we pay everyone here – backstage crew, stage managers (who are also Equity members), designers, directors, box office staff – the whole team. The biggest single expense that our organization incurs is payroll. We create jobs – which is no small feat in this economy. Because the people who work here are professionals in their field, many have advanced training and degrees in their specialty. So for many of them to be able to pay their mortgages and taxes and car payments, they combine the work that they get at our theatre with work from other theatres, or from some of the films that are being shot in the state, to make a living. Some supplement their income with teaching jobs, but this profession in this field is their source of livelihood (i.e. they aren’t bankers and lawyers and plumbers during the time that they aren’t in the theatre). On the other side of the coin, the primary audience for a community theatre is the friends and families of those involved, as you’ve mentioned in your piece. Well-established community theatres will have a slightly expanded audience of die-hard theatre lovers in the immediate geographic area – usually in the same county. Our audience comes from many counties – Livingston, Wayne, Eaton, Washtenaw and, of course, Ingham. A couple coming to our theatre may spend a total of $36 on their two Thursday night tickets, but they will spend $80-$90 at a nice dinner prior to the show at one of the three restaurants within walking distance of our theatre. With each season, the size and geographic reach of our audience grows. So you can see the economic impact that both our organization and our audiences can have upon our downtown and regional economy.

To steal your analogy – a healthy diet needs both apples and carrots. But it’s important to understand the difference between them so you can use them in your cooking appropriately!

Emily Sutton-Smith

Anonymous said...

Wow! Nice essay! :-)