What do you think of when you hear the term “community theater”?
In my mind, it has long meant amateur actors of varying abilities getting together to put on a show for the love of performing, the experience and the camaraderie that goes along with it.
We have been blessed in our area with a bounty of talented performers who devote their free time to community theater productions, for the love and fun (and applause). Some of them probably could have professional careers if they wanted to pursue them.
But I may need to revise my thinking in regards to “community theater.”
While preparing to write a story about the upcoming Venice Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” I discovered that the actor playing Curly McLain, the leading male role, is being brought in from New York, provided housing and a small stipend. He’s a young actor just beginning his career and it will be good experience for him.
My first thought was, “I can’t believe they couldn’t find a Curly” from the local talent pool. Yes, there’s a lot of competition with all the big community theaters often doing musicals at the same time, and theaters always find that young men are in short supply.
This is one of the iconic roles of musical theater. There must be someone who could play Curly.
Then I discovered that several other performers in the show also are being compensated with what I’m told is nothing more than gas money to help cover the cost of their driving some distance to nightly rehearsals and performances.
Does that change the nature of community theater? Were there no local actors willing or able to play Laurey Williams, Will Parker or the other roles?
Venice Theatre has been providing some compensation or stipends in recent years, primarily to African-American actors as it has tried to diversify its programming. The thinking has been if you present shows with more diversity, the more racially diverse the audience and acting pool might be. It’s a years-long effort that executive/artistic director Murray Chase said is beginning to pay off.
I’m all for the diversity, and hope the plan works. But I wonder how compensating other performers alters the playing field.
Chase said compensation has been necessary on occasion to get people who wouldn’t otherwise travel to Venice to be in shows.
But I worry about the snowball effects of such a changing status.
Don’t fellow performers become resentful if they realize they’re not getting stipends that others are getting? What does that do to cast bonding? Will it mean some performers won’t audition for shows if they’re not going to get compensated in some way? What talent will we be missing?
Manatee Players artistic director Rick Kerby said he has never had to offer compensation to his performers, though he has secured guest artist contracts for Equity actors in emergencies a few times in his 11 years at the theater.
Jeffery Kin, artistic director of the Players Theatre, said he won’t pay actors, but he has offered to reimburse gas money “if people need that. If that perfect person lives in Tampa and they want gas money, do you say yes or no. Gas money is a small price to pay for an excellent actor.”
He also notes that the small amount of money is a pittance next to the roughly 300 hours those performers put into memorization, rehearsals and performances.
Audiences appreciate that dedication and donation of time, but why should some be compensated and not others? They’re all working hard.
Chase said it happens on a case-by-case basis, and even though at least one community theater in Florida provides compensation to everyone in its shows, he feels it has to be earned from years of performances or special situations.
He also is working toward setting up an internship program at Venice Theatre that would provide funding for a group of performers who would appear at the theater for a year. It would be a stepping stone toward starting professional careers, he said.
“We are and always will be at heart a volunteer organization. That is what we do,” he said. ‘We balance that with our need to do a good show and also with our need to educate and help people achieve their goal.”
He noted that years ago directors, designers and musicians were all volunteers. That’s no longer the case at most theaters.
None of the issues I’m raising are meant to be a rejection of the performers involved in “Oklahoma!” They’re not the first to be compensated and I hope they’re wonderful.
But it raises a separate concern for me as a critic, and for all audience members (many of whom only care about seeing a good show). Should we expect more of performers who are being compensated? Are they professionals or still amateurs? They’re not getting a living wage, to be sure, but they have some slight advantage. Should that matter?
If more performers get compensated, will theaters have to start charging more for tickets to cover those extra costs? Are the performers worth it? Would we lose audiences?
There are a lot of questions to consider. I’m still working on the answers.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.