A community theater in rural East Texas has grown by thinking big, hiring a full-time director, and teaching professionalism.If you attended a play last year far from the Broadway’s bright lights, odds are decent that it was a community theatre show. And, yes, the quality of work does vary from town to town (or even production to production), but a significant number of small communities are engaged in the theatre biz.
“There are an estimated seven thousand community theatres in towns across the United States,” says Julie Crawford, executive director of the American Association of Community Theatres. She adds that if there’s an arts organization to be found at all in a small town, it’s most likely a theatre showcasing local talent: “These theatres typically pull from a number of small towns at once and therefore have a wider coverage area than larger communities. They do tend to have shorter runs, however.”
With rehearsal periods that can last several weeks for a show that will only run a couple of weekends, community theatre productions demand significant time and energy of cast and crew members. Unlike professional theatre companies and touring productions of Broadway shows, amateur productions seldom offer paychecks. Yet Crawford points out that, among all the arts, the “participatory nature” of live theatre holds special appeal.
In short, people of all ages participate in community theatre productions chiefly because they enjoy it.“Theatre is a collaborative art form, and you don’t have to have a special place in which to perform,” Crawford explains. “It’s not intimidating. Everyone can learn together, ‘on the job,” although very often people have received some sort of training previously.”
Crawford says most theatres undergo a natural, predictable evolution, beginning with the first exclamations of “Hey, let’s put on a show!”
“Most groups try to find a place to perform, like a high school auditorium,” she says. “Eventually, because of scheduling conflicts, the groups want to find a place of their own, and so they turn to old movie houses, storefronts or old churches.”
As it happens, Crawford’s general description neatly sums up the early years of the Henderson County Performing Arts Center (HCPAC) in Athens, Texas. Since the early 1960s (when a whopping 18,000 small theatre companies were thought to be in existence), HCPAC has morphed steadily from being a local theatre troupe (“Athens Little Theatre”) to, as the newer name suggests, a full-fledged performing arts organization befitting a larger, mid-sized community.
In the process, it has successfully countered the myth that community theatres are by definition “minor.”
Situated in the Henderson County seat, HCPAC today produces ten shows each year for Athens (est. population 12,000) as well as residents in smaller towns within a fifty-mile radius. The annual operating budget—$300,000 to $400,000 annually—would leave the cast of Red, White and Blaine quivering with envy.
HCPAC’s roots, however, are humble and illustrate how, with time and proper nurturance, a local, amateur theatre company can become a cultural cornerstone.
“In 1964, when the theatre was first formed, the founders used the community college’s auditorium,” says Dennis Gilmore, HCPAC’s executive director. “A couple of years later, they purchased a refurbished metal building, which is still our 88-seat black box theatre.”
Two years ago, HCPAC opened a second, new 125-seat black box (or experimental) theatre that, according to Gilmore, “gives us much more flexibility. We can now stage productions in thrust, proscenium and in the round.”
It’s worth noting that HCPAC’s founding and recent expansion both came about after significant Henderson County population surges. While it’s unlikely that the theatre’s reputation helped attract new residents (the area is still heavily dependent upon manufacturing, retail and agriculture for its economic base), HCPAC did benefit from an influx of newcomers who valued the performing arts.
For instance, Gilmore, who hails from Chicago and worked in that city’s vibrant professional theatre community before moving to Texas, first became affiliated with HCPAC as a volunteer in the late 1980s.
“I went to the board with a proposal [to create a full-time, paid position]. I said, ‘Hey, I’m here all the time anyway,’” recalls Gilmore. “Then I went out and raised the money to cover my salary for the first two years.”
Under Gilmore’s leadership, the company has increased outreach to young audiences through summer camp and after-school programming. This effort has increased donations, helped to diversify audiences, and heightened awareness of theatre as a profession.
“The issue of quality is a big one when it comes to community theatres, to be frank. A lot of community theatres, well, their mission is to ‘go have fun,’ to ‘make fun of ourselves,’” observes Gilmore. “I wanted to instill professionalism here. We’re not affiliated with Actor’s Equity, so our shows aren’t the same as what you’d see in New York City. But eight of our former students are working professionally in the theatre field.”
For Gilmore, that fact alone reveals how beneficial community theatres can be as a training ground for raw talent.
“A lot of the kids that head off for professional careers, especially the performers, get humbled pretty quickly,” he says. “But the ones who succeed out there are the ones who recognize theatre is a real business.”