Community Theater: An Under-Utilized Artistic Resource

Performers see community theater as a stop along the way to stardom, while audience members hold it fondly as a place to see their friends on stage.

Jefferson and Berkeley counties boast three community theaters between them. The Apollo Civic Theater in Martinsburg, the Old Opera House in Charles Town and Full Circle Theatre Company in Shepherdstown each have something unique to offer an audience.

Laura Bakin is the artistic and managing director of the Young Actors’ Theater Lab, the youth division of Full Circle Theatre. As a former professional actor, Bakin has definitive views on the role of community theater.

“I believe that professional theater has become the art form of the elite in this country, and that really saddens me,” Bakin said. “Without community theater, the ‘common man’ is left out of the story that the performing arts are telling, and that art form loses some of its power and credibility because of it.”

Bakin’s goals for her young actors at Full Circle are two-fold. Not only does she want to give them opportunities to perform, but she also wants to make sure they leave Full Circle with a further knowledge of theater as an art form and the part it has played in human history. She chooses the YATL season with this in mind, being sure to include at least one “box-office fattener,” a darker piece for the teens and a literary/educational piece (this year will be Aristophanes’ “The Birds”).

Bakin added, “The best part is being able to do what you love, and for me, working with young artists is so rewarding. Seeing them blossom is so fulfilling, and having them friend me on Facebook a decade later when they’re professional working actors makes me smile.”

Community theater is done in a non-profit setting. Funding for local theaters comes from a combination of grants, community fundraisers and box office income.

Grants are generally the primary source of funding. Philanthropists around the world donate to theatrical projects for a variety of reasons in varying dollar amounts. Grants can be anything from general funding to a theater to specific allocations for a particular show, or even a specific prop, set or costume within a show. The grant application process can be long and arduous and often provides little in the way of results, but without grants, no theater will survive for long.

Community fundraising serves the dual purpose of raising money and awareness for the theater and its upcoming season. The Apollo Civic Theater’s Halloween showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult film gathers the younger demographic, while events like the Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival appeal to a wider range of community members.

The idea of community appeal is increasingly important in this time of economic recession. Fewer people have the money to donate to the arts, so more community theaters are forced to depend solely upon what they make in the box office to continue running.

The theatrical sessions must be chosen with increasing care. More emphasis is placed on getting people into the theater. Big name musicals that will attract a crowd are selected over smaller black box or lab productions that might appeal to only a select audience.

The Christmas season is typically a good time for the theater. The Old Opera House opted for the classic approach with “Scrooge.” The Apollo went comedic with “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!),” and Full Circle was more experimental with their one-man version of “A Christmas Carol.”

The choice of Christmas show highlights the important facets of each theater. The Old Opera House strives to maintain the idea of theater as a high art form in the community. The Apollo is more concerned with reaching and benefiting their audience. Full Circle, as a smaller theater, is more open to the idea of showcasing a different kind of theater that might not play as well on a larger stage.

Brian James, who has performed at all three community theaters, said, “I would say the Old Opera House is run a lot smoother, and it seems that the board and production crews are more on top of things and work well together. The Apollo staff are constantly at each other’s throats. The Apollo is my home, and I am very connected to theater. It has given me everything I now have to offer.”

Bakin says that Full Circle tends to attract a relatively small group to auditions and ends up casting the same faces over and over again out of necessity.

Bakin said, “With every show we get one or two new faces. The kids’ shows bring in more new people, but growth is still fairly slow.”

Short of donating to the theaters, the best way for community members to help support the arts is simply going to see the shows. Directors, actors and technical staff strive to work to put together a production of excellent caliber.

Malorie Matos, a frequent attendant of theatrical performances, said, “I love seeing community theater shows. People think community theater is just a trivial thing, but it’s not. The people doing the shows take it seriously, so the end result is amazing.”

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