In praise of community theater

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I live in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area with a population of approximately 1.3 million and is home to over 50 community theaters. I’m not talking about cinemas, concert halls or school shows, but independent theaters with a stage where live actors present musicals and plays ranging from Shakespeare to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Over the past decade, being married to an active theater artist, I have been to several of these theaters several times and feel qualified to generalize a bit about them.

They are usually small in size, only accommodating 100 to 150 people, which creates a wonderfully intimate experience. Nashville, nicknamed “Music City USA”, is teeming with talent, so most shows are well performed and sung, despite often modest facilities, in malls, old churches or senior centers.

Typically, these shows have volunteer actors, or the lead actors are only paid a nominal fee for their labor of love. You might be surprised to find out that your strong insurance agent played Curly in “Oklahoma” in college, has a wonderful voice, and is about to reprise that role at your neighborhood theater. Your friendly dental hygienist could play Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors”. Your neighbor’s gifted children might play Jane and Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins”.

Young artists often make their debut in community theater. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at the Hendersonville Performing Arts Company, Hendersonville, Tennessee (Courtesy Crystal Kurek)

Typical actors really deserve the name “community” because they include people of all ages and backgrounds. Those who play the leading roles have often earned degrees in theater or music, although they may have another day job now. There are dedicated older amateurs, who have performed in many shows, and rising stars who could be high school students aspiring to major in theater in college. At the end of the six week rehearsal, then the three or four weekends of the show, this disparate group of people often becomes very close. We often hear them refer to each other as a kind of family. Collectively, and when all of their own family members are in the public for moral support, they are nothing less than a cultural institution that can be a vital part of every neighborhood or suburban community.

Community theater can be classified as one of the last strongholds of traditional American culture, along with sports teams, marching bands, and places of worship. This is not only because it provides a feeling of community that is fading in many places, but also because it is one of the few places where many people experience, often for the first time, the great American music of yesteryear in shows like “The Sound of Music” and “Ma belle dame”.

Some of their shows are covered by community newspapers, but they generally have low media visibility. I have come to believe that these theaters are great treasures that deserve local patronage and support, not to mention the fact that ticket prices are modest, usually around $ 15 ($ 12 for students and seniors ), the theaters are easy to access and the shows are performed well enough to be a great source of enjoyment for their audiences.

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The quality of the performances – sets, lighting and special effects – can be excellent at the community theater level. Crystal Kurek as the main character in “Mary Poppins” at the Springhouse Theater in Smyrna, Tennessee (Courtesy Crystal Kurek)

How a show is created

Recently, after trying to write a show myself, I had the opportunity to personally witness every phase of the process of putting together a show in one of our local theaters, and I found this fascinating and I learned a lot. The first rehearsal is usually a “table reading”, where the entire cast sits around long tables with their copies of the script and simply reads the entire show aloud, minus the songs, to get a feel for it. whole story and their parts. .

At the next week or two, usually about four evenings a week, the director sits down with the actors in groups of two or three who perform scenes together to discuss their characterization, accents, motivations and emotions. Then, above all, it’s the actors’ job to figure out how best to manifest this by delivering their lines and in their body language, when practicing at home.

Meanwhile, in another room or on stage, the Music Director works with the rest of the cast on musical numbers. The first thing is to play through each vocal part, especially when people have to sing the harmony, while the actors raise their cell phones in the air to record their own parts, to be practiced at home. Then they sing the songs together and receive coaching, perhaps on notes they sang out of tune or on a diction that needs to be clearer, or even on a song with a British accent.

Then there are the “blocking” rehearsals, where the director tells the actors where to stand on the stage, where to walk for a certain line, and when to stand or sit. They are often told to ‘cheat’, that is, face the audience when they say a line rather than the actor they are talking to, so people can see their facial expressions. .

All of this blocking needs to be memorized and done with precision, so the actors sketch notes next to these lines in their scripts. Blocking also includes things like some actors quickly hauling chairs and other sets on and off the stage during blackouts between stages, using phosphorescent tape on the floor to figure out exactly where to place them.

One of the most impressive parts of the rehearsal process is that of the choreography. My show has several large dance numbers involving several actors, who also have to sing simultaneously. The choreographer goes through each predetermined dance routine, personally demonstrating the movements and describing them in ballet terms and other styles – terms such as plié, tap and glide – that all of these actors seemed to know and could grasp after having been shown only once. or twice, to my amazement. I learned that many of them had taken dance lessons for years growing up. Others learned these skills through 30 or more local shows.

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Learned the choreography for the new musical “Dear Miss Barrett” in one of the rehearsal rooms of the Hendersonville Performing Arts Company theater. (Courtesy of Michael Kurek)

Finally, previews of the entire show, but still “on the book,” which means carrying your script for reference as needed; then, a week later, comes the dreaded “off book” deadline. During the last week, called “tech week” (or “hell week”), the actors are finally out of the book and costumed with sets and accessories and equipped with their small wireless microphones. While until now they’ve been rehearsing with just playing the piano, in the last few days (called “Sitzprobe”) the whole group of musicians are here playing.

At the same time, the lighting designer programs the spotlights and stage lighting for each scene, and the sound designer configures the switching on and off of the microphones for the actors entering and exiting the stage, as well as all volume levels. .

I was amazed at how many elements came together so quickly to create an opening night that was almost perfectly executed. And only a week after my show closes, my wife will start the process again, repeating the role, as the song title calls it, of “Marian the Librarian” in “The Music Man” at another theater, while I manage to return to my usual work as a classical composer.

American composer Michael Kurek is the songwriter of the Billboard No. 1 classic album “The Sea Knows”. Winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he served on the Recording Academy’s nominations committee for the Classical Grammy Awards. He is professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more info and music visit MichaelKurek.com

Michael kurek

American composer Michael Kurek is the songwriter of the Billboard No. 1 classic album “The Sea Knows”. Winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he served on the Recording Academy’s nominations committee for the Classical Grammy Awards. He is professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more info and music visit MichaelKurek.com


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