I am directing a show for a community theater in Wisconsin and I've run into a new problem; not enough auditionees. This is a new experience for me. Well not completely. In my 11 years working in Chicago, occasionally there was trouble finding appropriate age or character types, but then you would put out calls to friends and bring in a coupe people who might not be a great fit for the role, but they will work. Here I don't have that luxury - I haven't built a network yet and the company I'm working for is pulling out all the stops trying to get people in but they don't seem to be having any success.
The show we're producing is a musical that has 22 speaking roles and chorus (I'll let you try to figure out the show by those numbers). Now you expect having trouble trying to find an adequate number of men, especially young men, but in two days of auditions we've seen 14 actors. And yes, this community theater does have enough people to pull from; two years ago they did a show with over 50 people. And yes, the show we are trying to cast is a big name show that often does well in community theaters.
That's my problem. We have another night of auditions so my producers and I are making some calls and keeping our fingers crossed. But what I really wanted to talk about is talent level.
Coming from the Chicago store-front theater scene, I'm used to seeing over 100 people in two days for a show that needs maybe 6-8 actors. The talent ranges from actors who in a couple years will be working for the regional houses downtown or shipping off to New York, to people who are doing this after work as a hobby, to people who have no business auditioning in the first place and within two years probably will have given up. That's a wide range.
Here I may not have seen any equity level talent, but everyone was competence and passionate there with a smile on their face and willing to give it their best shot. Because they get to be in a play. What a marvelous notion. And unlike Chicago, there aren't 20 other auditions they could sign up for this week. This is their one chance at doing a play in their community this fall. They want to be here. They know it's fun. There's no ambition beyond that.
Just like the Chicago actors, these are people who work a day job and come to rehearsals afterwards. For both it's an escape. The difference is in Chicago, the actor will introduce themselves as an actor and downplay their day job. Here they are contractors, teachers, office managers, and many other walks of life and then they get to go and be in a play after that. What could be more joyous than that. It's fun. It's a community experience - everyone comes together to see your work at the end of the process. They appreciate both the talent and the effort. Everyone is happy just to be there.
It think some of the professionals lose that. It's a different passion that drives them - and if that isn't fulfilled it can be frustrating and depressing. You take roles just to be working so you don't have to face the fear of not working and the boredom that comes with it. But that can suck all the joy out of the work. Plays become less about playing and more about working. And you can tell the difference. You can't give your full self when that's happening. You fall back on your training and you start making "interesting" choices. But that is not the stuff that life is made of and the productions lose a certain vitality.
Community theater is as grass roots as it gets. It's theater by the community and for the community. Perhaps you won't see the earth-shattering plays that ask the probing questions of our time (and yes, those are super important) but what you will see is a celebration of neighborhood, identity, and a true love of the game.