Community Theater

A while back, a friend invited me to a matinee at the Masquers Playhouse. It’s a small community theater located in Richmond Point, a city better known for its toxins than its theater, but I thought it a good Sunday outing.

The feature performance was City of Angels. At thirty minutes before the musical began, we got there just in time. One rule of community theater: it’s first come, first served seating. After a brief tussle with an octogenarian about a seat, my friend and I sat down in separate seats (score 1 for the octogenarian) with plenty of time to thoroughly review the playbill.

The theater held about fifty people. The playbill was full of ads from such denizens of business as the local real estate agent and an ergonomics specialist. There was also a long list of theater patrons that included those who had donated in the range of $10-25 to the theater. I wondered if, at the $14 I paid for a ticket, I shouldn’t be listed.

In the minutes that stretched before me and the curtain call, I soldiered through the theater program. It was filled with upbeat descriptions of cast members, each of whom was playing multiple parts in the afternoon’s production. Some of the cast blurbs listed grateful mothers who thanked husbands and children for their support while “Mommy is on stage” while other blurbs gave shout outs to their dogs or cats.

Eventually, no curtain rose, but four people stepped out into the spotlight and began the musical. The Angel City Four, as the playbill called them, began to sing in a jazzy style that only 40s music will allow. They grooved to the melody with their bodies. The four of them were a perfect microcosm of what was to come.

There was a cherub-cheeked tall man who looked to be in his later twenties; a thin, more distinguished fellow who had to be in his sixties; a young round woman in her early thirties replete with forties hair and finally, a woman well into her sixties sporting a very bad blonde wig which didn’t move an inch in the jazzier moments of her hip shaking to the quartet’s number.

The musical progressed and after the initial shock to my aesthetic sense, I settled in to watch the story unfold and be carried away by the music.

The acting wasn’t half bad as musicals go. But the singing. It was the singing that disturbed me the most. Perhaps it’s because singing is the raw emotion – it’s impossible to hide behind. You either hit the high note or you don’t. Which sadly, in this particular case, every male cast member failed to do.

Alas, there is nothing more depressing than bad community theater. I glanced at the Act list to see what song the cast was on and therefore what time until my eventual freedom, and wondered why. Why was I depressed by this fantastic display of organization and free spirit?

Without an initial clue, I amused myself by making up stories about the cast.

There was the older player who no doubt spent a dutiful life toiling away at an office job, hating his boss, marrying, having kids, paying for college but never lost that spark to perform. So he indulged it at weeknight rehearsals and Sunday matinees, knowing full well there’s a lawn to be mowed before too long.

Then there was the truly talented older player. One of the many people who have talent that they might have pursued for some time but their talent never took them beyond small towns and small playhouses.

Right when I began to get bored with my analysis of the Angel City Four quartet, a man appeared, in drag. There was no explanation. It may very well have been a part of the musical, but in this theater it came off altogether differently. I couldn’t help but imagine that the male player convinced the director to let him indulge his fantasy of singing in drag. You can do that in community theater.

It wasn’t until the song, “It Needs Work,” that I finally got an inkling of what these players seemingly sought to capture. The blond woman who sang the song looked to be in her forties. She looked like a soccer mom, married for over ten years. There was muscle in her arms and her voice was of medium strength – the kind enjoyed around countless family pianos at Christmas-time. I flashed on what her life must be like and I realized it must be pretty interesting. Okay, granted she probably wasn't living a glamorous life, but it seemed she must have been living one other than ordinary.

Hell, maybe her husband came to see some of her performances or simply liked the fact that after the kids are shuttled, the bills are paid and dinner is served, his wife has something more to her – she sings. She does community theater. Maybe her husband fell in love with her husky voice and every time he hears it he is recaptured by a bit of that old feeling – the excitement when falling in love and learning something new about your beloved. I imagined all this while I watched her sing her heart out onstage and then it hit me. This display is about living.

I was humbled. While I related more to one of the main players who looked about as embarrassed to be doing theater in the community, as I was to be attending, I was also awed by his courage to get on stage.

Perhaps I was so quick to boredom and subsequent analysis because I am a bit of a coward – the one audience member who hadn’t admitted it to herself. I’m not sure I could get up there. Even if one can sing, it takes quite a lot of internal fortitude to admit, that first one wants to and second that one wants to in front of an audience. Singing, acting, whatever the artistic tool, it takes courage to express a desire but even more so to act on it.

I watched and was further educated by what the whole display revealed in me. I have secret desires and dreams but unlike those community theater players, I am afraid. I fear acknowledging them and I fear missing out on pursuing them. I couch my fear in a false fear that I too will end up in a community theater when I am 50, never having reached any pinnacle of artistic success.

When I was forced to step back yet again by a fiery performance of “All You Have To Do is Wait,” I realized that the thing I was so critical of – the community theater performance, is the thing life is made of. And to be afraid of it is to be afraid to live. That is to perform, let loose; sing out – no matter the setting, no matter the price of the seats. Success is not reaching a pinnacle but in the doing.

So in a small playhouse in a toxic city, I learned that life encompasses wants, desires, dreams. Some realize them, some don’t and somewhere in between, well, there’s community theater.