The very first weekend my family and I arrived in Okinawa, one of our friends took us to a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. I enjoyed the show, which starred several people who would eventually become good friends of mine. On the program for the show was a notice indicating that auditions for the next show, Ragtime, would be held in a few weeks. Theater had never really been my thing, but my wife Danielle had done drama in high school, and she really missed being on stage, so she marked the audition date on her calendar.
She auditioned and got a part, and she spent a lot of time at rehearsals. Then she got one of the lead roles in the next play, Children of Eden, and was gone even more. She made a lot of friends, and got some much needed grownup sanity time, but I hardly ever saw her on rehearsal nights. When the show was over, I decided that if she did another show, I would audition too. That’s how I got into community theater.
The show that we both auditioned for was part of a night of three one-act plays, and the whole point of it was to open up the stage for new talent. Danielle and I performed in one of the acts from Neil Simon’s California Suite as a pair of couples who had gone on vacation together as friends, but by the time the play started, they were all at each other’s throats. Danielle and I were cast in opposite couples, which was fun for us. Before that, my theater experience was that I had been a narrator in my third grade school presentation, so it was pretty much my first theater performance.
Shortly after the night of one acts, we did a shadow cast screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Halloween (I’ve since done one more), and then the following year Danielle and I co-directed another one act play called Courting 101. This season I directed James and the Giant Peach, and I played as one of the ugly step-sisters in an English Christmas pantomime of Cinderella that my friend Kate wrote.
Community theater has been a great way for me to meet new people, make new friends, and have a lot of pictures taken of me in my underwear (or dressed up as a woman). Directing has also been an eye-opening experience and a wonderful opportunity to grow as a leader and organizer. As painful and demanding as it was sitting in the director’s chair, I got a great natural high off of facing up to the challenge.
How can you get involved? If you’re interested in community theater, here are some steps to take:
- Find a theater group. My theater group is the Pacific Okinawa Players. They are a group of primarily U.S. military, spouses, and DoDEA teachers/administrators who love to put on shows for the rest of the U.S. military community. Being so far away from home, sometimes we’re more like family. If you’re trying to find your own local theater group, ask around and check Craigslist or the website for your local news media (because nobody reads newspapers anymore). If you’re a student, check with your university or high school theater department. Once you find your group, get in contact with one of their people and let them know you want to get involved.
- Choose your role in the production. Not everyone is an actor. If you have stage fright or don’t like to get in front of people but still want to be active, there are plenty of opportunities to work behind the scenes helping with costume changes, prop placement, cues, etc. Your technical aptitudes may qualify you as a lighting or sound technician, and wood shop or painting knowledge are perfect for set design and construction. Ushers usually get a chance to get everyone seated, and then they are able to sit back and enjoy the show. Naturally, if you do like being on stage, you may audition for an acting or singing role. Finally, if you’re into management, stage managing and directing may be for you. Producers need business sense to make shows happen, so that may be a way to use your skills and connections as well.
- Develop your talents. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, because that’s where you will grow. I was nervous about auditioning for my first show because I wasn’t sure how I’d like being on stage, but it turned out that I really enjoyed it. Then I decided to try my hand at something different, so I co-directed and then directed shows, and I got to face a whole new level of challenges. I’ve always wanted to become familiar with lighting and tech, but I haven’t had the chance to do it yet. Aside from trying something new, you can also stay focused in one area and strive for expertise. There is always room for improvement, so take on more challenging roles, do exercises to improve your talent, and for God’s sake, learn your lines and cues!
- Decide on your level of commitment. If you are just looking to help out for a day a week or just at shows, there are probably still ways for you to get involved. Ushering is probably a great opportunity for involvement with minimal commitment. Being an extra, helping backstage, or helping with set construction are great ways to contribute without eating away all of your time. You may decide to get more heavily involved by taking on an acting role or working stage crew. If you choose to direct, work as production staff, or get a leading role, you will probably spend several weeks eating, drinking, and breathing the show. Whatever level of commitment you choose, make sure you communicate this to your theater group.
- Keep the drama on the stage! Nothing ruins a good time faster than a bunch of butt-hurt drama queens. Put on your big girl panties and learn how to take constructive feedback from the production staff and more experienced crew and actors. Be sure to communicate well with everyone. If you don’t see eye-to-eye on something, talk about it at the appropriate time. Consider that perspectives vary. If something seems like a bad idea to you from the stage, you may not realize that the director or stage manager is seeing it from an audience perspective. Likewise, something may look good from the audience that is uncomfortable or difficult for the people on stage. Respect the director and play well with others, and keep in mind that the whole point of it is to have fun and put on the best show you can.
Once you’ve been through a show or two, you’ll realize that putting on a good show is great, but the best thing about it will be the little things that happen behind the scenes. You will make friends for life. Community theater is a wonderful way to challenge yourself and develop as a person. Maybe you’re already involved, maybe you’re not. Feel free to leave me a comment with your own theater stories.