The community theater, a hyper-local staple of affordable entertainment for many years, finds itself competing for attention today with an array of formidable entertainment outlets.
That includes not only traditional broadcast TV, hundreds of cable channels, and a plethora of streaming services, but some of the finest professional theaters in the country in what is one of the country’s most vibrant theater scenes.
Community theaters have responded by challenging their audiences with works involving complex themes and strengthening their already strong local ties.
Ken Fisher is president of the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters (EMACT), a nonprofit group founded in 1985. It provides member theaters with educational programming, and sponsors an annual festival and gala as part of its DASH program, through which theater professionals review productions and honor them for excellence. EMACT also offers member theaters assistance and service recognition awards.
Because almost all of those involved in community theater are unpaid volunteers — the director of a show usually gets a stipend, as may a choreographer or musicians — Fisher said doing challenging work is vital to the theaters’ very survival.
“You’re trying to attract volunteers who will work very hard for your theater, as well as a strong audience, and actors and directors who’ll want to come and audition for you,” said Fisher. “You do that by performing shows that people will want to be part of.”
In Wayland, the Vokes Players perform in Beatrice Herford’s Vokes Theatre, a 146-seat “jewel box” of a theater built in 1904 by the actress. She allowed the newly organized Vokes Players to perform there beginning in 1937; they refurbished it and perform there today.
Donald Baillargeon, a member of the board of directors and a former president, recently directed a production of “Fun Home,” the Tony Award-winning musical about a woman coming out as a lesbian, and her relationship with her troubled, closeted gay father.
“We have a good subscriber base and a very intelligent audience that gives us the artistic leeway to take a chance on a show like this,” said Baillargeon, who is a producer of Vokes’ upcoming production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy “Ripcord.”
At Braintree’s Curtain Call Theatre, the cast and director David Costa are rehearsing for an upcoming production of the popular musical “Forever Plaid.” Even as they did so, producing artistic director Toni Ruscio recently held auditions for the May 1-10 run of the Tony Award-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” a mystery about a 15-year-old youth on the autism spectrum, and his relationships with his parents and school mentor.
“Community theaters need to present challenging material to allow audiences to think about different and complex subjects such as autism,” said Ruscio. Some theater members, she said, have family members with autism and have already expressed gratitude for her bringing the issue to the stage.
While the Marblehead Little Theatre is rehearsing for its upcoming production of Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein,” executive director Emily Black said that new and challenging work is at the heart of the theater’s mission.
The company presented a new work on the opioid crisis last fall, “Recovery,” written by theater board member Anne Marilyn Lucas, based on her own personal experiences, with discussions after each performance on different aspects of the crisis.
It is a troupe integrated into, by, and for the community around it.
“We like to think we’re a theater for everyone with our plays, concerts, comedy shows, musicals, and youth program,” said Black. “We’re always looking for ways to make it more welcoming and inclusive.”
Almost every community theater group has its own human Swiss Army knife, a man or woman who wears many hats and wears them all well.
At Curtain Call in Braintree, it’s Ruscio’s husband, Jim Gross, who acts, works on sets and lighting, runs the box office, website, and graphics, and helps maintain the intimate 70-seat theater.
“He, like all our members, just loves the community of it, being part of the creative process of making theater, whatever form that takes,” said Ruscio.
In Marblehead, Andy Barnett is facility manager and technical director for the Marblehead Little Theatre, and that encompasses a wide range of tasks in the three-story former firehouse, which the troupe acquired from the town in 1999 and opened for business in 2000.
It includes a versatile black box theater, restrooms, and rooms for meetings, rehearsals, prop storage, and dressing.
“It’s a 120-year-old building and needs ongoing support,” said Barnett, who has helped maintain it for 10 years and schedules who’s using what when. “It can get pretty chaotic when you have one show performing, one rehearsing, and a meeting going on at the same time.”
When Barnett, who calls his theater work “food for the soul,” dons his technical hat, he’ll oversee “the many high-quality people” who work in sound, lighting, and building sets.
Barnett said the theater is fortunate to have excellent equipment for a company its size and he is always trying to “look down the road” and see what’s becoming available in areas such as digital sound and LED lighting.
John Murtagh, one of many in community theater who has worked professionally, is Mr. Everything when it comes to the Vokes Players. He’s been a stage manager, props man, built sets, worked on costumes, and even cleaned the lobby and the bathrooms.
“I’ve been on stage a few times, but I like backstage a lot more,” he said.
You might find him working on the air conditioning or the heat, or tinkering with the windows or door latches.
For many community theaters, getting volunteers remains the greatest problem.
“It is a challenge to keep it going,” said the Vokes Players’ Baillargeon. “A few years ago, we sat down as a group and talked about it. Most of our base do not have children. What will happen 20 years from now?”
Fisher said the commitment is what makes community theater so special. “I would argue that the folks who are working on stage and behind it, who took that on in addition to their day-to-day family responsibilities and jobs, have just as much skin in the game as that professional at the Opera House,” said Fisher, referring to the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston.
“The sweat equity that goes into this makes it a very separate and distinct experience from anything else.”
The Marblehead Little Theatre will perform “Young Frankenstein” March 6-15 at 12 School St., Marblehead. mltlive.com.
The Curtain Call Theatre will perform “Forever Plaid” Feb. 28-March 8 at 182 Commercial St., Braintree. curtaincallbraintree.org.
The Vokes Players will perform “Ripcord” Feb. 21-March 7 at 97 Boston Post Road, Wayland. vokesplayers.org.Rich Fahey can be reached at [email protected].