So forgive me if I have some of the deets wrong. I am looking back over thirty years.
A long time ago, when the earth was green (okay the 80’s), Community Musical Theatre was a very different animal. Because there really was not enough work for the professional community to live on, there were quite a few amazingly talented professional people knocking about who would filter into community theatre for a show or two to supplement income between gigs. You even got to work where you lived which is amazing and awesome.
So, professionals were regularly brought in to sing leads under Guest Artist Contracts. The artistic team always had at least one Guest Artist in it as well. Common practice. This was done because community theatre companies really wanted to keep and grow their audiences and audiences are always a little more discerning than forgiving. Equity members, in general, upped the ante on a show and everyone tried a little harder.
Then, the 90’s! And suddenly there are multiple CANADIAN companies producing shows in TORONTO (mainly for tourists up from Buffalo) and hallelujah! There was work. There was work out the wazoo. Schools like Randolph started churning out triple threats who had a reasonable expectation of work. Hell, even Stratford started doing musicals.
And, honestly, if you were any good and had the stomach for it, you were professional. Community theatre started to change. It really, really became a sweet place for folks who maybe were good but did not have the attitude or the frame of mind to live the gypsy life. Like many at that time, I pulled from Community Theatre and enjoyed a professional theatre life – as crazy as that was.
Then, you know, SARS. So, my daughter is three years old and I am starting to think about going back to work (being a mom and working in theatre are mutually exclusive unless, you know, you can afford a nanny). We were actually under quarantine for a very tense week while that happened. Very scary. At any rate, following the outbreak, we watched theatre company after theatre company just shut down. The Americans were too scared to come.
And in the subsequent few years, we watched some artists ease up to film and television which is where I was planning to go before mommy; some artists give up all together; and some artists grabbed a day job to ride out the storm, and filtered back into community theatre. All of my professional friends were on TV even by the time I got back to Canada in 2000. Mainly on commercials, most of them did not get famous. But they were making a living. Awesome.
Those who filtered back to community theatre were usually fairly talented and professionally minded. Community theatre got a bit of a boost talent-wise and the companies started strutting. But, what was difficult is this: It was commonplace for an actor to quietly work under the radar of Equity but with such a wave of return back to community theatre and with the advent of the interwebs (so they could check easily) and with, frankly, a lot less else to do, Equity starting kicking back hard on community theatre companies who knowingly or unknowingly had Equity members in their casts. Oddly, to this day, I don’t think one community theatre company is signatory to any agreement with equity which maybe, they could get together as a group and facilitate. But that’s none of my business.
At any rate, what happened following is this: If you were Equity, community theatre stopped hiring you. If you were Equity, community theatre would not cast you. I pulled out of Equity and fast – mostly so that companies I was associated with did not have to deal with Equity cause they were behaving a bit like bullies. A mistake on my part, perhaps, given the troubles with John and all, but what the heck? At the time, I thought it made sense. Ha!
So, now. Fast forward to now. So, a lot of the professional level talent has disappeared again. Work returned but more in the form of TV. And, now, we simply will not hire professionals. A few of us actually think that we are doing professional level work! But audiences are starting to slip — from every level of community theatre.
I feel very strongly that we need to bolster this thing we love so dearly. I believe that we are not performing at the level a lot of us think we are. I include me and my company (even though I am a pro) cause I should. And I can see, clearly, which companies are slipping and which are pulling up their socks.
Tell me all you like that our audiences are aging. Tell me all you like that musical theatre is not as popular as it once was. Sure, I will buy all that. I just feel like we need, as a community, to pull up our socks. The higher the quality of story-telling, the higher the audience engagement and enjoyment. We really need to think about this again. We want our art form to flourish, right?
What do I think we should do? Hire professionals.
Hire professionals, like we used to, to bolster the cast and raise the general level of talent in the room. Hire professionals to direct, musical direct, choreograph — even on alternate shows or one a season. The influx of new vision will only energize your artistic pool.
Just hire these people. We love musical theatre so, so much! We can always do better. Always. #onward