Just before the show begins, you sit comfortably in the audience. It’s dark. No Internet or e-mail or flat screen digital entertainment systems here. You relax. You are among friends and neighbors. You hold a simple printed program with a list of players, local residents you may otherwise know as mother, student, banker, grocer, handyman, lawyer or teacher.
The stage lights come on, and a story unfolds, performed by people you may recognize—only they act differently (or sing) and wear strange clothes.
Now play your part: Sit back and enjoy the show.
What defines a community theater?
The answer is what you’d expect: “It’s a theater that serves the community in which it operates by presenting performances that involve the community as actors, directors and technicians, “ said Linda Lee, executive director of Texas Nonprofit Theatres. Virtually all use unpaid amateur actors. Not all community theaters are nonprofit organizations, though most are, said Lee, whose group also represents professional and university theaters across Texas.
Some community theaters don’t want to be known as such.
“There is a connotation that it is not the best quality, so they don’t want to be in that category,” Lee said. But operators in smaller communities are more likely to embrace the term, which denotes a sort of glue that can bond residents together around live performances.
Pulling it off is a delicate balancing act. To succeed, small-town theater operators must shine as fundraisers, recruiters, showboats and even tactful diplomats, ever mindful to avoid bruising sometimes fragile egos, if for no other reason than to keep volunteer actors coming back (not to mention their valuable family and friends in the audience).
“Community theaters live and die in how they treat the people they work with,” said Jeryl Hoover, founder and outgoing artistic director of Fredericksburg Theater Company. He now serves as mayor of Fredericksburg. “It’s very important that you be out engaging people to do this. They need to be encouraged, enticed and seduced.”
In spite of a harsh economic recession, community theaters have shown a surprising resiliency. Sure, some have wobbly finances and barely cling to life amid waning financial support. But that’s nothing new. What is notable is that for every theater that has gone dark in recent years another has opened, Lee said.
Texas’ newest community theater is Playhouse Smithville, which is opening this month (July) in a renovated former barbeque restaurant now equipped with 50 seats (purchased on Craigslist). As far as anyone knows, this is the first time the town along the Colorado River has ever had its own theater.
“We thought this was the perfect place for what we do,” said john daniels jr., a long-time Central Texas theater director, actor, playwright and drama teacher. (Like the poet e.e. cummings, he insists on using all lower-case letters for his name.) “My whole approach in over 30 years of active involvement in theater is I think anybody who comes into the door can be an actor.” His three brothers, wife, April, and their son, Matthew are all involved and helping put on the first show, “Little Shop of Horrors,” a musical about a man-eating plant. Matthew, who turns 20 in August, “is doing the music with my brothers, and he also is going to play the plant.”
To join the fun, just look around. Chances are you’ll find a community theater nearby. Below is just a sampling of upcoming small-town productions. (Note: Shows are subject to change. Performances are usually held Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call ahead for show times.)
• Azle: “Always … Patsy Cline,” Azle Popcorn Players, September 17-26. More information: (817) 238-7529 or www.azlearts.org
• Bastrop: “Hellzapoppin’ (Take-Two!),” Bastrop Opera House, June 25-July 11 (except Independence Day weekend), (512) 321-6283 or www.bastropoperahouse.com
• Bulverde: “Is He Dead?” S.T.A.G.E. at Krause House, July 15- August 1, (830) 438-2339 or www.stagebulverde.org
• Cleburne: “The Wizard of Oz,” Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players, June 25-July 11, (817) 645-9255 or www.carnegieplayers.com
• Cottonwood Shores (near Marble Falls): “Brigadoon,” Hill Country Community Theatre, July 15-August 1, (830) 798-8944 or www.hcct.org
• Fredericksburg: “Suessical the Musical,” Fredericksburg Community Theater, June 19-July 5 (sold out), 1-888-669-7114 or www.fredericksburgtheater.org
• Gonzales: “Blithe Spirit,” Crystal Theatre, November 5-14, Gonzales Chamber of Commerce, (830) 672-2402, or www.crystal-theatre.org
• Ingram: “Cats,” Hill Country Arts Foundation, Point Theatre, July 9-July 24, 1-800-459-4223 or www.hcaf.com
• Quitman: “Two By Two,” Quitman Community Theatre, Carroll Green Civic Center, July 30-August 8, (903) 967-2164 or www.qctheatre.org
• Smithville: “Little Shop of Horrors,” Playhouse Smithville, July 23-August 7, (512) 360-7231 or www.playhousesmithville.com