When I was 15, I joined a local community theater production of a show called Murder By The Book. I had performed in only one or two other shows, school productions where I played bit parts, but I had completely fallen in love with the art form. And when I was cast in a larger role in this show - Mary Shelley, funnily enough - I was over the moon.
Joining community theater is what ultimately led me to a short professional acting career and introduced me to some of my best friends. It's one of the best decisions I ever made, so I'd like to advocate for you to get involved with your local theater. Here are some ways you can do that.
Why get involved with community theater?
Community theaters are one of the last few bastions of free activity in many of our communities alongside public places like libraries. In a local theater, you can learn a huge number of skills whether you're onstage or not. You can learn to feel confident in yourself, to communicate more easily, to present yourself in a way that makes people listen, to collaborate with others, and to solve problems in unusual ways, just to name a few.
On top of that, local theaters often run programs to teach their community about the arts in general. They might put on classic shows that challenge cultural norms or host charity events for important local causes. They might have workshops that offer kids a productive place to be after school and adults a way to relax after a hard day's work. And, of course, they're a brilliant source of entertainment - what better way to spend a date night than dinner and a show?
Beyond that, the arts in general are good for us. Seeing a show can give us something to relate to when we feel misunderstood or teach us something new by giving us a new perspective on an issue. It can be a great way to get people invested in causes or make them think about their connections to each other and how they treat the people around them. Theater has always been about holding a mirror up to the world around us and making us really look at it; if we can see it, we can change it, after all.
Sadly, community theaters are almost always underfunded and understaffed. They're volunteer operations; you don't pay or get paid to be in a show. Because of that, though, the budget for sets, costumes, props, and production in general tends to be very, very tight. Most community theaters live off of the revenue they make from performances and the donations they get from the people who sit on their board of directors, meaning they have to rely on the goodwill of others and people's natural love of the arts to survive.
Getting involved in your local community theater is the best possible way of showing support for the arts in your area and promoting them to your community.
How to find your local theater
Communities of all sizes have local theaters. Take for example my town, Russell, Kansas. It's very small - roughly 4,000 people including more remote farmers - yet we still have an active local theater putting on full seasons of productions.
If you're not sure whether your town has a community theater, the best way to find out is to ask around. Talk to your local library, schools, and bookstores, if you have them; these are the people most likely to be involved, although people from all walks of life hang out in theaters. You can also check your local radio station for season and show date announcements.
If you don't necessarily want to talk to anyone yet, consider searching online for "[your town here] community theater." You might also check Facebook or Instagram for a business page.
How to get involved with community theater
There are way more ways than you think to get involved with community theater, ranging from obvious ideas like auditioning to less-than-obvious things that make a big difference for these little companies.
See a show
The best possible way to start your involvement with a local theater is to go see one of their shows. Find out when the next show is, purchase a ticket, and enjoy the performance. This is how local theaters support themselves, after all; ticket sales are vital to any volunteer production.
Seeing a show at your local community theater has a few added bonuses for actors as well. It gives you the opportunity to see the space you would be working in, offers insight into how productions are run, and gives you a chance to network with the local directors and your fellow actors.
Audition for a show
Another obvious way to help your local theater is to audition for a show. Though it may not seem like it, auditioning is incredibly helpful for small theaters; they often don't have large pools of actors to pull from. Widening that pool can help them diversify their casting and put on a wider variety of shows for your community to enjoy.
Beyond that, it's just really fun! Community theaters tend to be full of kind people from all walks of life who are just there because they enjoy the process of putting together a great performance. It's a lovely place to work on your confidence, hone performing skills, and make a lot of lovely stagey friends.
In my experience, finding someone who will willingly take on the workload of a set builder or costumer is a godsend. So many people focus on what the actors are doing and tend to completely forget a pearl of old theater wisdom: without offstage crew, actors are yelling lines naked in a dark, empty theater.
Offer to help your community theater by coming in on a set building day, donating props or costume pieces, helping to put the costumes together, or running lighting and/or sound. This is a surefire way to immediately be in the theater's good books.
If you want to be involved in a production but you don't necessarily want to be on the stage, consider offering to work stage crew. Stage crew helps the actors get into costume, organizes props, resets the stage before and after the show, and generally makes sure that what's happening onstage runs smoothly.
There are some shows where stage crew is almost more fun than being onstage - you might get to operate quick changes or, if you're really lucky, run special effects like "ghost" tantrums or flying that wow the audience.
Promote the theater
If you're not sure you want to get involved and you can't go see the show, then you can always show your support by promoting the theater. Talk to your friends and family about why you like it and the shows you've seen, put up posters for upcoming performances, or talk about the current season on social media.
As I said before, budgets for local theaters tend to be shoestring at best. Free advertising is the best way to get people to realize the theater is there and get them into the seats for performances. By advocating for your theater, you can help keep it open and prosperous.
Community theaters, ultimately, are not at all like professional productions, but that's what I like about them. They have such a fun, friendly environment that feels welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes, from anywhere, and encourages them to express themselves authentically just because they can.
Maybe I'm biased, but I think keeping our local theaters running is one of the best things we can do for our communities. So go out there and get involved - pick up a playbill or a script or a paintbrush and join one of these strange little families.