Watching Your Priest Do “Jazz Hands,” and Other Reasons Why Community Theatre is Awesome

Gimme the ol’ razzle dazzle– the lights, the glamor, the glitter of show business. Then take it down about 50 notches, put it in a tiny theatre in suburbia or in a high school multipurpose room, and make the actor playing the leading man double as my neighbor’s dad who mows his lawn while wearing a sweaty bathrobe. I’m talkin’ about community theatre, my friends, one of the finest– and cheapest– forms of entertainment in this world. As both a former participant and still frequent patron of any play with tickets that cost under $20, I can tell you that you need not brave the lines in Times Square (and still pay $80 for half-price tickets) to get your theatre fix– you simply need to support your local amateur acting troupe.My love affair with amateur theatre began in sixth grade Social Studies, where my teacher, Ms. Peters, made us write and perform plays about ancient cultures. Ms. Peters was the scariest lady ever– not only did she wear those perplexing foam mini-visors with the coil-y elastic backs, she lived in an RV which she parked behind our classroom, and kept her muumuus in filing cabinets. She was also a major crabbypants and made preteens cry on the regular. Anyway, Ms. Peters must have felt like she missed out on a life of stardom, because she stage mom-ed 12 year olds into gesticulating and hitting high notes like we were NYU Musical Theater majors or something. As terrified as I was of that Hawaiian print-covered shrew (who, side note: permanently instilled elbow anxiety in me by ostracizing all of the lefties in class to one table so our “elbows wouldn’t get in the way of everyone else”), that fear disappeared when I got to wear a purple kimono and play a Chinese princess (my junior high was a bit culturally insensitive), or help change the lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “I Heard it Through the Castle Walls.” The pieced-together costumes and exaggerated pretend-playing in our class plays captivated me. I was totally hooked on community theatre.

Community theatre is mostly amazing because no one in the productions are professional actors, and a lot of them don’t want to be. This not only virtually guarantees the ridiculous over-acting that one expects from low-budget theatre, but makes the actors much more multi-faceted. Most community theatre participants lead double lives as Average Joe science teachers, soccer moms, or Barnes & Noble employees– amateur acting is but one fake jewel in their Burger King crowns. However, once they’re onstage, enveloped in the soft glow of the spotlight and the itchy fabric of their hand-me-down costumes, their mediocre day-to-day lives melt away. A Star, shall we say, is Born.

My fondest memory of this Clark Kent-style thespianism comes via the Felicita Pageant, a community production commemorating the supposed founding of my hometown. The storyline was a flagrant rip off of Disney’s Pocahontas– Spaniards come to California and clash with the indigenous peoples, until the chief’s daughter falls for Mel Gibson and everyone historically inaccurately makes peace. This play featured bad lip synching and an unstoppable cross-section of the community– including the local Catholic priest, who really stretched his acting skills by portraying the friar who tames Felicita’s heathen ways. Not only did he get his own song– which he chirped with glee as he delicately flitted about the stage in his sparkly robes– the priest chose to choreograph his performance by repeatedly throwing holy water on the audience. My friend and I thought that this display was so disastrously offensive that we naturally had to attend every showing for the production’s entire run.

Besides showcasing closeted men-of-God frolicking around amphitheaters, community theatre offers a much more intimate experience than it’s big budget counterpart. Theaters are smaller, stage sets more slapdash, and makeup so unprofessionally applied that some actors could be mistaken for contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Yep, the whole spectacle can be over-the-top sometimes, but that’s what makes it great! Community players are really puttin’ it all out there with a minimal budget and little acting experience– that takes guts, people! Honor them for their bravery! Besides, you can’t make fun of them, anyway– the theaters are tiny and they can totes hear you in the audience (something I learned the hard way by snarking on a guy who had what I thought was a horrible fake accent, but later found out had gotten into acting to overcome his speech impediment, cringe).

Lastly, you should support low budget theatre because, every once in awhile, you get to see the Next Big Things before they are stars. Like my friend, George, who discovered his passion for the spotlight during a Ms. Peters original sixth grade production. Through high school, I watched little Georgie– a 110 pound imp of a man with curly blonde hair– struggle to tame that large piece of lighting equipment, and change colors and dimness levels with the flick of a pale, elven wrist. But like David with Goliath, his persistence– and delicate frame– prevailed: Georgie’s now gone Vegas and does lighting for Cirque du Soleil, which I imagine to be the pinnacle of all professional lighting opportunities. Go, George!

So community theatre is cheap, let’s you get all up-close-and-personal with actors, and allows you to see your priest in an entirely different light. It gives your motor home-bound teacher her time to shine, and sometimes propels the chosen few into real-life Las Vegas stardom. In short, community theatre makes the world a better place. So next time you’re looking for a night of entertainment– try attending (or starring in!) a local theatre production. Because nothing’s better than jazz hands– especially when their wiggling in a combination theater/cafeteria/old people aerobics room at your neighborhood rec center.

Photo credits: Whittier Community Theatre, Songbook

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About the author

Carrie Laven - Pretty Penniless

Carrie Laven is a natural-born storyteller from California, but she lives in New York now. She likes dogs, nail art, and Mexican food, but mostly she likes scoring sweet deals at thrift stores. She tends to have a flair for the dramatic.

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