Monday, March 15, 2010

Community Theater—Visible Sign of Probable Culture

Today's opinion piece in Small Town Newspaper is about the theater. Our Little Theatre performs several shows a year, and it's a shame they can't do more. We don't take full advantage of this thing our town sometimes overlooks, but I'm inspired to go to every single show from here on out. Olivier's quote about how a village's theater reveals "probable culture" makes me grin a bit, because lots of people around here think we lack culture of any sort. I once overheard a musician at My Favorite Place for Joe complaining about that very thing and saying he could find more culture in a cup of yogurt than he can find in this town.

I prefer to see the Little Theatre as a visible sign he's wrong.


My daughter and I recently accompanied my husband on a business trip to New York City. During the day, we amused ourselves around town, but in the evenings, we all met up for dinner and a show. As much as I enjoy reading and could watch movies from sun up to sun down, for me, there is nothing like the experience of live theater.

We saw “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller’s younger years when she was first learning the concept of language. A moving narrative in any form, this production starred Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller and Alison Pill as Anne Sullivan; and it was performed in the Circle in the Square, a small Broadway theater with an intimate setting. As you would imagine from the theater’s name, the round stage is in the center of the auditorium, with each seat offering an up-close view.

No matter your spot in the theater, you are so close to the actors, you can see their subtlest facial expressions and detect each nuance of their delivery. You can see them sweat in heated scenes, feel their footsteps as they enter and exit and hear even their breathing as they demonstrate the story in front of you. You feel as though you are not just in the audience but right there in the scene with them, as if they might be talking directly to you instead of just speaking in your presence.

After the performance, the actors changed out of costume and came back on stage for a question-and-answer session. Audience members asked specific performers how they prepared for their roles and developed their southern accents. The young star talked about the physical aspects of playing a deaf and blind child who was prone to tantrums, and the director discussed how she went about making a unique production out of such a well-known story.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days in New York City and experiencing a moving play in such a personal setting. But here’s the thing: we don’t have to travel to experience live theater. Broadway is a treat, but The Little Theatre in New Philadelphia is our own local gem. I was reminded of that as I left the auditorium in New York and wondered about my next opportunity for live theater.

My husband and I saw The Little Theatre’s recent production of “Cinderella” and found it charming and enjoyable, a satisfying experience. The actors may not have the star power of some of those working on Broadway, but they each delivered a convincing and natural performance. The chorus members may not all be in high demand as some performing in larger cities, but their singing was strong and impressive. After the show, the cast members gathered in the lobby as always to personally greet each person in attendance, to answer questions and to receive some well-earned praise.

Our own community theater’s venue is intimate with every seat affording you a personal connection with the performers as you become engaged in their storytelling. You can make eye contact with them and follow their every move; and you can appreciate the audience reaction when, for example, the prince first kisses the lovely Cinderella, and the little girls in attendance giggle and sigh.

Our own community theater is where our friends, co-workers and neighbors perform and direct and work back stage, every one of them a volunteer. It’s where we can all pitch in with not just financial contributions but with service work like ushering, ticket sales, set design or costume creation.

Sir Laurence Olivier said, “I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theater is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.” While experiencing live theater on Broadway is indeed special, our own local theater is special as well, serving as a visible sign of culture in this community.

Its name belies its importance to our community, as if it might be slight or insignificant, but I believe The Little Theatre is a big source of significant local pride. I look forward to the next live theater experience it will provide, and I won’t have to travel far to see it.


kyle@sift said...

You'll be pleased to know The Little Theater just got a grant to install a new HVAC system to replace the 47 year old system they currently have.

I tend to agree with the musician you quoted. The Little Theater has been around a long time but always as a struggling entity. I think the miniscule amount of culture we do have in Small Town/s has always existed by the skin of its teeth and only because voulnteers make it happen.

You'd think that would be a glimmer of hope but the glimmer has been steadily getting its shine rubbed off for forty years.

People like that musician, whom I know, could be making culture thrive in our area but instead he sits in the coffee shop all day critisizing everything.

I make culture. It's the only way it will survive here.

Great story. Robyn.

Scout said...

Yes, you do know that musician. I understood his comment in the context at the time. It wears on you after awhile, or at least on him.

MmeBenaut said...

So glad that you and the family had a fabulous time in NYC. I agree, live theatre is fabulous. I went to a show with my girlfriends last week and there was acting, singing and dancing; all by Aboriginal actors. The story was written by an Aboriginal man too. It was the best show I've seen since 42nd Street! There was also a Q & A session afterwards with the actors and also the musicians who accompanied all the songs. I heard some fantastic Sax playing too and had the opportunity of personally thanking the musician. It was a wonderful night.