Stretching the Community Theatre Envelope

Community Theatre, as the name would suggest, is about community. A gathering of kindred spirits who thrive on the high-octane thrill of putting on a show. Community Theatre is a stir fry recipe of enthusiastic people who volunteer their time to act, direct, write, help back stage or push buttons on a sound or lighting console. It is mad cap comedies with slamming doors, bug-eyed faces and precision timing. It is musicals with elaborate costumes and voices that float in the ears of an audience. It is improvisational theatre with enough left turns to leave the viewer spinning in circles. It is thought provoking dramas with finely crafted phrases and emotions that are brought to a slow simmer. This notion of community got me thinking of how that extends beyond a small defined group.

There is of course the community of a single show: the cast and crew. People audition; people memorize lines. Directors guide. Light technicians tweak. But that is not the end of community. There is also the community of those who attend the show. The back and forth sharing of that experience. Actors will often relate how an audience “feels” to them after the first scene. “It’s a good crowd tonight.” The audience in return, hopefully, gets lost in the world up on the stage. There is also the community of theatre groups. Working in concert with each other. And then, there is the greater arts community. Artists / creatives who dance, sing, paint or create in a dozen different ways, but whose paths have increasingly cross-pollinated with theatre groups in the Brantford / Brant area. This final community is what fascinates me and what I work on developing.

Building Our Community

The Brantford / Brant area is blessed with a plethora of community theatre groups, each with its own unique voice and focus. Some of them are fresh new upstarts, while others have been labouring behind the curtains for countless years. And while they all face challenges (usually in finding facilities or audiences) there is a real sense of camaraderie: of shared struggles but, more importantly, of shared enthusiasm for putting on a show. That enthusiasm goes beyond simply patting each other on the back. There is a deeper albeit, for the most part, unspoken sense of being in sync with each other. It manifests in both practical ways and in ways that step beyond the traditional boundaries.

In practical terms, theatre groups share a pool of physical resources. One group might lend another some curtains. Another group shares costumes, or furniture, or staging, or props. And human resources are shared too. Actors move from one theatre group to another depending on the show that catches their fancy. A board member of one theatre company directs a show for another, or a writer puts together a script for another troupe’s festival. Theatre groups also share ideas, insights and experiences.

Martin Smith of ICHTHYS Theatre promoting Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death on Inside Brant

I think perhaps it is that sense of community between theatre groups, that has fostered a sense of greater community within other art forms. In February, I was attending a show for a play called Harvest in Paris. The script and acting were amazing and the stage was remarkable. It was a wondrous night of theatre. But, there was something a little extra going on that inspired me. During the intermission a fiddler by the name of Cindi Devereaux was playing. Paris Performers’ Theatre could easily have just put on a musical recording to create a background atmosphere but, instead, they brought in another local artist. It was terrific music and a terrific way to connect two artistic worlds and to deepen the reach of each. In March, ICHTHYS Theatre’s Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (2017) showcased the paintings of David Wierzbicki, who later went on to win the Art Battle Brantford competition. Stage 88’s The Most Massive Woman Wins (2017) featured a crooning Dan Anderson singing classics in the style of Sinatra. He was dapper to say the least. Whimsical Players put on a Super Hero show during the International Villages at the New York, New York location; it was cheesecake and beefcake. The Brant Improv Festival featured the singer Joan Minnery, the band See You Next Thursday, a fashion improvisation from The Closet Door and two different painters. The recent Day on the Grand, the end-of-summer festival presented by the Brantford Arts Block, featured painters, musicians, actors, poets and much more.

To me, this is taking that extra step as a community, beyond the fellowship of cast and crew in a show. Beyond the relationship of a production with an audience. Beyond the alliance of one theatre group lending another theatre group their wooden fence for a scene in a play. This is one art form joining hands with another art form. I think it should make Brantford / Brant proud. When you walk into a show and you see the photography of Heather Cardle or perhaps live musicians playing, it is a sign of a healthy relationship between creative worlds. And, at least to my eye and ear, this phenomenon has been growing organically and strongly in Brantford / Brant in the past decade, which is most encouraging. Through no great blueprint or long-winded discussion, different arts communities are coming together to support, to encourage, to enjoy. It is a sign of very good things to come.