Many Musical Theatre U readers are just starting their acting careers, or could be considered pre-professional. After graduating out of a high school or college level theatre program, what's next? If you're lucky, you might get cast immediately into paid, professional work. However, the majority will work their way up the ladder, just like any other career, and move from lower status jobs gradually up to paid and leading roles. Often, that ladder begins with community theatre, a natural step after a high school or college program. Let's discuss what it's like to participate in a community theatre production, what kind of situations you'll encounter, and how to make the most of it.
Pro: community theatre is an excellent place to get experience in a low pressure environment. It can be daunting to walk into an acting gig when you're brand new to the profession. You don't know all the tricks of the trade yet, what's expected of you as an actor, and how to deal with directors and colleagues. Community theatre organizations are usually a more forgiving environment and can relieve some of the stress that new actors feel when taking on a role. For example, you most likely won't be chewed out if you're a little late getting off book or if you can't pick up the choreography at lightning speed. It is understood that no one is getting paid, everyone has other jobs and commitments, and you'll do the best you can with the resources you have.
Con: low pressure sometimes means low quality. While it's comforting to know that you're under less pressure, keep in mind that may also mean that the production quality could suffer and you'll need to make peace with it. How much it suffers depends on the team of directors, how experienced the actors are and what skills they bring to it.
Pro: you'll work with a lot of dedicated, enthusiastic people who are there for the joy of it. Community theatre participants are obviously not there for the money, they are there for the fun and fulfillment of making theatre. This makes for great positive energy within your cast and crew.
Con: you'll work among a variety of skill levels, which may be much different than yours. Just because someone is joyfully participating doesn't mean they will have a lot of, or sometimes any, experience. Skill levels usually vary widely within a cast and crew, and you could be at either end of that spectrum, so be prepared. It will feel uncomfortable at first but you'll adjust.
Pro: you'll get to closely experience the extraordinary creativity of designers on small budgets. There's nothing like an empty bank account to show you how creative and resourceful people truly are. One of the things I was most impressed with when I participated in community theatre was how brilliantly the set designer created an entire show with just three pieces of furniture that rotated, changed, and evolved endlessly to depict so many different environments. It was genius.
Con: small budgets mean extra work and effort on the part of every cast and crew member. You won't be paid, you might need to provide your own full or partial costume, and you might need to pitch in with technical aspects of the show due to lack of staff. However, if you can look at this as a learning experience, it will be much more positive for you. You're new to this business, and any opportunity to learn about costuming, lighting, sound or other elements can only make you a better actor.
Pro: you'll get to mingle with people from all walks of life and learn from their theatrical career paths. Even more so than professional theatre, community theatre attracts an incredibly wide range of cast and crew members that you can learn from. Ask them questions about why they are involved in community productions, what their goals are, how they've educated themselves, what tools they recommend, and network network network!
Con: you'll find cast members tend to be more caught up in drama, badmouthing their directors and fellow actors, throwing fits about their costumes, etc. As amateur actors, sometimes community theatre participants are simply unaware that this behavior is unprofessional and unacceptable. Sometimes it's a matter of age, with younger actors building their resume, or sometimes it's older people who are just plain out of line. Stay out of this drama as much as possible, as it will reflect poorly on your reputation as you grow into future opportunities.
Verdict: after weighing the pros and cons, I highly recommend participating in community theatre as a resume builder. It is a great way to network with other actors who share your goals, meet directors who can refer you to their colleagues for future productions, dabble if you're not sure acting is the career for you, or get your feet wet to prepare yourself for paid work. At the end of the day, you'll being doing what you love, which is making great theatre, and usually having a lot of fun while doing it.
Get experience. If acting as a career is truly your goal, you will use community theatre experience only as a stepping stone to professional venues. Get there faster by studying acting skills specifically for musical theatre performers with our eBook, Sensational Songs and Scenes. Try community theatre for yourself and see if it suits you. Before auditioning, pick up our Guide to Audition Success and snag yourself a role!
For more information about community theatre, visit the American Association of Community Theatre, where you'll find information on advocacy, festivals, lists of theaters in your area, management advice, and more. Also check out the Theatre Geeks, a top rated podcast for community theatre, also featured on MTU's list of best podcasts for musical theatre actors.
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