Being human: Examining the value of community theatre

Photo from the Anne Shirley Theatre Company's production of Sweeny Todd.
Photo from the Anne Shirley Theatre Company’s production of Sweeny Todd.

“Theatre brings to the community as a whole a sense of something larger than yourself,” said Amy Cummings, co-founder of the motley collective.

But why spend money and get out of your pj’s when you can stay home and watch Netflix?

Anyone who knows theatre well knows that theatre is not the same as TV or a movie. It’s not the same experience, it’s not the same medium. But both involve actors and many of the same jobs, so what is the difference?

Ryan Kerr, the Artistic Director of The Theatre On King, cited an immediacy to theatre due to its natural spontaneity and existence in the present: “It is a unique experience every [performance]. In the not-theatre world it’s homogenized. With theatre you never know what it’s going to be.”

“You’ll never get the same performance again,” Cummings said. “Everyone is coming in with something different from what happened that day.”

She spoke of the “symbiotic relationship” between performers and the audience and how the energy of the audience feeds the actors.

“You are there,” said writer and performer Kate Story, “You are in the present, in the moment, having an experience. I think we need that as human beings and I can’t think of many things that provide it.

“Film and TV are records of things that happened in the past. The way the brain takes in visual information is very credulous. Something you hear or read goes through a more critical part of the brain. There is a way our visual field is saturated by TV and film. Theatre engages you more critically.”

“The intimacy of theatre to me is what really differs from film and TV,” said Cummings.

English professor Stephen Brown spoke similarly: “One of the crucial things [about theatre] is someone is in the room with you. The voice is alive, its present.” He added, “Theatre affects your body first.”

Brown argued that you can’t deny the feelings a performance (including slam poetry and other live performances) evoke. Theatre is a medium for “challenging the community’s identity by reminding them of their identity.”

“[Local productions are] done by local people for local people,” said Kerr. “We live in a culture that is very isolating… There is an awful lot of expectations.”

“It’s crucial to be able to say everyone involved are your neighbours,” Brown said, “It should be the community recognizing itself.” If a show comes in from out of town, Brown stated “it’s just a travelling salesman.”

Peterborough’s history of community theatre is long and vibrant, and deserves its own article to be fully explored. But, said Cultural Studies professor Ian McLachlan, a few decades ago “Jan McIntyre from the Ontario Arts Council said ‘There’s more original theatre happening in Peterborough than in Toronto.’”

The Union Theatre saw a new show every week, and with decisions made collectively, was “the closest I’ve known to a community theatre because it was out of a genuine theatre community,” said McLachlan.

Through trial and error, Peterborough’s theatre scene has gained a lot of force, and McLachlan forced the point that “the brilliant [productions] happened because the terrible ones happened.”

As Kerr said, “Let artists experiment and fail, the better they’ll get.”

Photo of Wenjack Theatre by Keila MacPherson.
Photo of Wenjack Theatre by Keila MacPherson.

A thriving theatre community also feeds the wider artistic endeavours of the city as well as the community as a whole.

“If there wasn’t art being created locally the artists would have left,” said Kerr.

Commented Story, “There’s no way I would have come back here if it wasn’t for the performance community.”

“For every $1 you put into sports, you get $2 back. For every $1 you put into arts, you get $5 back,” added Kerr, pointing out that theatregoers will eat at local restaurants, get drinks at local bars, and generally support the downtown; thus “the more artists you have the more vibrant the downtown becomes.

“The money stays in the community. I don’t see how that can get any better.”

Kerr also spoke on the importance of the the after-show banter where audience members can talk with the actors and crew. “They also talk about what they just saw, what they’d like to see, they imagine themselves doing something.

“It creates a dialogue between the theatre artists and the public. Theatre isn’t magic … it’s hard work. But if it’s done right it looks like magic.”

As for those interested in theatre but afraid to start without any experience, Kerr said, “It’s never too late to start. Everyone has to start sometime. I started my career as a dancer at 24. … Now I have my own company.

“Art can be made anywhere and at any time and at any age.”

“In a place like Peterborough, Script Club is a perfect place to start [in theatre],” said Story. Script Club is run by Mysterious Entity on the first Thursday of every month. “You’ll find out pretty quickly what you like to do, what you want to do, how to start.”

Kerr suggested to “go see theatre and talk to people afterwards, take as many workshops as possible, see as much theatre as possible and maybe you’ll be inspired.”

Cummings said to simply go to auditions. “And if you don’t want to be on stage there’s a lot of things to do creatively. … I think there’s a role for everyone [in theatre].

“If you see a production or group that you like, contact them! Just try. Just go out. The worst thing they can say is no and it’s usually ‘no, but …’”

And if you don’t enjoy theatre after all, Cummings said, “you can take it as a learning experience no matter what.”

She believes theatre is “really cathartic. You can work through a lot of shit.”

Photo of the Showplace Performance Centre by Keila MacPherson.
Photo of the Showplace Performance Centre by Keila MacPherson.

So, theatre helps you, helps the local economy, and broadens the culture of the community.

“It’s important to have a venue where people speak in different voices,” said Brown.

“Ultimately, it’s all about art,” Kerr said, “Theatre is an art and I think it’s important for the community to have as many artistic outlets as possible.”

Founder of 4th Line Theatre Professor Rob Winslow talked about the importance of the social community fostered by theatre, and how “people do [theatre productions] as much out of a social need as anything.”

“I would consider myself outside of the norm, but with theatre I always feel I have a place,” said Cummings. “Theatre brings unity to the community. … Community theatre matters here like the rivers matter here and the trees: it’s what unites us.”

“It’s an antidote to our lives in a corporate, capitalist society,” Story said.

McLachlan spoke of current discussions on reshaping the theatre programs at Trent to be increasingly relevant to the community. In fact, a theatre degree is in the works between Cultural Studies and Indigenous Studies which would pull material from a variety of different departments.

Story encourages “students to go out and experience. It’s also good to know that there’s a critical discourse happening outside the academy.”

Added Winslow, “And I guess all theatre is community theatre, as it’s all about being human.”

About Simon Semchuk 51 Articles
Simon Semchuk writes primarily on the arts and queer issues. A third-year English major, he is also interested in theatre, literature, and fluffy animals.