There's No Business Like Show Business: Theater In A Cornfield

| 10/17/2012 12:14:07 PM

"Listen, watch, enjoy, weep
Think, wonder, emote, get angry even.
Who are these perfromers up on lifes stage
That evoke any or all of these emotions?"
from "In Tribute to Entertainers" by Eric Marsh

Living in the boonies has its positive side.  Solitude and silence away from the hustle and bustle, the noise, the smog and the nasty neighbors in the city. In fact it’s one of the main reasons we choose to live in the boonies in the first place.

Of course there is always the stray whirr of an ATV splitting the air or a chain-saw a-buzz melting into the rural soundtrack of birds, crickets and frogs. But most folks prefer that sound to honks and whoosh, squealing brakes, whistles, sirens and general hub-bub of town.

But there are times we need some social stimulation. When we need to gather in one place to chat and knosh on tid-bits of gossip; national and otherwise. We need to flock and peck away at those things that annoy us and those things that make us smile.

 And one of the ways we do this is through local community theaters.

 Community theaters abound in America; from small companies of seven or eight who regale a few dozen friends in a church basement to the sprawling cities some of which host several well funded and Equity backed shows that glitter nightly to the “in” crowds.  It is just one of the many ways we have of celebrating the arts, to stretch our selves over a bit of music or the spoken word and to find joy entertaining one another and the folks who live around us.

 For several hundred years the local churches, synagogues, temples and houses of worship in America have served us well as we gather once a week or so to feel connected to something larger then all of us and to linger in church basements or in the parking lot before or after; bright hats, brushed hair and cologne mixing in the air as we exchange small talk.

Pilgrims Going To Church

It’s my guess the pilgrims tramping through an early winter snow - the men with blunderbuss cocked - dour and dark in black wool cloaks and wide brim hats with silver buckles – the women with severe white faces and pinched white bonnets – spent time in the meeting house before and after Sunday services, which, as some records show, sometimes took up the entire day, talking in “thee and thou” tones about the local crops, the Natives, the Widow Johnson or a local farmers injury, for just as today a farmers life was fraught with possible calamity. 

Some folks formed rural fraternities such as The Grange for all the farmers in the early 1800’s. The Grange or, the long title - The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry - was formed in 1867 as an organization for American farmers that encouraged farm families to band together for their common economic and political well-being and with the motto  "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

To my mind, however, it is the local community theaters that play a big role in forming a sense of rural togetherness.

Community theatre in the United States was an outgrowth of the Little Theatre Movement, which began in 1912 in reaction to the Victorian melodramatic extravagances foisted on the public, with Gilbert and Sullivan leading the way, although, earlier in 1877 the country’s oldest extant community theatre group, The Footlight Club was formed in Boston and has been performing to packed houses ever since.The Footlight Club 

There are many organizations in this country who form an umbrella in which hundreds of community theaters gather; for example, American Association of Community Theatre based in Ft. Worth Texas is a non-profit organization which supports and promotes community theaters in the U.S., its territories, and its military bases around the world.

I was privileged to appear in a couple of AACT shows while stationed with the Army in White Sands New Mexico in the mid 1960’s.  Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” garnered good reviews along with “The Fantastics”,  a show which at that time in New York about to make a run as the longest running off Broadway musical in history.

There are thousands of community theater groups in this country and you probably know of at least one in your neck of the woods which puts on shows once or twice a year.

Right now I’m occupied in rehearsing a show with “The Music Clinic Theater Company”, a talented group of folks in the nearby town of Belmont.   It’s a revue entitled “Autumn Leaves” and this weekend (October 19,20 and 21st) is the third Tom Mann With Me Singing At The Music Clinic Theater Company Last Yearanniversary of the show.  The intimate stage, complete with a warm fireplace, offers the perfect setting for the audience to listen to an hour or so of live music, from pop, to jazz and from country western to Broadway. The cast includes Laurie McDaniel, Karen Simpson, George Locke, Mark Hamer, Tom Mann, John Pelletier, and Eric Marsh.

Where I live there are at least a half-dozen amateur theater groups which present plays throughout the year, and in the summer the number is increased by several more when professional “gypsy” troupes arrive. Often they will recruit local residents to fill openings in some show.  My own son John played the part of “Winthrop Peru” when “The Music Man” marched into town one summer, and he sang with great enthusiasm as “The Wells Fargo Wagon” clattered on stage and into River City. 

My former hometown is in the thick of the tourist trade in central New Hampshire and for years “The Streetcar Company”, a community theater based in nearby Laconia has drawn on the talents of many local performers, including myself and other members of my family.

We are on the shores of historic Lake Winnipesaukee, so it seemed natural for a playwright to create a show around this wonderful natural wonder and, sure enough, some forty years ago or so “The Great Winnipesaukee Steamboat Race and Musical Talent Contest” (how about that for a title) flowed from the pen of Andrew Rosenthal and Robert Kinerk and began a “Streetcar Company” tradition.Streetcar Company Cast Performing c1984 The Great Winnipesaukee Steamboat Race 

This is the sort of musical-comedy which community theaters do so well. It’s unique “Victorian” style of dialog and songs reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan and a plot filled with local place names and towns, draw us together during the sweltering summer months and let us smile as we recognize ourselves through the action of our friends and neighbors on stage.

In talking with the current president of Streetcar CompanyStreetcar Company Cast Performing c1984 The Great Winnipesaukee Steamboat Race, I found that community theater also has unexpected benefits. Jessica Alwood met her husband while with the theater company and years ago, strangely enought, that's exactly where I met my wife. She went on to say….”our kids are growing up in the group and they are better people for it.”  She continued…” They work with people from all walks of life, all ages, genders, sexual orientation, religions and races. They acquire something from every one.”  And then she smiled as she said… “I always say they are our extended family. My kids have learned to be great public speakers, have confidence, use power tools, have picked up some basic sewing skills and learned lots of historical stuff.” 

 And Jessica brought up something that hadn’t occurred to me. Will community theatres ever fade away?  “’Streetcar’ has to work very hard to get quality people to participate in our productions”. Then she paused and continued “There are many more ways for individuals to express them selves these days, such as Youtube and other on-line outlets. We have to work harder to get folks involved and not just performers, but everything that goes into a live show carpenters, scene decorators, lighting technicians, costume design and sewing, orchestration and house management.”

However, when all is said and done, the community theaters will survive, perhaps changed a bit, but always there to provide the connection we need with neighbors and self and the chance to relax in the company of others who enjoy the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crown.

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