Community theater. Those two words are often wielded as a major insult by drama critics, as when they write, "It was the kind of performance you expect from community theater but not from professional actors." The stigma attached to those words is so daunting, in fact, that many community-based companies go to great lengths to avoid it, paying their actors 20 or 30 bucks for a three week run just so they can say they're professionals. Well, let's call them semiprofessionals, since most of them--like those who do community theater--all have day jobs.
But what, exactly, is so bad about community theater? Yes, community theater productions are frequently small and a bit ragtag, and they attract performers with a range of talent from excellent to not so excellent.
And that is precisely what is so good about it.
If Broadway is the major league, and such semiprofessional groups as Cinnabar and Actors Theatre are the minor league, then community theater is the neighborhood sandlot, the scrappy, beloved field of dreams where "kids" from the neighborhood gather to play their hearts out and to give the game their very best.
As a patron and sometime member of Sonoma County's community-theater community, I can say with certainty that the gutsy folks doing community theater put every bit as much effort and imagination and heart and soul into their little low-budget shows as do our local semiprofessionals and whoever it is performing with Robert Goulet in the touring production of South Pacific.
And sometimes, heart and soul is more charming and thrilling than slick, well-oiled professionalism. Those big-budget performances don't pack the same guts and heart-stopping drama as when retired police officer Dan Ramseier--who started out on the local stage with wobbly fledgling appearances in the chorus of Camelot and My Fair Lady--took on the lead male role in last season's Hello, Dolly! and turned out to be absolutely hands-down, hold-the-phone fantastic.
For SRP season ticket holders who have watched Ramseier rise up through the ranks, his initially rusty acting skills growing stronger with each new role, the theatergoing experience becomes more immediate and personal. For those of us who have acted with Ramseier, the experience is even more powerful. We know things that the audience doesn't--for example, that the evening after his wife passed away following a very long illness, Dan insisted on coming to the theater and going through the Friday night performance of Dolly. That night, he gave the most emotional, heartfelt performance of his nonprofessional career.
Such backstage stories are hardly rare and are made possible precisely because the dusty sandlot of community theater--insulted and demeaned as it sometimes is--continues, and will continue, to exist.
From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.