Think you’ve seen everything area stages have to offer? With professional theaters in their annual summer slowdown, community troupes offer an overlooked alternative. (Plus, it’s a cheap date.)
Putting on a DIY show means plenty of high drama
Do you long for the spotlight — and are you also willing to operate it? Don’t much care for family dinners, date nights and clean laundry? Then the community-theater lifestyle may be for you.
The Washington area is home to more than 30 grassroots companies that function as the freewheeling cousins of D.C.’s professional theaters. They are all powered by people with both an acting jones and a day job — like Mel Gilpin, who directs, acts and stage-manages for several local companies.
“It is a huge time commitment,” says Gilpin, 30, an accounting manager by day who’s directing Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” for the Accokeek, Md.-based Hard Bargain Players. (An Express editor who worked with Hard Bargain did not contribute to this story.) “People in community theater, they all really love what they’re doing or they wouldn’t do it.” That’s because the DIY limelight comes at a price: Finding a theater to rent, whipping up costumes and recruiting a cast isn’t cheap.
Hard Bargain gets creative with the building-rental issue by staging plays in the open air on Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek. This presents its own unique challenges. “I definitely did a show once where a fox walked through the audience,” Gilpin says. “If it starts raining, you get wet. Unless there’s thunder and lightning, we go on with the show. It really tests your focus as an actor.”
More established companies, such as the Little Theatre of Alexandria, founded in the 1930s, have a few more resources. LTA owns its freestanding theater, complete with a scene shop and dressing rooms, funded by membership fees and season subscriptions. “It’s not like we’re lugging sets and costumes into a rec center,” says Rachel Alberts, LTA’s governor for public relations. “It’s as close to professional theater as you’re going to get.”
What they still lack is time: The company demands a commitment of up to 21 performances per run. That’s six per week, when many theaters manage just three or four.
For the diehards, however, community theater offers excellent, built-in benefits.
“If my fiance and I didn’t do theater together, we would never see each other,” Gilpin says. “That’s how we met. If you don’t have family with you in the theater, you’re going to make one.”
These late-season community productions offer something for every taste
1) If you loved “I Wish You Love” at the Kennedy Center: That was a biography of Nat King Cole; the revue “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Elden Street Players in Herndon, Va., (through Aug. 20, $19-$22, Eldenstreet.com) celebrates the music of jazz great Fats Waller.
2) If you loved “Oklahoma” at Arena Stage: “Hairspray” at the Little Theatre of Alexandria (through Aug. 13, $25-$30, Thelittletheatre.com) has the same high energy and bouncy musical numbers. Heroine Tracy Turnblad (Shannon Kingett) sets out to dance on TV and ends up integrating 1960s Baltimore.
3) If you loved “Follies” at the Kennedy Center: Get another dose of Stephen Sondheim with “Company,” from St. George’s Players in Glenn Dale, Md. (Fri.-Aug. 14, $7.50-$15, Stgeo.org). This concept musical follows a single man deciding whether to follow in his married friends’ footsteps.
4) If you loved “Venus in Fur” at Studio Theatre: “Fat Pig” at Hard Bargain Players in Accokeek, Md. (Fri.-Aug. 20, $8-$10, Hbplayers.org) offers deep — and, at times, painful — ruminations on the intersection of desire, love and control.
5) If you loved “Night and Day” at Artisphere: “Night and Day” was a meditative play that tackled big ideas — journalism, colonialism, loneliness. “Doubt” (through Aug. 13, $10-$20, Dignityplayers.org), from Annapolis’ Dignity Players, mines similarly intense philosophical territory through the tale of a priest and a nun (Jim Gallagher and Mary MacLeod, left) locked in a political conflict.