While the spotlight plays on such theatrical fiefs as commercial, non-profit, "experimental," dinner, campus and "open air," one hardy form, though thriving, is overlooked.
This theatre on the purely community level, its practitioners earning their livings in diverse jobs, devoting leisure time to playmaking. Occasionally there may be one or two paid full-timers, but generally all are volunteers, from "star" players to floorsweepers and board members. The roles remain reversible, with last month's leading person being next month's latrine cleaner.
Washington has scores of such groups, varied in aims but united in diversified social texture. In community theatre, all walks of life are democratized - bankers and utility workers, teachers, waitress and social types working side by side for a mutual pleasure of putting on a play.
Many such groups belong to state, regional and national organizations and every fourth year become international through a summer festival in Monaco, where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace are patrons for a covey of international stage amateurs.
Recently I served as judge for community theaters of the Southeastern Theater Conference, the winning offering to go to national judging by FACT, the festival of American Community Theaters. Cities take turns as hosts and this year's will be the Spokane Civic Theater, June 24-26. The Spokane winner will go to Monaco for the international doings Aug. 26-Sept. 10.
There are 10 states in the SETC region: Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, SOuth Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Activities of and SETC convention, drawing about 1,500 people, cover professional university, children's and technical interests, as well as young people's auditions by scores of specialized theaters. It takes 11 pages of the program to list the events. Ages range from 14-year-olds to septuagenarians, the mix eager and energetic.
Recognizing conventionitis as a perculiarly American passion, hoteliers have been designing vast structures, virtually independent fortresses with shuttle service to other hostels, to accomodate salesmen, statisticians and I suppose, those people who devise new cuts of meat for the supermarkets. At Norfolk's Holiday Inn Scope (meaning it's across the street from the city's vast new arena), a harassed waitress remarked that "these people are the liveliest we've had since the Baptists' convention. But you never know," she added.
All SETC states except South Carolina were represented in the tourney gathered up by J. Warren McDaniel, a pharmacist of Gulfport, Miss., who took pride in knowing that this was the biggest entry list the community theaters had yet mustered. He admitted that some states were decidedly late comers to the mimeographed program but that nine states were represented and that all groups would thereby be emboldened to try harder in future. If some community theaters vanish, he claims, two more sprung up.
McDaniel's theater passion developed from a visit to the University of Mississippi's Oxford Theater where Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had played "There Shall Be No Night" in 1941. "I've been nuts about theater ever since."
Not surprisingly, groups that the state organizations had tapped for the regional finals ranged from the genially maladroit to a level superior to some professionals.
One dismaying aspect, also not surprising since professional and college theaters are as guilty, was speech. Vocal training everywhere, with rare exceptions has been nil and getting niller. Not only did many not knoe the first thing about the use of the voice, its projection, control and limitless potential, but they were ignorant of their ignorance. While community theater does exist for escape from the mundane, it could escape further through use of the actor's three tools, body, face and voice.
Choices of material are a valid indication of standards; they should suit the group and its audience. Here the rule was for nothing over 60 minutes, with an added 10 minutes to set up and another 10 to strike the set. Four groups chose two-character sketches, lasting little more than 25 or 30 minutes in a well-equipped small theater of the Chrysler Museum.
Founded only last fall in High Point, N.C., the first group picked a spoof of 19th-century melodrama. It's cast of four might have been happier with other material, for before one spoofs anything one first must be able to do that thing well.
There were two original plays. Benjamin Bradford, a physician well known for his writing avocation in southeastern theater, created a highly amusing sexual spoof, "The Washington Climax." Though several in the audience clearly were jolted, most agreed it is a neat, orginal concept and was played with spirit. The second original was from Florida's Lake Worth Playhouse, "Birdwatchers," by Barbara Allen Hite, an insightful man-woman confrontation. The setting was confined to the stage floor, a mass of brown leaves crackling as the two players moved selves and chairs about while arguing about nonexistent birds.
On their home grounds, the Blue-field (W. Va.) Summit Players use a dinner theater operation in a restored 1895 opera house, performing occasionally with a local caterer, who gets half of their $10 admission. Hairdresser Perry Blackwell proved skillful as the forgetful old man of Robert Anderson's "I'm Herbert," last play of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running." Other excerpts, a commendable resource, occupied Virginia's Lynchburg Fine Arts Center (Shisgal's "The Typists") and Georgia's Onstage Atlanta, the "Celia" act of George Furth's "Twigs."
From the Greenwood (Miss.) Little Theater came adroit staging and runner-up honors in "Feiffer's People," well chosen for nine performers' capabilities. Best of the nine was Theater Memphis in "Ravenswood," one of the two Terance McNally plays of "Bad Habits."
In the SETC area, Theater Memphis kindles envy and inspiration. Its partially paid staff and recently, its own building, put this on a level of skilled assurance. Most of the entries had had few previous performances; TM had played "Ravenswood" a dozen times and will be a worthy contender in Spokane.
All finances of such theaters are catch-as-catch can, dues, box office and whatever. Theater Memphis will have to raise money to get cast, crew and set to Spokane and the winner there will have to find funds to get to Monaco, as will competitors from the Far East, Australia and Euro pe.