Community Theatre

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Community Theatre

Community theatre represents the majority of theatres in the United States, including community playhouses and university and college programs. Although the term "community theatre" has disparate meanings the term can be applied generally to theatres—whether professional or not—that draw from their communities. The history of community theatre offers a unique perspective on the struggles between artistic endeavors and commercial profit in theatrical productions. While once a product of a movement to improve the artistic quality of theatrical productions, by the end of the twentieth century community theatre had become a venue more for community participation in the arts than a fertile source of avant-garde theatrical productions.

The roots of community theatre can be traced to the "Little Theatre" movement that started in the 1910s. The movement came as a reaction to the monopolistic "Syndicate" theatre system as well as an attempt to join the growing discourse about non-commercial theatre. According to Mary C. Henderson in her book, Theater in America, "The 'little-theater' movement, launched so spectacularly in Europe in the 1880s, finally reached America and stimulated the formation of groups whose posture was anti-Broadway and noisily experimental."

By 1895, touring companies became the primary source for theatrical entertainment in the United States. Theatrical producers Sam Nixon, Fred Zimmerman, Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, Marc Klaw, and Abraham Erlanger saw the opportunity to gain control of the American theatre and formed what came to be called "The Syndicate." The Syndicate purchased theatres across the country and blacklisted ones that refused to cooperate with its business practices. By 1900, the Syndicate monopolized the American theatre scene, and between 1900 and 1915, theatre became a mainly conservative and commercial venture. Due to public dissatisfaction, Frohman's death, and an anti-trust suit, the Syndicate system became largely ineffective by 1916.

During this period many of Europe's finest independent theatres began touring the United States; these included the Abbey Theatre (1911), the Ballets Russes (1916), and Théâtre du Vieux Colombier (1917-1919). Robert E. Gard and Gertrude S. Burley noted in Community Theatre that "Their tour aroused the antagonism of American citizens against the feeble productions of the commercial theatre, and seemed to be the catalyst that caused countless dramatic groups to germinate all over America, as a protest against commercial drama." In addition, the end of World War I led to a greater awareness of the European theatrical practices of France's Andre Antoine, Switzerland's Adolphe Appia, England's Gordon Craig, and Russia's Vsevelod Meyerhold and Konstantine Stanislavsky.

The publication of Sheldon Cheney's Theatre Arts Magazine (1916) helped to broaden audiences for non-commercial theatre and influenced its readers' thoughts surrounding commercial theatre. In 1917 Louise Burleigh wrote The Community Theatre in Theory and Practice in which she coined the phrase "Community Theatre" and defined it as "any organization not primarily educational in its purpose, which regularly produces drama on a noncommercial basis and in which participation is open to the community at large." Other publications such as Percy MacKaye's The Playhouse and the Play (1909) extolled the merits of "a theatre wholly divorced from commercialism."

During this time several little theatres established themselves. These included the Toy Theatre in Boston (1912); the Chicago Little Theatre (1912); the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York (1915); the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts (1915); the Detroit Arts and Crafts Theatre (1916); and the Washington Square Players (1918). By 1917 there were 50 little theatres, most of which had less than 100 seats and depended upon volunteers for labor and subscribers for financial support. By 1925 almost 2,000 community or little theatres were registered with the Drama League of America. In her essay "Theatre Arts Monthly" and the Construction of the Modern American Theatre Audience, Dorothy Chansky observed that "The common goals of all these projects were to get Americans to see American theatre as art and not as mere frivolity."

Eventually, drama programs were introduced into colleges and universities. In 1903 George Pierce Baker taught the first course for playwrights at Radcliffe College and by 1925 he had established the Yale School of Drama, which provided professional theatre training. Graduates of Baker's program included such noted theatre artists as playwright Eugene O'Neill and designer Robert Edmund Jones. In 1914, Thomas Wood Stevens instituted the country's first degree-granting program in theatre at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. And by 1940, theatre education was widely accepted at many universities in the United States.

Community theatre was also aided by government support. As part of F. D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), The Federal Theatre Project was established in 1935. Headed by Hallie Flanagan Davis, the project employed 10,000 persons in 40 states. During this time 1,000 productions were staged and more than half were free to the public. Despite its mandate to provide "free, adult, uncensored theatre," the political tone of some productions eventually alienated members of Congress and funding was discontinued in 1939. In 1965, however, the federal government established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and also facilitated states in establishing individual arts councils. This, coupled with the inclusion of theatres as non-profit institutions, helped many community thea-tres remain operational. By 1990, the NEA's budget was cut drastically, but community theatres continued to thrive at the end of the twentieth century despite economic hardships.

Although the artistic ideals of the "Little Theatre" movement have been assumed by larger, professional regional theaters, the drive to produce theatre as a voluntary community activity remains solely in the realm of the community theatre. Though most community theatres no longer feature daring experimental works—offering instead local productions of popular plays and musicals—community theatres remain the most common source for community involvement in the theatrical arts.

—Michael Najjar

Further Reading:

Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. 7th ed. New York, Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Burleigh, Louise. The Community Theatre. Boston, Little Brown, 1917.

Chansky, Dorothy. "Theatre Arts Monthly and the Construction of the Modern American Audience." Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Vol. 10, Winter 1998, 51-75.

Gard, Robert E., and Gertrude S. Burley. Community Theatre: Idea and Achievement. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1975.

Henderson, Mary C. Theater in America: 250 Years of Plays, Players, and Productions. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Macgowan, Kenneth. Footlights Across America: Towards a National Theater. New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1929.

MacKaye, Percy. The Playhouse and the Play: Essays. New York, Mitchell Kennerley, 1909.

Young, John Wray. Community Theatre: A Manual for Success. New York, Samuel French, 1971.