Community theater welcomes allby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesotans have long had a love affair with community theater. There are approximately 300 such theaters across the state, from Grand Marais to Fergus Falls to Owatonna. Many have thrived for decades. We begin our look at the success of community theater in the region at the start of any production -- auditions.
White Bear Lake, Minn. — Lakeshore Players is a mid-sized community theater located in a former church in downtown White Bear Lake. At 54 years old, it's one of the longest running community theaters in the state.
Managing Director Joan Elwell says unlike at a professional theater, when she holds auditions, she doesn't care if the people who show up have any artistic background.
"Lakeshore welcomes everyone, regardless of their level of experience," says Elwell. "It's not a scary thing to come out here and audition."
Elwell posts audition notices in the newspaper and online, and sends e-mail alerts out to a mailing list of about 400 people. Elwell says the people who show up come from the other side of the metro area, as far as Minnetonka and Eagan, and from all walks of life.
"I thought it was pretty cool," says Elwell, "we had a production of 'A Little Night Music' a couple of years ago. And we had onstage a soldier who had just returned from Iraq who'd never been in a production before, and also a woman who had just returned from New York who had been in opera! So quite a wide variety of skills and talents."
In community theaters the actors are true amateurs, in that they're in it purely for the love of the work. They don't get paid for their acting.
Some community theaters are tiny, working out of church basements. Others have annual operating budgets of $2 million or $3 million, supporting large, modern theaters.
On this night, Lakeshore Players is auditioning for its upcoming musical "She Loves Me." But since the theater is filled with rehearsals for another production, auditions are taking place down the street, at the local Masonic Lodge.
Shanta Hejmadi, 27, works in human resources. She says she used to aspire to being a professional singer, but instead has been auditioning for and performing in community theater productions for the last three years.
"It's a great outlet to perform, and it's a very low-risk kind of thing," says Hejmadi. "Singing is something I've done for a very, very long time. And I love it, but I could never depend on it to make a living. So I have my day job which pays my bills, and I do community theater for fun."
This fun involves a lot of work and commitment. In addition to having a full time job, Hejmadi is married, and loves to cook for her husband. The result is a grueling schedule for the four to six weeks of rehearsal.
"Get up, eat, go to work, come home, eat, go to rehearsal, come home, eat, go to sleep, get up, eat" intones Hedjmadi. "That's about what I do.... but it's just so much fun!"
According to Bill Muchow, president of the American Association of Community Theaters, Hedjmadi is not alone in her dedication. He says across the nation, community theaters are welcoming people who might never otherwise get a chance to be on stage.
"We think we have probably a million volunteers in community theater," says Muchow. "We have an estimated total audience of 83 million people. We believe that there are 45,000 productions a year, and 375,000 performances. This is a major activity."
Muchow says community theater is quintessentially our national theater.
By the way, a couple of days after the auditions, Shanta Hedjmadi found out she got the lead role in "She Loves Me." Even as auditions wrapped up, rehearsals are already underway at Lakeshore Players for the much beloved classic "Harvey."
- Morning Edition, 09/24/2007, 7:55 a.m.