Does community equal quality?by Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota has an estimated 300 community theaters across the state. They outnumber professional theaters 2-1. But community theaters often have a reputation for being of a lesser artistic standard than their professional colleagues. We ask whether that is a fair assessment.
White Bear Lake, Minn. — It's the final dress rehearsal for Lakeshore Players production of "Harvey." Usually this would be a stressful night, as the director rushes to make final adjustments. But director Michael Mikula says he's feeling pretty good.
"Dennis, the stage manager, and I have often remarked that these actors are ready," says Mikula. "If anything, we're worried we might over-rehearse or over-think the show. So I think the main thing is to see if we've found all the little elements yet."
Mikula knows however, that tomorrow night, when patrons walk in the door, he already has one strike against him.
"Everybody knows 'Harvey,'" says Mikula. This is a production that's been done over and over again in 100 different small theaters, big theaters. It's been a movie a few times -- so everybody has a preconception coming into it."
But just as Mikula knows that people in the audience probably have an image of Jimmy Stewart in their heads, he also knows that because he's directing this show at a community theater, the audience is likely to be kinder than if it were at a professional theater.
"I think the difference is the audiences are certainly more accepting in community theater," says Mikula. "They understand that you're not professional, so when they see an exceptional performance, they're warmer. And they're more forgiving, frankly."
But does that mean you're always going to get a lesser dramatic experience at a community theater than at a professional theater? Lakeshore Players Managing Director Joan Elwell insists "No."
"I have seen some professional productions that weren't nearly as good as productions I've seen here at Lakeshore," says Elwell. "We did "Music Man," we sold out every seat for every show and people loved it. I had people tell me what a wonderful production it was."
Elwell says in some ways community theater's successes are even more remarkable than those of professional theaters, because theaters like Lakeshore work with such wide-ranging talent, and only a few part-time staff working backstage.
Jiliana Sklucazek is the president of the Minnesota Association of Community Theaters. Her board meets all over the state, and as a result she gets to see a lot of community theater. She says in general, she thinks the quality is very high, due in part to people like Michael Mikula.
"A good director can often get a very fine performance out of an unschooled actor," says Sklucazek. "So directors are really important in community theater."
But Sklucazek also recognizes that community theater is not just about what happens onstage, or the review in the local newspaper. She says when she goes to see a show, she's very aware of all the honest effort behind it.
"Sometimes I think that the final result is a community experience. It's a community coming together to do this, and maybe the quality isn't important," says Sklucazek.
At the final dress rehearsal of "Harvey," quality doesn't end up being the issue. Within minutes of the actors taking the stage, a small bat began circling the theater, flying just inches from the actors and over the heads of friends sitting in the audience.
Director Michael Mikula says the actors did an excellent job of ignoring the bat, but for the guest audience invited to the dress rehearsal, it was impossible.
"It quickly became a show about a bat for half a scene," says Mikula. "I'm just glad he got tired out, and decided to take a little break."
Mikula says his worries have suddenly gone from fine-tuning the show, to pest control.
- Morning Edition, 09/27/2007, 7:55 a.m.