Saturday, March 29, 2014

Community Theatre Musicals... A Lot of Work, but Definitely Worth It!

I recently had the privilege of directing the Theatre 7 production of the musical Cotton Patch Gospel.  The experience was extremely rewarding, but it was also a roller coaster ride getting there.  The demands of staging a musical can be struggle for a mostly volunteer organization like Theatre 7.  The things that make musicals a positive experience for a community theatre group can also create difficulties.  

Musicals usually require larger casts.  They are a great way to give more people an opportunity to be involved, especially those with less experience.  They can get onstage experience and learn theatre skills without taking on too much responsibility.  It may seem obvious to state that musicals require not only quality actors, but performers who can sing, and often dance.  Finding folks with these skills who also have the interest and time can be difficult.  The time commitment is significant, six to eight weeks of rehearsals.  Filling a cast with a good balance of newbies and veterans to both offer opportunities and ensure a high quality show is always the goal, yet can be a real struggle.

Because musicals have big casts and are filled with singing and dancing, they always attract larger audiences. Just about everyone loves a fun musical and family and friends love to come out to see folks they know. Larger audiences, of course, mean more money to keep the organization going.  But financially, musicals are much more expensive to stage.  More elaborate sets and costumes and much higher royalty fees drive costs up and make them riskier.

One of the biggest issues when putting together a local musical is assembling a team of talented, experienced people who may not appear on stage but are key to the success of the show, including director, musical director, choreographer, musicians, costumers, sound director.  There are a limited number of people in the Decatur area with the expertise and experience to take on these roles and they are in high demand. 

But the benefits of staging musicals far out weight the difficulties.  For me, the greatest thing about being involved in a musical is the sense of family that develops within the group over the weeks it takes to put the show together.  I’m always inspired by the talent, team work, and dedication of everyone in the cast and crew.  Closing a show is a bittersweet experience.  You’re glad to have your free time back, but you’re sure going to miss those wonderful people.  

Thank you again to the cast, crew and band... family... of Cotton Patch Gospel.

Here is a sample of the ups and downs of Cotton Patch Gospel:
  • Auditions for the show were scheduled for a Monday and Tuesday evening.  A small group of people tried out on Monday, not nearly enough to fill the cast.  The next day a snow storm hit Decatur and the Tuesday night auditions had to be rescheduled for the following Monday night.  In the mean time, phone calls, text messages, and emails went out to as many potential cast members we could think of.  Some folks were interested, but simply could not find the time in their busy schedules to be involved.
  • We held the second audition and still didn’t have everyone we needed to cast the show.  More phone calls, text messages, and emails, were made, contacting friends of friends and talented people we remembered from years ago.  
  • Finally, we had a cast for the show.  
  • The night we met to read through the script for the first time, we learned that a key actor had a sudden family crisis and was no longer available.  More calls were made and another actor was found.  We were now almost two weeks behind schedule.  
  • Within the first two weeks, we lost three members due to the demands of the rehearsal schedule. The responsibilities of those actors had to be redistributed to other actors.  
  • Another snow/ice storm caused rehearsal cancellations.
  • After a lot of dedication and hard work, and despite a shortened rehearsal schedule, the cast was ready for the stage and a live audience.
  • The show made it to the theatre just in time for cold and flu season.  Virtually every  cast member caught some sort of bug but did their best not to cough and sneeze during performances.  On the second weekend, one actor’s laryngitis was so bad the director (me) had to fill in for him during one performance.
  • No one complained and everyone brought tremendous enthusiasm to the stage every performance.
  • Did I mention that the bluegrass band was awesome!?

Jerry Johnson
Executive Director
Decatur Area Arts Council
(I've been involved with Theatre 7, Decatur's community theatre, since 1983.)