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Thursday, August 15, 2013

TIPS FOR PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING A PLAY FOR COMMUNITY THEATER PRODUCTIONS

Lakewood Theater, my summer home, initially designed as a Broadway-style theater in Maine, is now kept alive by hard-working community theater folks called Curtain Up Enterprises.  Who says Community Theater has to be little?

Yesterday, I gave some valuable tips about Writing for the school theater market in a way that will help you get published (to read that article, click here).   This was a lesson for the business side of playwriting, after having done so many posts on the craft of playwriting. 

Today, I'm going to do the same thing for playwrights interested in writing plays for the community theater market.  This is a wide and deep market to tap into, just like school theater.

I want to take a brief moment to say that there is no shame in being a playwright who focuses their energy on writing for these so-called "amateur" markets.  Yes, it would be nice for everyone if their plays could have successful runs at a Regional Theater, or, dare you even hope?, an Off-Broadway or Broadway Theater!  Truth is, I know many playwrights who write for the school and community theater markets, who still have professional productions of other plays quite often.  We must remember that if you want playwriting to be your career, it is also your job, and also your business.  As Tim Kelly, one of the most prolific and vastly-published playwrights in American history once said, "On Broadway you can make a killing, but you can't make a living".  This is true.  Either you're a smash on Broadway or a failure.  There isn't much room for in-between.  (Yes, I am somewhat generalizing here, but please stay with me)  Mr. Kelly had over 350 plays published for the amateur markets, and, at the height of his career, had over 6,000 performances of his plays a YEAR.  All over the world (his plays were translated into dozens of languages).  Now, while this might not garner a playwright the same respect as a Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter (two writers I greatly admire), it will allow you to write for a living, and a six-figure living at that. 

And the truth is, it is difficult for any playwright to make a living from actually writing plays, so Mr. Kelly's advice has grown much more fascinating to me over the years. 

Let's get down to the tips.  You will notice that some of them are similar to the tips for the school theater market, but there are some important differences. 

TIP #1:  Statistically speaking, more females audition for community theater than males (why do you think Steel Magnolias is so popular in the community theater circuit?)  If possible, write more parts for females than for males.  Or, gender-flexible roles.  It has been an ongoing joke at many community theaters that I have worked at that if you're a male and come to an audition, you're most likely in. 

TIP #2:  Here are some of the popular genres for community theater, in, what I believe to be most popular to least popular:  musical, farce, comedy, mystery, "dramedy" (a comedy with some serious, poignant overtones), and drama.  There is also the ever-popular "Musical Revue" (see something like Ted Swindley's Always, Patsy Cline or Honky Tonk Angels, which are, honestly as they are billed, recession-proof).  As you can see, in my opinion, dramas are a harder sell, but, most respectable community theaters will do at least one of them per season, so they are worth writing.  Of course, I love writing dramas.

TIP #3:  While I do believe far more full-lengths are written for the community theater markets, there are community theater festivals that put on one-acts, so there is a market for one acts in community theater.  I have had two plays of mine attend festivals put on by the AACT (American Association of Community Theaters), and it is very exciting and a great way to network with other hard-working community theaters (who, by the way, put on some pretty professional-looking productions sometimes).  In fact, my play The Girl I'm Gonna Marry (read more about it by clicking here), did very well by attending one of these festivals. 

TIP #4:  Cast size is different for community theater than for school theater.  Unless a show is a musical or an adaptation of a classic (like A Christmas Carol), I don't recommend writing for a huge cast.  The reason is simple:  many people don't audition for community theater because they have jobs and kids and can't make a ton of time for other things.  It can be very difficult to cast a large play. (Obviously, there are exceptions, like Our Town or something, but it is also easier to cast a show most people have heard of than a new one).  I would not exceed 10 characters for a standard community theater straight play, and I actually try to keep it between 7 and 9, again, more females than males.  A farce in particular should be kept between 7 and 9.  Not a steadfast rule, some might disagree, but I'm talking in generalizations for this post.

TIP #5:  Community theater shows can be a bit more "racy" than high school theater shows, maybe a little bad language here and there, but I still would recommend, for community theater in-general, to keep it somewhat cleaner than an NYC theater district production.  No Mamet-like "F-Bombs" every other line.  You might get some productions, but you are shutting yourself off from a great many more.  In a sense, you should remember that you're writing for Middle America, or the grange houses and town halls as well as the Little Theaters.  Besides, the cleaner you keep it, the more likely you are to achieve...

TIP #6:  ... THE CROSSOVER PLAY.  A crossover play is a play that is not only done at community theaters, but also at high schools.  If you can keep it clean enough, and interesting enough, you may find yourself with a play that works in both markets, and increase your productions and royalties quite nicely.  The aforementioned Tim Kelly had a large number of crossover plays, as does Pat Cook, who I interviewed for this blog a while back.  (You can read that interview by clicking here--- trust me, it's worth a read if you're interested in this business)

TIP #7:  Keep the sets SIMPLE.  A unit set (one set for the entire show) or a representational set that can be moved quickly and easily to keep things flowing.  Community theaters by and large do not have huge budgets.

One last note that I think is very important.  AMATEUR THEATER (schools, community) is VITAL for our culture.  People who will never have the opportunity to see a show on Broadway or the West End, or even a Regional Theater with ticket prices of up to $50, will still be able to see their friends and family in a community theater production for $10-15.  I do not feel I am overstating when I say that COMMUNITY THEATER HELPS KEEP THE TRADITION OF THEATER ALIVE.  It is important, just as important as writing an in-depth piece of art for the more theater-going elite crowd.  You don't have to win a Pulitzer to make a difference in the field of playwriting.  Remember, Shakespeare wrote to please everyone, from the groundlings to the Queen. 

Let's keep that going, shall we?

Thanks for reading this article.  Feel free to comment below, or subscribe to my blog.  And if you want, you can even drop me a line at theater.is.a.sport@gmail.com

Until next time, remember that theater is not only a craft, or an art form, or a business--- it is also a sport.


 
                   The Center Theatre, My Home Town Community Theater in Dover-Foxcroft, ME

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