25 Years of Community Theatre — Reflections and Projections

Over the past twenty-five years, Northeast Florida’s community theatre scene has both evolved and stayed true to its roots. Many theatre professionals have seen growth and change that parallels the region’s, and a crop of new theatre groups are bringing fresh perspectives to the local performing arts.
Arbus asked theatre representatives from all over the region to reflect on the times and project the future of our stages. Here are our questions and their answers:

For those who have been here over the past twenty-five years, in a broad sense, how has community theatre in Northeast Florida changed? Do you have one memory of theatre days past and one recent anecdote that may illustrate this?

Sarah Boone, executive director, Theatre Jacksonville: Theatre Jacksonville has seen an increase in programs and services which is due to an expansion of core staff with the addition of General Manager Michelle Kindy. Our latest significant change has been the creation of Theatre for Babies, an educationally cutting edge show for children aged three to twelve months.  It’s the first program of its kind in Northeast Florida.

Darryl Reuben Hall, CEO/founder, Stage Aurora Theatrical Company, Inc.: The depth of diverse theatre in Jacksonville has greatly and dramatically improved for the better. In 1995, Stage Aurora was the only theatre that not only presented works of diversity but also produced full seasons of African-American theatre. Pioneers embark on new territories … up for the challenge of new discoveries. It’s become a common thread throughout our city to support various works offered by the community.
There’s been an influx of local playwrights creating original plays and musicals. Personal stories are told to inspire others. Works of fiction and non-fiction are told to enlighten and educate. Our mission at Stage Aurora has always been “to enlighten the mind by way of the arts through the African-American experience.” It’s happening.

Lee Stewart Beger, Ph.D., freelance artistic director: Performance is best when the audience and actor are internally connected. They live it. Performance encourages and celebrates the live telling of story. You know our community treasures this feeling because we have at least five more community theatres than twenty-five years ago.
Memory: Shakespeare at The Met Romeo and Juliet. We stopped the show because of heavy rain. The audience of almost one-thousand huddled under the tent as actors mopped up water using actresses’ petticoats. The audience, seeing what we were doing, gave us towels, tablecloths and whatever else they had. They passed around bottles of wine and shared their picnics with each other and us. After forty-five minutes we restarted and all stood and cheered when the good guys won!
My current memory celebrates the connection between audience and actor during a talk back event following a matinée of The Laramie Project at The 5 & Dime. Most of the audience stayed and their questions to actors reflected their deep involvement with the play. They spoke of prejudice in their own lives and hope for the future.

Barbara Colaciello, artistic director, BABS’LAB: I moved to Ponte Vedra in 1993. My first community theatre experience turned me off to local theatre. It was an awkward, amateurish production of a classic play. The audience was not diverse – all white seniors. It truly discouraged me. Through the years I have seen and directed more risk-taking socially engaged theatre. If we jump to now, I recently saw two productions that were beautifully directed and acted – The Laramie Project at The 5 & Dime and The Case of the Curious Dog at Midnight at Players by the Sea. Overall, everyone has raised the bar. Better sets, trained actors, directors who know how to approach actors and theatres pushing the envelope rather than serving the status quo.

C. Suzanne Hudson-Smith, CFRE, executive director, Players by the Sea: The spirit of community theatre, as it was twenty-five years ago, is coming back to Players by the Sea. It was a theatre filled with passionate individuals who volunteered their time to create wonderful theatre. The theatre was the place to be, creating family and friends. The doors at Players by the Sea are open to everyone who wants to be part of the performance, the crew, the volunteers and, of course, the audience.

Anne Kraft, independent actor/director; member SAG-AFTRA, vice president/ treasurer, A Classic Theatre: As one of the co-founders of St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre, I well-recall how easy it was to start up in 1992 … we had no money, just a desire and a deal with a venue that we couldn’t pass up. Basically, we were the only game in town then. Today, there is the well-established Limelight, as well as A Classic Theatre plus many other cultural organizations … all vying for space to perform at an affordable ticket price for the patrons.

Lee Hamby, managing director/founder, The 5 & Dime, A Theatre Company: Theatre has made significant changes over the past twenty-five years but the biggest changes have taken place in the past ten years. There are more opportunities in our area than ever for performing artists. The biggest change has been the types of shows we are able to produce. Audiences are way more open and accepting. We are able to take more risks and do works that challenge, educate and create conversation.
In 2007, I was on staff at Players by the Sea and I had the privilege to help produce Bat Boy the musical. That risky choice of show was a game changer for our theatre community. It really showed us what modern audiences want to see and how far they are willing to go. Just last year, in 2017, The 5 & Dime theatre produced HIR by performance artist Taylor Mack. To my knowledge, this was the first show to feature a trans character in our area. We at The 5 & Dime love to tell everyone’s story. Diversity is extremely important to us, and for our audiences to see all types of actors and performers represented on our stage.

Ron Shreve, director of education, Theatre Jacksonville: Since moving to Jacksonville I have personally witnessed a consistent ebb and flow to the theatre community. We have had incredible moments of flourishing volunteers, involvement in our schools, civic engagement and social contributions through the art form. There will always be times when these things are interrupted by higher powers, whether that be political or meteorological. The theatre arts scene always finds a way to reinvent itself, rise from the ashes and continue to support any new opportunities that head our way.

Robert Arleigh White, storyteller: Today, theatre is more inclusive, accessible and relevant than it was twenty-five years ago. Productions are more provocative and issue-driven. We see more bold casting choices. I think the biggest change is that theatre, in general, is just a lot more fearless. There was a time when productions would not be offered on the same day as a football game. Now theatres know that the interests of Northeast Floridians are diverse enough to accommodate lots of interests on game days … and on school nights … and that says a lot about how we fare in a world where everyone and everything is vying for our attention and our dollars. We aren’t afraid to compete.
Our theatres aren’t shy about accessing the full palette of language to help shape and share stories the way they once were. It’s hard to think of a topic or subject matter that we haven’t had a bold look at in the form of a really compelling story or play that was offered up from a stage for an audience. And because of this, I think we are more curious about each other and willing to take chances at the theatre to explore that curiosity: we are all more fearless.

For those who are newer to the local theatre scene, what broad changes have you witnessed while active in the community here?

Boone: Although many changes have occurred; at the core things remain the same. Everyone who gets involved and contributes to our local theatre scene strives to put on excellent work while dealing with ever dwindling available resources. One resource we never seem to run out of in Jacksonville is talent!

Hudson-Smith: There is a greater awareness of theatre in the community. It is amazing to see a production at one theatre and connect with the talented actors and creative teams, then drive across town the next day to see an entirely different show with different actors and creative teams. Then, this feeling is elevated when you start to recognize artists who are working at various different theatres across town throughout the year. People are discovering how much incredible theatre we have here in town and how powerful it is.

JaMario Stills, founder/artistic director, Phase Eight Theatre Company: I’ve noticed how theater has become so much more of a common experience for locals. When I was growing up in the city, producing plays was still very niche. Local theaters have become very savvy in attracting audiences to share really special stories.

Have you found a theme or subject that seems to repeatedly, or especially, resonate with the Northeast Florida audience?

Boone: Our audiences enjoy being challenged whether it’s through comedies, dramas or musicals.  They expect to be moved by what they see on the stage. So, our work isn’t limited to one theme or subject. It’s all about strong stories that are presented well.

Hall: No particular theme or subject, other than musicals, garner the support of locals more than plays. This is not to say that plays aren’t supported. Our musicals tend to be large-scale, popular musicals. Popular plays do gain great attendance. Stage Aurora has triggered the works of August Wilson in Jacksonville.

Beger: Not a theme but a genre — comedies and musicals. Much like most mid-size cities.

Hudson-Smith: Stories that are powerful, innovative and resonate deeply with this community are typically ones that we find our audiences love. Our audiences are so hungry to be moved, to be challenged and to take part in a very important discussion.
Stills: Plays about people not typically represented in the mainstream seem to resonate. Local theater makers are very in-tune with the complexities and nuances of Jacksonville residence. I believe that connection to the city allows us to seek out pieces that reflect authenticity.

Shreve: In Jacksonville’s theatre scene there are pockets of art that resonate with certain audiences. Some playhouses are geared more towards family friendly, or edgy, or modern, etc. But the audience in Jacksonville is always looking for a shared experience with each other that you just can’t get anywhere else. Conversation, communication, those are the themes I see most repeated.

White: I would argue that the dominant theatrical theme, going as far back as the ’30s and ’40s and maybe even before then, has been about figuring out what a family is. Is it the family we are born into or can it be one we create ourselves? We’re looking for something inside that structure. And that thing might be acceptance or safety or grace or validation or even escape. We want to know: ‘where is our tribe and who else is in it?’ This is especially true today as we hear more and more about family values while there seems to be very little agreement on what those values are.
And while traditional paradigms of family life feel less and less normal, our own experiences feel more extraordinary and sensate and specific. This in turn has compelled theatres to be more creative and less literal about showing ourselves to us. As Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes magic. I try to give that to people.”

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Author: Arbus

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