There is nothing more enriching than shared laughter, tears and song…
By way of introduction and to dispense with required disclaimers for columns of this nature, let me point out that I have served on the Board of Directors for Shreveport Little Theatre for the past several years and have been involved in many aspects of its mission of bringing performing arts to the broader community. As an academic historian, I am also proud to say that Shreveport Little Theatre is quite possibly the oldest continuously operating community theatre in the United States—since 1922!
Because I love the arts, I have seen a lot of theatre at every possible level of production quality. I have seen musicals and dramas and comedies on Broadway in New York, on the West End in London, and professional theatres in Chicago. I have had the privilege of full backstage tours and met cast and crew at some of New York’s grandest and finest old theatres, thanks to people I am privileged to know who are working professionally in the real “business” of show business. I have been seated in the front row of many such productions–close enough to see the spit and snot in the air because of proximity to raw emotion (the gut-wrenching sobbing of Alice Ripley in Next to Normal specifically comes to mind here) and close enough to catch a loose guitar pick of John Gallagher, Jr. during a thrilling performance of American Idiot.
I have seen many productions of national touring companies. I have enjoyed excellent conservatory student productions directed by industry professionals, because my own son has chosen musical theatre/performance as a career and is currently training in one such outstanding program in the northeast. I have enjoyed and supported various regional equity productions around the country, as well. Yes, I have been fortunate to be able to have experienced the performing arts at the highest possible levels of professionalism, expertise, and talent.
However, I am also thrilled to say I have enjoyed a lot of community theatre. Interestingly enough, it is this experience that tugs most at my heart and has provided me with some of the most memorable moments I have ever had inside a theatre.
Why community theatre?
Because it is done in a community where people share more than just a ticket to the same show, or an admiration for the talents of the same performer. Community theatre involves a big story on the stage that becomes part of the personal shared and smaller story of the community that sits in the house.
People who live and work together in the same community forge the deepest possible bonds through the arts.
There is nothing more enriching than shared laughter, tears and song to imprint the community with a shared experience that transcends our ordinary mundane civic lives. No time recently has this point been driven home to me with greater clarity than in watching Shreveport Little Theatre’s production of Shrek the Musical.
Most of us know the story of Shrek. He is an ogre–ugly, green, fat, and smelly. He was abandoned by his parents at the age of seven and left to fend for himself. Because he was persecuted for his “difference,” he isolated himself and became bitter to the rest of those around him. This would be a sad tale were it not for the friends (he reluctantly made) or for the love that was ultimately transformative. Along the way, the audience can expect to meet all sorts of odd misfits struggling for acceptance, fairy tale creatures, and even a talking donkey.
Shreveport Little Theatre has brought the musical version of this tale to the community stage through the direction of Laura Beeman Nugent and musical direction of Adam Philley. Summer seems to be the traditional time for big musicals, and this is one that is delightfully cross-generational—a posture that should be characteristic of all great community theatre. As I watched it, I could not help but be aware of the remarkable atmosphere around me. In a packed theatre, people laughed aloud and sang along without abandon. Adults and children of all ages grinned at each other—parents, children, grandchildren, friends. The youngest audience member I saw was probably three or four years old, who was seated in the lap of her elderly grandmother—and both of them knew all the words to the encore number of the evening. It wasn’t so much what I saw in the theatre that night that reminded me how much I love community theatre—it was the way I felt, both during and after.
For the harshest critics, there was much to complain about, for sure. A malfunctioning prop at one point (cleverly improvised, by the way), a missed musical note, a forgotten line. Yet there was so much that was right—some of which even had to do with what was happening on stage. The principals of Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, and Lord Farquad might have had the most music, the most lines, and the most demanding roles—all of which were quite enjoyable—but it was the ensemble of misfit fairy tale creatures who drove home the message that diversity is good and right—a thing to be nurtured in this and every community. The hysterical “Gingy” (a tortured Gingerbread cookie) emerges as an unlikely natural leader. Pinocchio reaches self-acceptance, Peter Pan decides it is okay to grow up after all, and the three blind mice overcome disability by demonstrating some mad tap-dancing skills. The message is that we are all limited most by self-perception and we are all just shades of different.
All of that makes for a pretty remarkable story set to some really fun music. However, it was in the audience that the real magic happened. We came together for an evening and were part of something bigger than any of us individually, and when it was over, we left to go home or out to eat or to have a drink—but somewhere that the conversations of community and diversity continued. Let’s see a show again, soon, okay?