Guide to Leading Community Theater

Innovate your theater

Learn how you can bring more spectators via better accessibility into your theater:
How does it work?

Introduction

Community theater refers to theatrical performances produced by local, amateur performers and volunteers. Unlike professional theater, community theater relies on non-professional actors, directors and crew members from the community to put on productions.

This guide provides an in-depth look at all aspects of running and participating in community theater. It covers the history of the community theater movement, the benefits for both participants and audiences, and practical advice on starting and maintaining a community theater program.

The purpose of community theater is to provide an inclusive, accessible outlet for creatives in a local area to express themselves through the performing arts. Community theater builds connections between people of diverse backgrounds who come together in service of a shared goal - putting on the best show possible. Beyond entertainment, community theater fosters learning, growth and community engagement. This guide aims to support theater professionals in harnessing these special qualities of community theater.

History of Community Theater

Community theater in the United States has its roots in the Little Theatre Movement that emerged in the early 1900s as a reaction to the large-scale productions of Victorian melodramas. The Little Theatre Movement began in cities and emphasized literary works over formulaic plays, staging performances in small, intimate theaters [https://aact.org/community-theatre-history].

The first documented Little Theatre group was The Dearborn Independent in Chicago, which formed in 1907. Over the next decade, hundreds more community theatre groups sprung up around the country [https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/community-theatre].

Key developments in community theater history include:

  • 1912: The Drama League of America forms to support fledgling community theater groups.
  • 1915: The first national community theater conference is held in North Dakota.
  • 1919: The American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) forms to foster community theater.
  • 1920s-1930s: Federal government support leads to growth of community theaters during the Great Depression.
  • 1960s-1970s: Community theater grows rapidly across suburbs and small towns.

Today there are an estimated 7,000 community theaters across the U.S., offering a mix of locally produced and published plays [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_theatre].

Benefits of Community Theater

Community theater provides many benefits for the participants, audiences, and the community as a whole.

For Participants

Participating in community theater offers many benefits for those involved behind the scenes and on stage. It provides an outlet for creative expression and the chance to develop skills in acting, singing, dancing, set design, costuming, and more (Community Theatre's Impact | AACT). Rehearsing and performing helps build self-confidence, communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and teamwork (5 Reasons Community Theatre is So Important). The shared experience creates camaraderie and lasting friendships. Community theater is inclusive and provides opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Theatre Organizational Chart
Theatre Organizational Chart

For Audiences

Attending community theater productions entertains and brings joy to audiences. It exposes them to the performing arts locally and provides an alternative to professional theater. Audiences get to support friends, family, and neighbors performing on stage. The affordable tickets make live theater accessible. Attending shows helps build a sense of community and pride in local talent.  

For the Community

Community theater boosts the local economy, creates jobs, and generates revenue for businesses near the theater. It provides volunteering opportunities and brings people of diverse backgrounds together. Putting on productions keeps historic theaters active and preserves performance spaces. The arts education programs foster creativity in children. Overall, a vibrant theater scene makes the community more attractive and culturally rich.

How to Start a Community Theater

Starting a community theater takes passion, commitment, and organization. Here are some key steps to get your theater up and running:

Assess Interest

Before diving in, make sure there is enough interest in your community to sustain a theater company. Consider surveying residents or holding an informational meeting to gauge involvement 1. Determine if you have a core group willing to devote time to launching and maintaining the theater.

Find a Space

Secure a performance venue and space to store sets/props. Look into renting a school auditorium, church, or community center. Make sure the space meets your needs for seating capacity, lighting, backstage area, etc. Investigate if any local spaces are willing to donate use of their venue.

Develop Organizational Structure

Decide on a leadership structure - will you be volunteer-run or have paid staff? Form committees to divide up tasks like fundraising, production, etc.  Incorporate as a non-profit to establish legal protections and nonprofit status. Create by-laws, mission statement, production proposal/review processes.

Fundraise & Budget

Research grants, hold fundraisers, solicit local business sponsorships and donations. Create a startup budget accounting for rights, sets, costumes, marketing, etc. Ongoing, develop an annual budget forecasting expenses. Build a membership base through seat sales, classes, donor drives.

Choosing a Play

Choosing the right play is one of the most important decisions when planning your theater season. There are several key factors to consider when selecting shows:

  • Cast size - Consider the number of roles available and the demographics of your volunteer base when choosing show size. For a small community theater, opt for shows with flexible casting and smaller casts.
  • Production requirements - Evaluate the production requirements like sets, costumes, lighting needs, etc. Choose shows that your theater has the resources and budget to successfully produce.
  • Audience appeal - Select titles that will interest your typical audience based on past productions. Balance classic crowd-pleasers with fresh, modern works.
  • Theme and season variety - Curate a diverse season with shows of different styles, genres and themes. Vary serious dramas with comedies, or alternate periods and settings.
  • Rights and royalties - Research rights availability, rights holders policies and royalty costs before selecting shows. Amateur rights may dictate allowed changes, ticket pricing and more.

Picking the right mix of shows allows a community theater to serve its volunteers and supporters while remaining financially sustainable over a season.

Auditions and Casting

When and where to hold auditions

Holding auditions at the right time and place is crucial for attracting talent. Consider holding auditions 1-2 months before rehearsals start, allowing enough time for casting and rehearsal prep. Popular audition locations include local theaters, schools, and community centers that are accessible to your target talent pool (www.backstage.com/casting/open-casting-calls/theater-auditions/). Widely promote audition dates and registration details 3-4 weeks in advance through online casting sites, local papers, flyers, and social media.

Designing audition notices and forms

Create detailed audition notices listing the production name, audition date/time/location, character breakdown, director info, and registration instructions. Provide audition forms asking for contact details, schedule conflicts, performing experience, and special skills. This helps capture key information upfront to streamline auditions and casting NJ Community Theatre Auditions facebook group.

Auditioning tips

At auditions, greet all talent warmly and maintain an organized flow. Provide sides for cold readings relevant to characters. For musicals, accompany singers and provide sheet music options. Allow actors to present 1-2 contrasting monologues showing acting range. Provide calm redirection as needed. Record auditions for later review. Dismiss actors graciously, allowing time for Q&A.

Casting considerations

When reviewing auditions, focus on acting/singing abilities first before "type." Seek talent that embodies characters, not just physical appearance. Aim for diverse casting representing your community. Double cast roles with understudies for continuity. Notify all auditionees promptly about casting decisions, offering future production invites.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals are a critical part of putting together a successful community theater production. Here are some best practices for running effective rehearsals:

Creating a Rehearsal Schedule

Rehearsal Space

  • Secure a dedicated rehearsal space like a dance studio, theater, or conference room. Avoid public spaces.
  • Make sure the space has enough room for actors to move around and the set if possible.
  • Provide seating, lighting, accessibility, parking, amenities like water/restrooms.

Working with Actors

  • Start with table reads, blocking, and character work, then run entire acts.
  • Encourage focus, collaboration, open communication among cast.
  • Respect actors' time by starting/ending on schedule. Take breaks.

Giving Feedback

  • Praise what's working well first. Sandwich criticisms between positives.
  • Avoid judgmental language. Suggest improvements without attacking.
  • Focus notes on characters, objectives, movement - not the actor.
  • Let actors ask questions. Make sure directions are understood.

Directing

The director has the challenging task of bringing together the many complex pieces of a production—the script, actors, set, costuming, lighting and sound—and unifying them into a coherent artistic vision. Some key responsibilities of the director include:

  • Analyzing the script thoroughly to understand the story, characters, themes, and the playwright's intent. The director develops their own interpretation of the play and decides on an overall vision for the production (Director | AACT).
  • Conducting auditions and casting actors appropriate for each role. This requires understanding what dramatic qualities and skills each role demands.
  • Leading rehearsals effectively. The director guides the actors through character development, blocking, and polishing scenes. They communicate their vision while allowing actors room for creative interpretation and collaboration (The Real Skills You Should Look For In A Stage Director).
  • Collaborating with the design team on all visual and technical elements. The director approves set, costume, lighting, and sound designs to match their artistic concept.
  • Providing notes and direction to fine-tune performances. The director identifies areas for improvement and growth during the rehearsal process.
  • Overseeing the stage manager and production process. The director ensures all elements come together for tech rehearsals and opening.
  • Making final decisions about artistic choices. The director has ultimate say on interpretation, acting style, design, pacing, and more.

Strong communication and leadership skills are essential for directors. They need to translate their vision clearly, listen to feedback, and motivate their team. Patience and organization are also vital to juggle diverse tasks on a tight timeline. Mastery of drama and storytelling techniques helps create impactful theater. Overall, an effective director brings together diverse artists and elements into a unified production.

Stage Production

A successful stage production requires careful planning and coordination of set design, lighting, sound, costumes, and props.

Set Design

The set design brings the world of the play to life. Community theaters often have a limited budget, so creativity is key for an effective set on a shoestring. Consider using basic platforms and levels to establish different locations, along with backdrops or digital projections to establish the backdrop. Modular set pieces can be moved for scene changes. Work with the director early to determine the minimal elements needed to support the story and action of the play.

Lighting  

Lighting helps set the mood and atmosphere. While elaborate lighting rigs may be out of reach, effective lighting can be created with floor lights, spot lights, LED stage lights, and creative use of household lamps and string lights. Coordinate colors and cues with the set design and costumes. Rent or borrow extra lighting equipment as needed for an impactful design.

Sound

Sound design includes considerations like pre-show and intermission music as well as sound effects during the performance. While hiring a sound designer may not be feasible, recruit a tech savvy volunteer to operate sound equipment and coordinate sound cues. Basic speakers and a laptop or tablet can provide sufficient audio for most productions.

Costumes

The costumes help the actors inhabit their roles and reflect the time period and style of the play. Thrift stores, garage sales, and your own closets can yield costumes and accessories on a tight budget. Coordinate colors and styles with the director's vision. Allow ample time for fittings and alterations as needed.

Props

Props help make the environment of the play seem real. Borrow and repurpose as many everyday items as possible. Coordinate with the set design team so furnishings like chairs and tables can also serve as props. Allow plenty of time to source and prepare any tricky props that are essential to the story.

Front of House

The front of house (FOH) team is responsible for running everything that happens outside the theater itself during a show. This includes aspects like marketing, ticketing, programs, concessions, ushering audience members, and more.

A strong FOH team and manager are vital for providing an excellent experience during productions. Here are some key responsibilities and considerations for FOH in a community theater:

Marketing

  • Develop show posters, website pages, social media content, and other marketing materials to promote upcoming productions and ticket sales.
  • Leverage email lists, social media, and community calendars/listings to spread awareness about shows.  
  • Distribute or post flyers and posters around town at local businesses, common spaces, etc.

Ticketing

  • Set up an online ticketing system or arrange for in-person ticket sales through a box office.
  • Determine pricing and any discounts (seniors, students, groups, etc). Manage inventory and track sales.

Programs

  • Design show programs highlighting the production team, cast, crew, donor acknowledgements, upcoming shows, etc.
  • Sell printed programs to audience members as keepsakes. Can also make available digitally.

Concessions

  • Offer snacks, drinks, and small gift items for purchase before the show and during intermission. Helps drive additional revenue.
  • Requires coordinating volunteer staffing, purchasing inventory, and handling sales at the concessions stand.

Ushers

  • Recruit and train volunteer ushers to greet attendees, hand out programs, assist with seating, and resolve any audience issues.
  • Ushers help ensure a smooth, welcoming experience for patrons entering and being seated in the theater.

Performance

The performance period is the culmination of months of hard work and preparation. It's important to manage this critical time effectively to deliver the best experience for both the cast and the audience.

Final Rehearsals

The final rehearsals leading up to opening night should focus on continuity, energy, and stamina (Community Theatre Of Howell). Run through the entire show multiple times with full tech elements like costumes, lights, and sound. Smooth out scene changes, work out any last minute issues, and build up cast endurance for multiple performances.

Actor Preparation

Encourage actors to get plenty of rest leading up to opening night. Actors should be familiar with their rituals to warm up physically and vocally before each performance (Community theatre). Remind them to stay hydrated, eat properly, and take care of their health and wellness.

Tech Rehearsals

Tech rehearsals integrate all production elements like sets, costumes, lighting, and sound. Take time to note any issues or adjustments that are needed. The stage manager should provide actors with a full call schedule and tech rehearsals ensure all cues and transitions will go smoothly.

Opening Night

Celebrate and congratulate the cast and crew on their accomplishments. Opening night should be both exciting and the fruits of months of effort. Make sure front of house runs smoothly and be available to handle any emergencies. After the performance, consider hosting an opening night party for the hard work to pay off.

Striking the Show

After the final performance ends, it's time to strike the set and clean up the theater space. This process is referred to as "striking the show" in theater terminology.

Striking involves carefully deconstructing, dismantling, and removing the set pieces, props, costumes, and other elements from the stage and backstage areas. This returns the performance space back to its clean, open state before the production moved in.

Post-show strike typically begins as soon as the final performance ends, while cast, crew, and volunteers are still present to help. The stage manager will oversee and direct the strike process. The set construction crew chief and technical director will also be involved to ensure scenic elements are properly disassembled and stored.

Tasks involved in striking a show include:

  • Removing masking, legs, borders, and other soft goods from the stage.
  • Dismantling and removing large set pieces and scenic units. This is done methodically to prevent damage.
  • Gathering and sorting smaller props and set dressings into storage boxes.
  • Taking apart temporary additions or modifications made to the theater space.
  • Thoroughly cleaning the backstage, wings, green room, dressing rooms, and other production areas.
  • Removing all traces of makeup, tape, pins, and other leftovers.
  • Returning any rented set pieces, furniture, props, or equipment. Rented items must be carefully inspected and accounted for.
  • Storing set pieces, costumes, props, and other elements properly for future use if the production will be remounted. Otherwise they can be discarded/recycled if no longer needed.

Striking the show is tiring but rewarding work after weeks of preparation and performances. It allows the theater to reset and prepare for its next production. Careful strike procedures also help preserve assets for future reuse. All cast and crew members should plan to stay and contribute to this massive cleanup undertaking.

Volunteers

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community theater.  Without the generous contributions of time, effort, and expertise from volunteers, most community theaters would not be able to operate. Here are some tips for recruiting, retaining, and recognizing volunteers for your organization.

Recruiting Volunteers

  • Promote volunteer opportunities on your website, social media, email newsletter, programs etc. Make it easy for people to find info about volunteering.
  • Set up a table or booth at community events to tell people about your theater and volunteer needs. Offer a sign-up sheet to capture contact info.
  • Partner with local schools, colleges, and community service groups as pipelines for volunteers.
  • Ask current volunteers and patrons to spread the word to their own networks. Word-of-mouth is powerful.
  • Consider perks like free tickets to shows, invitations to opening night receptions, volunteer t-shirts etc. as incentives to sign up.

Retaining Volunteers

  • Make sure volunteers feel appreciated and know they are making an impact. Recognize their contributions publicly.  
  • Provide adequate training so volunteers understand their roles and responsibilities.
  • Respect their time commitments and be flexible if they need to adjust. Avoid volunteer burnout.
  • Create a positive, welcoming environment. Volunteers are giving their personal time and energy.
  • Listen to feedback. Find ways to improve the volunteer experience.
  • Offer opportunities for volunteers to grow their skills and take on leadership roles.

Recognizing Volunteers

  • Thank volunteers both privately and publicly on a regular basis. Small gestures go a long way.
  • Host special recognition events like volunteer appreciation nights. Provide food, entertainment, gag awards etc.
  • Give stand-out volunteers awards at your annual meeting or theater banquet event.  
  • Profile and interview volunteers in your newsletter or on social media. Share their stories.
  • Send handwritten thank you notes. They will be remembered and cherished.
  • Provide volunteers with letters of recommendation or references, which can help in school and job applications.

The most successful community theaters have a well-organized, engaged, and passionate volunteer base. Dedicate time and resources to volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition. The return on that investment will be immeasurable.

Funding

Funding is critical for community theaters to support their productions and operations. There are several potential sources of funding to explore:

Grants

  • Government arts grants - Many local, state, and federal government agencies offer grants to support the arts and cultural programs like community theater. Research grants from your state/local arts council, the National Endowment for the Arts (https://www.arts.gov/grants/grants-for-arts-projects/theater), and other government sources.
  • Foundation/corporate grants - Many private foundations and corporations have funds to support community programs and the arts. Research foundations active in your geographic area or aligned to theater/arts.

Sponsorships

  • Seek business sponsorships of productions or seasons. Offer sponsorship levels with different perks like free tickets, advertising, and promotion. Develop win-win partnerships.

Fundraisers

  • Host galas, auctions, raffles, donor campaigns. Engage your theater community and supporters. Offer naming rights to productions or theater spaces.

Ticket Sales

  • Pricing strategies to maximize revenue - dynamic pricing, early bird discounts, premium seats. Group sales. Subscription packages. Merchandise sales. Concession sales.

Growing Your Theater

To grow your community theater over time, focus on expanding productions, developing talent, and community outreach.

Some ideas for expanding productions include putting on more shows per year, adding youth productions, and expanding to different genres and playwrights. Consider moving to a larger performance venue if your shows are consistently selling out. Having the ability to produce larger, more ambitious shows can attract more community interest.

Look for ways to develop acting and production talent in your community. Offer acting and technical theater classes and workshops. Recruit volunteers interested in learning new skills and give them mentored opportunities to take on more responsibility. Bring in experts periodically to teach master classes. Having a strong base of talented, invested volunteers will improve your productions.

Prioritize community outreach and making theater accessible. Offer reduced price tickets for students and seniors. Reach out to schools, retirement communities, and community organizations to get them involved. Make sure your marketing includes groups that may not typically think of themselves as theater-goers. The more your theater feels woven into the fabric of your community, the more support you will have.

Consider participating in conferences and events for community theaters to get new ideas and connect with peers Joining industry organizations like the American Association of Community Theatre can provide helpful resources as you grow. Stay open to feedback from your audiences and volunteers. Keep evolving your productions and outreach so your theater remains a vibrant community asset.

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