Let me throw a few names around: Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, Susan Glaspell. What do they have in common? They all got their playwriting chops at local, community-run Little Theatres.
While New York’s Theatre Syndicate were touring lots of money-making shows that were fresh hits on Broadway, these playwrights were able to make their mark in theatre history. These people found places to get support for their work and places to try ideas and writing out on people who would not only come and see their plays, but were helping and abetting them to succeed. These were places that saw theatre as something more than glitzy, melodramatic, or vaudevillian entertainments that were a good way to make gobs of money. These local Little Theatres, the forerunners of community theatres, had seen the Irish Players and other global touring companies and realized that theatre could be much more satisfying than watching the travails of someone tricked into drinking, forced to forfeit family and society for the evils of drink, and then, miraculously, be “saved” from a fate worse than death. Copious tears of joy from the audience, or maybe only the backers of the melodrama.
From the international theatre companies all over Europe, came realism and that changed everything.
My point is that community theatres, a legacy from the Little Theatre movement in America, very often finds ways to do more than just entertain. Many of our community theatres have brought more meaning to those who attend and have strengthened their audience and volunteer support because of it.
My community theatre is joining the ranks of those local theatres that are doing more than entertaining, that are contributing to the health of theatre everywhere. There are two of us playwrights at my Playhouse and both of us came to 1) get our plays read by people with theatrical experience, and 2) to get a workshop-like situation where we can improve what we have written through thoughtful and helpful comments and suggestions of a community of theatre-makers and theatre-goers. I know it is a stretch to put us in the same sentence as Eugene O’Neill, but we are getting the kind of break he had: a place to practice our art.
So there was the young O’Neill, smitten by the theatre. He had heard of the Provincetown Players, where a new kind of theatre was being founded by people like Robert Edmund Jones, who was developing a new theatre stagecraft. He went there to write. (And probably to do a little socializing.)
He had to deal with rejection at first, but sure enough, he finally clicked with Bound East for Cardiff. He got recognition. Better yet, he got produced.
The Provincetown Players moved their venue to New York City (this was in 1916) and did well for a few years, but it wasn’t until the 1920-1921 season that O’Neill had a big hit with The Emperor Jones.
I love looking back at significant times in American theatre history and see that some things don’t change, while others need to. Too often people, especially those who used to be involved in theatre and are now doing it on the weekends or when they have time from family, work, and friends, say, “Oh, it’s just community theatre.”
“Just,” my foot. We are carrying on a great tradition in this country. To many of us who work at it and who subscribe to it, we want more than passing fads from our community theatre and ways to generate box office. The idea of new playwrights working at the community level is good not only for the playwright as a tool to develop the craft, but it is good to stimulate and generate new audiences who are more representative of the community itself than those who want to be “just” entertained.
Besides. It’s fun.