Three Ways Community Theatres Can Build a Bridge to Broadway

High school musicals get a lot of attention.

Maybe because Disney did a movie about them.  (Actually, Disney did a lot of movies about them.)

The irony is, while I don’t have the data to back this up, I’d wager two tickets to Hamilton that most people in our biz got their start in community theatre as opposed to high school musicals (I know I did . . . at this one in 1977).

Despite their status as a launching pad for Broadway actors, designers, and other power players, and the fact that there are at least 7,000 (!) of these suckers around the country, the connection between Broadway and Community Theatres feels a bit like a dial-up connection to American Online in 1993.  There’s a “bee-bop, bee-bop” here and there, but no solid communication.

And there should be . . . because community theatre is the training ground for all types of Broadway stars of the future (performers or non), AND because these theatres are where the new plays and musicals that open on Broadway eventually wind up, providing income to Writers (and some Directors). They can even help Broadway Investors and Producers recoup some of the capitalization of their original productions (or maybe even, gasp, earn a profit!).

I’ve become involved with the American Association of Community Theatres recently (AACT – get it?),  speaking at their last conference in June and stumping for a giant research project they are doing about the impact of Community Theatre.

And I don’t have the data to back this up either, but I’d wager 100 Hamilton tickets that when that research is done, we’re going to see that the impact is Pretty Woman-like “HUGE.”

When I was doing my chat at their conference, I was asked how Community Theatres could raise their status so that more people would take them more seriously.

See, speaking honestly, they’ve got what I call a “Blaine” problem.  People have a tendency to think of Community Theatre like the troupe in Christopher Guest’s genius of a film, Waiting for Guffman . . . or even the British equivalent in The Play That Goes Wrong.

It’s not unlike the problem that Off-Broadway has.  There’s a stigma of being “less than” or just simply not good.

And it’s BS.

But the first step to improvement is admitting you’ve got a problem.

See, the “Blaine Problem” is a fallacy.  Many Community Theatre productions have bigger budgets than Off-Broadway productions!  And certainly Off-Off.  And I’ve seen shows in Community Theatres that have featured Broadway performers who have retired to the local area after giving up the 8 shows-a-week grind . . . but haven’t given up their love of performing.

So together, in that hotel conference room, the passionate theatre-loving participants and I batted around some ideas for how to help build the bridge between Broadway and Community Theatres.

Here are three specific ideas for the theatres themselves:

1. Put Active Broadway Peeps on an Alumni Advisory Board

I asked all the “theatre-owners” in the room if any of them had people from their community who now were working on Broadway.  EVERY single hand went up.  Single out these folks, and ask them to “give back.”  Not with money, mind you (although definitely ASK), but with just their name.  Put them on your board.  Bam.  Status goes up.  Then you can ask them to give you advice, to sing a tune at a benefit, to give you a couple of social media mentions, to direct a show at the theatre, etc., etc.  You helped give these folks their start.  They will give back.

2. Start a New Play/Musical Reading Series

You know what’s great about a reading series?  It can cost you absolutely nothing.  Put the word out in NYC that you’re doing a new reading series.  Watch how you’ll get inundated with scripts (we’ve got some from some super talented writers if you want), and then . . . pick one.  And read it.

Use your usual actors (they’ll love being a part of something new, instead of doing Guys and Dolls for the 20th time).  Invite your audiences for free (and solicit donations afterward).  Writers are happy. Actors are happy.  Audiences are happy. Marketing trifecta.

And watch . . . do this right, and you will find a script that you’ll want to put up as a full production.  And the benefactor for that production will come from one of the people in the audience of that reading (just like how we raise money for Broadway shows here!)

Who knows? You might find the next . . . Hadestown(Yes, this is how that show got started.)

3. Establish a Community Theatre Day

Nothing says important like a holiday.  So make one!  I’d expect some big-time buy-in from a lot of the folks who got their start in CTs, not to mention the people who are working in this world every day.  And starting a “day” is easier than you think.  You just get enough people to do it, and it becomes a thing.  It’s like a standing ovation (and we all know how easy those are these days!).

And if none of these ideas work and the zillions that you can come up with on your own don’t work either, I guess the other thing we could do is . . . take a cue from Disney and make a movie about it.  🙂

(Oh, and don’t think I’m letting Broadway off the hook – we owe you a huge debt to you, Community Theatre, so expect more from me in the future about what WE here in NYC need to do to reach out to help you.  In fact, if you’re a CT and you need something?  Email me.  I’ll do what I can.)

I enjoyed speaking about Community Theatre and coming up with ways to make it better . . . and more . . . uh . . . everywhere.  If you’d like me to speak at your next event, click here to tell us about it, and if I can swing it with my schedule, I’m so there.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.