When you hear theatre, what do you think of? Maybe you think about New York City or Broadway. Maybe you think it’s just a waste of time and it should be de-funded (if you think this, you probably aren’t reading my blog, though). Or, maybe you think that it’s a fun hobby to do once a year.
Theatre is both the first and the latter. There are many different levels of theatre, and it’s all equally important. There’s elementary – high school theatre, community theatre, college theatre summer stock, regional theatre (which is semi-professional) and professional theatre. There’s Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway National Tours, Shakespeare in the Park. You can join the Actors Equity Union and try to make a career of it, or you can just do it for fun once a year.
It’s all valid. It’s all important because who is to say what production could inspire the next Sutton Foster or Patti LuPone to pack their bags and move from small town America to New York City to audition for their first Broadway show. It often doesn’t start in New York City. These dreams are born and nourished in schools, in churches, in community theatre productions all around America.
I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to experience both parts to theatre. I was that little girl growing up in The County that SO badly longed for the bright lights and the busy streets of New York City way before I even visited there. All I knew growing up was that it is home to Broadway, and that was enough for me. I grew up hating the small town life (I still prefer the city life, actually, sigh). I spent many hours alone in my bedroom as a child just consuming every cast album I could find. I could name all 40 Broadway theatre’s although I never stepped foot in a single one. I could tell you what show was playing at each theatre, and who was starring in every show. I yearned for a life that seemed so far out of reach.
I still can vividly remember that first time I stepped out of Penn Station onto the streets. It was the summer of 2002, before I went into 8th grade, so I was about 14? Suitcase in tow behind me, I looked up to the buildings and sighed “I’m home”. And that feeling has never left me.
Cut to 2011, after numerous more visits to NYC, I spent a year at Stony Brook University on Long Island, 90 minutes out of the city. Let’s just say I didn’t spend many weekends on campus. That year was magical, to say the least. To just be able to hop on a train in the spur of the moment because I wanted to see a show that night and not have to buy the tickets 6 months in advance and then have a countdown was just a dream come true for me. I now have seen shows in 38 of the (now) 41 Broadway theatre’s that I dreamt about. To make a long story short (too late, I’m sure, sorry), I ended up living in NYC for a couple years on and off the following two years. In the city, theatre is literally everywhere. It’s in Times Square, it’s downtown, it’s on the subway, it’s in the park, it’s on the streets. There are huge Broadway theatre’s to small 20 seat theatre’s just blocks from each other. It’s everywhere. It’s really easy to get your theatre fix when you’re in the city!
And now here I am, back in the same small town, in the same house I grew up in. I came back home a couple of years ago to finish out my bachelor’s degree at UMPI, which I finished in December. I didn’t think I would make it two years back up here in The County, but what I didn’t expect was how much theatre I would be creating up here both at UMPI with the University Players that I founded and was the director of, and later with Wintergreen Arts Center!
What makes NYC special is that hardly anyone is from there, but rather everyone moves to it. Actors, theatre goers, stage managers, directors, composers, stage hands – they all fell in love with theatre in their small towns, just as I did when I saw my first live production at age 5 or 6 at the Presque Isle High School (which I am pretty sure it was Anything Goes, ironically). Just as my mini actors are now experiencing.
This is why theatre is so important to keep in schools, in small communities. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is where you go. All you need is a dream, a passion and the drive and you can end up anywhere, you can be anything. You can become the next John Caraini – he grew up in Presque Isle and ended up with a Tony nomination to his name and passed Shakespeare in being the most produced playwright! The where you come from part isn’t a hindrance, but rather it makes you special. It allows you to bring something fresh and new to the table that other people can’t because they don’t have your life experiences.
So now here I am, back in northern Maine, starting up my own children’s theatre company since I made the discovery there are many youngsters in The County like me as a kid after I directed two plays and a musical at Wintergreen Arts Center to kids ages 6-12. Only I didn’t have an outlet, when I talked of my Broadway dreams, I was often met with discouragement from my peers and teachers alike. I was made to feel like it was just some silly pipe dream that could never happen for me because of where I was born.
It warms my heart to no end when my mini actors tell me they were born to act and it’s what they want to do as a career, or when I find a shy kiddo who didn’t know where they fit in until tried theatre, or when I can some how reach a child who can’t stand still until they are singing, or are painfully shy until they hit the stage. These are the stories of how Broadway actors started out, very rarely (I mean almost never) is someone a true “overnight” star. Actors make it to Broadway because they had teachers along the way in their small towns who believed in them, and pushed them to step out of their comfort zone.
These kids may grow up and forget about theatre, and that’s okay. But, who knows? I could find and encourage the next generation to become a professional actor so the next generation can idolize them and want to follow in their footsteps. It’s just the circle of life.
So, the point of this long winded blog … don’t discredit a small theatre, or undervalue a theatre with little to no funding. You never know who is out there in the audience getting inspired. And you don’t have to be in NYC or Chicago or LA to be making big, important theatre. You can be in Salina, KS or Beavercreek, OH or in Presque Isle, ME and leave just as big of an impact in the theatre world.
And lastly, if a child comes up to you and tells you they want to be on Broadway, or in the movies, please don’t just laugh at them and tell them that’s a useless dream to have. Just say, “yes, you can! Start small and keep working!”