By Shawn Pitts
We were standing in line to buy tickets when the gentleman approached us. It was, perhaps, fitting that it was a football game. Something important was obviously on his mind, and his remarks were directed more at my wife, Joanna, than me. He wanted to tell us how much he appreciated Arts in McNairy’s community theatre program. He said his son, among other kids he knew, had gotten involved with the youth theatre productions and the family had witnessed a rather remarkable change in him. Where before he lacked confidence and direction, he now seemed more self-assured, socially connected and was even doing better in the classroom.
The man went on to say he always wanted his son to play football, which he did for a time with some success, but the young man’s heart just wasn’t in it. He had the aptitude, but not the desire. The supportive father admitted he wasn’t much of a theatre person before, but he had attended all the plays in which his son was cast and found the live shows surprisingly entertaining. More importantly he realized his son had found his niche and was learning many of the valuable lessons about teamwork, discipline and leadership he hoped time on the gridiron would instill.
In twenty years of involvement with community theatre, we’ve heard countless stories like that: kids who didn’t quite fit in anywhere else finding their voice and their passion on stage; adults who always wanted to give acting a try but never did until there was a nearby outlet; people of all ages who found a welcoming community of theatre enthusiasts who valued their contributions and their friendship. The father’s experience as an audience member also echoes much of what we’ve heard from local theatre goers: many of them didn’t know how fun and entertaining live theatre could be until it was regularly accessible in their community. Add to that, the thousands of students who had their first exposure to live theatre at one of the daytime shows staged exclusively for local school children at the Latta and I think you will see where I am going with this article.
There is a tendency in community development circles to see local theatre programs as extraneous to the “real work” of community building; it’s better to have one than not, but it’s really not essential. I remember hearing an economic development professional attempt to praise a theatre company in his region by saying, “Hey, not everybody can play sports, so we appreciate the theatre program offering kids an alternative.” He meant well, and it’s always good when someone recognizes inherent value in the arts, but that statement betrays a pitiful lack of understanding. He made it sound like people only do theatre because they can’t do sports; they would really prefer to be a pitcher or a quarterback, but they settle for a role in a play because they didn’t make the team. I used the example of the young man and appreciative father Joanna and I encountered to illustrate a point. The son was athletically gifted and had experienced success in organized team sports, but found more meaning and fulfillment in the arts. Theatre was not his second choice, it was the place he experienced affirmation through interaction with other creative people who helped his family recognize the transformative power of community building through the arts. If it’s a healthy, well rounded community we are after, that sounds pretty essential to me.
Arts in McNairy’s community theatre program has offered this region high quality, local entertainment for two decades now. Along the way adults, teens and children have acquired valuable skills in acting, directing, costuming, set design, technical production and theatre management. They have experienced the challenges of late nights and long weekends in the theatre working in concert with dozens of volunteers to bring a finely tuned production to stage and the joys of thunderous applause at the closing curtain. Audiences have enjoyed lavish Broadway musicals and austere, minimalist theatre; intense drama and side splitting comedy; original play debuts and stage adaptations from the canon of western literature; adult dinner theatre and one act plays produced, acted and directed by local youth; and the list goes on and on.
If there is one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that a robust community theatre program is more than a few people getting together to occasionally memorize and recite some lines. It’s an economic engine that pulls thousands of dollars into our local economy each year. It’s a springboard for building confidence, acquiring life skills, and enhancing academic performance for our kids. It’s a framework for exploring and understanding the wider world while bringing inspiring stories to life with and for your neighbors. It is life-changing for many individuals and, don’t let anyone kid you, it is community building of the highest order.
So, as we emerge from the shadow of a pandemic, when it’s safe to gather in large groups again, do yourself a favor and come to an audition, buy a season ticket, or just attend a show or two. You’ll be glad you did and it will be encouraging for those who work so hard to provide live, local arts and entertainment options. They do it for you, you know? It’s called community theatre for a reason.
This post originally appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal