I live in the greater Nashville, Tennessee, area with a population of around 1.3 million, and home to over 50 community theaters. I do not mean movie theaters or music venues or school shows, but independent theaters with a stage where live actors put on musicals and plays ranging from Shakespeare to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Over the past decade, being married to an active theatrical performer, I have been to many of these theaters multiple times and feel qualified to generalize just a bit about them.
They are typically smallish, seating only about 100 to 150 people, which creates a wonderfully intimate experience. Nashville, nicknamed “Music City USA,” has an abundance of talent, so most of the shows are well-acted and sung, in spite of often modest facilities, in shopping malls, former churches, or senior centers.
Typically, these shows have volunteer casts, or the principal actors are paid only a token fee for their labor of love. You may be surprised to discover that your robust insurance agent played Curly in “Oklahoma” in college, has a marvelous singing voice, and is about to reprise that role at the theater in your neighborhood. Your personable dental hygienist might be playing Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Your neighbor’s supertalented kids might be playing Jane and Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins.”
The typical casts really do earn the name “community,” because they include people from all ages and walks of life. Those playing the lead roles often have earned degrees in theater or music, though they may have another day job now. There are devoted older amateurs, who have acted in many shows, and rising stars who might be high-school seniors aspiring to major in theater in college. By the end of six weeks’ rehearsal and then the show’s three- or four-weekend run, this disparate bunch of people often grows very close. One often hears them refer to themselves as a kind of family. Collectively, and when all their own family members are in the audience for moral support, they are nothing less than a cultural institution that can be a vital part of each neighborhood or suburban community.
Community theater can be listed among the last bastions of traditional American culture, along with sports teams, marching bands, and houses of worship. This is not only because it provides a sense of community that is waning in many places but also because it is one of the few places where many people experience, often for the first time, great American music from yesteryear in shows like “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady.”
Some of their shows are covered by community newspapers, but they generally have a low visibility in the media. I have come to believe that these theaters are great treasures that deserve local patronage and support, not to mention that the ticket prices are modest, usually around $15 ($12 for students and seniors), the theaters are easy to get to, and shows are performed well enough to be a great source of enjoyment for their audiences.
How a Show Is Created
Recently, having tried my own hand at writing a show, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand every phase of the process of putting on a show in one of our local theaters, and I have found it fascinating and learned a great deal. The first rehearsal is typically a “table reading,” where the whole cast sits around long tables with their copies of the script and simply reads aloud through the whole show, minus songs, to get a feel for the entire story and their parts in it.
At the next week or two of rehearsals, usually around four nights a week, the director sits down with the actors in groups of two or three who play scenes together to discuss their characterization, accents, motivations, and emotions. Then it is primarily the actors’ job to determine how best to manifest that in delivering their lines and in their body language, as they practice at home.
Meanwhile, in another room or onstage, the music director is working with the rest of the cast on musical numbers. The first thing is to play through each vocal part, especially when people have to sing harmony, while the actors hold up their cellphones in the air to record their own parts, to be practiced at home. Then they sing through the songs together and get coaching, perhaps on notes that they sang out of tune or on diction that needs to be clearer, or even on singing with a British accent.
Then there are “blocking” rehearsals, when the director tells the actors where to stand on the stage, where to walk during a certain line, and when to stand or sit. Often they are told to “cheat out,” which is to face the audience when speaking a line rather than the actor they are speaking to, so people can see their facial expressions.
All of this blocking must be memorized and done precisely, so the actors pencil in notes next to those lines in their scripts. Blocking also includes things like certain actors quickly carrying chairs and other set pieces on and off the stage during the blackouts between scenes, using glow-in-the-dark tape on the floor to know exactly where to place them.
One of the most impressive parts of the rehearsal process are those for choreography. My show has several big dance numbers involving several actors, who also must simultaneously sing. The choreographer goes through each predetermined dance routine, personally demonstrating the moves and describing them with terms from ballet and other styles—terms like plié, tap, and glide—which all of these actors seemed to know and could pick up after being shown only once or twice, to my amazement. I came to learn that many of them took dance classes for years while growing up. Others have learned these skills in the course of doing 30 or more local shows.
Finally come run-throughs of the full show, but still “on book,” meaning carrying your script around to refer to as needed; then by a week later comes the dreaded “off book” deadline. During the final week, called “tech week” (or “hell week”), the actors are finally off book and in costume with sets and props and wearing their little wireless head microphones. While up to now they have been rehearsing with just a piano playing, in the last few days (called “Sitzprobe”) the full group of musicians is there playing.
At the same time, the lighting designer is programming the spotlights and stage lighting for each scene, and the sound designer is configuring the turning on and off of microphones for actors entering and leaving the stage, and all the volume levels.
I was amazed how so many elements came together so quickly to create an almost perfectly executed opening night. And only one week after my show closes, my wife will start the process all over again, rehearsing the role, as the song title calls her, of “Marian the Librarian” in “The Music Man” at another theater, while I get to go back to my regular job as a classical composer.
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com