- The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of an American Community Theater, and: Community Theatre: Global Perspectives
Coming from what seems to be entirely different perspectives on two entirely different theatre genres, Leah Hager Cohen and Eugene van Erven have produced two studies of "community theatre" that ironically make the same plea: to have their subjects taken seriously. From Cohen's stay with a small community theatre in suburban Massachusetts to van Erven's global gallivanting during which he samples community theatre in the Philippines, the Netherlands, the U.S. (Los Angeles), Costa Rica, Kenya, and Australia, these two books produce ample case study material for the performance studies scholar interested in performance based in "community."
Cohen, who positions herself in the field through a charming narrative of her preadolescent days with Bread and Puppet (her mom even took her out of school for the project), summarizes the "culture" of U.S. community theatre:
Here is a place where people's most base elements thrive: egos may be exalted, fed, stroked, and patted; jealousies may run rampant; tantrums may be tolerated and considered part of the culture. At the same time, here are all these strangers coming together-for nothing profitable, nothing useful, nothing tangible or lasting, for nothing more than such stuff as dreams are made of-all because of some unnamable, unstanchable desire to imagine themselves into other people's stories and relate those stories to others.(xix)
It is the mysterious efforts of community theatre practitioners, who receive neither formal compensation nor professional recognition for their work but who are by no means rare-Cohen cites an estimate by the American Association of Community Theatres of ten thousand community theatres throughout the U.S. with a membership of one million-that fascinates Cohen (and me as well). I have often wondered where to position the kind of theatre that I participated in as a child, teenager, and young adult. Cohen describes the quotidian of the genre as I perceive it of the genre: "a white car" pulls into the theatre's driveway, "a Ford Taurus, that most ubiquitous of American cars, only this one has a license plate that reads ACTOR 1" (2). I've met that guy-he's a staple of the kind of community theatre I know. My experiences closely parallel what Cohen de-scribes: a white, middle-class, suburban, "amateur" theatre. In these settings, theatre groups may unabashedly pick and choose from the repertoire of American [End Page 170] theatre, from Barefoot in the Park to Company, from South Pacific to The King and I (with enough pan makeup and liquid eyeliner, the sky's the limit, right?).
Cohen's chosen example, however, is stuck somewhere between the sky and the real world. Based in Arlington, Massachusetts, the Arlington Friends of the Drama (AFD) have been putting on plays for three-quarters of a century. Founded by members of the local Women's Club around the time when nationally the "little theatre" movement was similarly inspiring towns around the country, AFD is a typical community theatre-"one of many thousands like it in America" (xix). Cohen's AFD is faced with the obstacle of overcoming its own homogeneity and exclusivity-at a price. The foundation of the group, consisting of a slight majority of older, more conservative members, longs for the days when play choice was simpler and plays didn't threaten the membership's values. A younger group-the future-appreciates the foundation created 75 years ago but would like to see AFD broaden its horizons. The theatre balances precariously on the common dedication of both sides. Upon the author's visit, AFD holds auditions for its second play of the season, M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang's drama has proved uncomfortable for many AFD members on the levels of content (a "love affair between what the audience eventually learns are...