Community Theatre and Sketch Writing
Would your town or village form a community theatre? Do you want some insight into the process? With four decades of experience in writing sketches and music for amateur theatre, this is my story of how our local community theatre came into existence, with tips for finding inspiration, advice on getting started, and the positive benefits of encouraging individuals to create opportunity for community cohesion.
How I got started
It helps if you have experience of performance and, for me, I got this during my student years; the college folk club gave me an opportunity to perform and find out what works with an audience. After college, I became half of a performing duo whose repertoire included songs, monologues, children’s shows, and Punch and Judy. That’s when the writing began for me and it has continued, on and off, through four decades and various sizes, and styles, of theatre and music groups. I find it difficult to write if the work is unlikely to be performed, so enthusiastic like-minded collaborators are very important to the process.
I had expected that a family move from East London to a small coastal village in Essex would mark a decline in opportunities to write and perform. However, the restoration of a chapel in the centre of the village created a community facility as well as space for worship, being that the original worship area was ideal as a theatre and concert hall.
A small group of us, with experience of amateur theatre, planned and publicised a meeting for anyone with similar interests. On a cold and miserable February evening, we put out ten seats, but were soon scrambling for more when 43 interested local people arrived. In one hit, we had attracted potential actors, lighting and sound engineers, set builders, stage crew, publicists, etc. If this can be done with a population of 3,000 I rather suspect that most small towns and villages could do the same. Fifteen years later, The Centre (as it has become known) caters for seventeen local groups, the busiest of which is the theatre group. It has two sections: seniors and under-14s, which is always over-subscribed.
So, we had performers, a venue, lots of willing volunteers, and a village which provides an audience.
Creating options for the whole family
We endeavour to present three or four major productions each year.
Pantomime, during the winter months, is a time when both Seniors and Juniors can work together. Scripts are plentiful, and these always offer an opportunity for extra scripting, thoughtful song selection, and choreography. It is worth noting that the bigger the cast, the more likely you are to sell tickets; panto draws in parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
We will pay for the rights to use other, stand-alone, published scripts.
Once a year, we present a cabaret evening (including a meal)
We assemble a review style show incorporating songs and sketches. A theme is chosen and individual members, who have the confidence, will write, and submit, short sketches for inclusion.
When writing a sketch for a local show, there has to be a strong, and generally agreed, theme. We get together, as a group, for a brain-storming session to bounce ideas around until something captures most, if not all, of the collective imagination. We have used themes—such as ‘American Dinner (1950s & 60s)’, ‘Diamonds’, ‘Home Guard’, and ‘South’—which allow writers to experiment with a broad canvas.
Our latest show was ‘The Winter Olympics in July’ (performed, of course, in July—which, this year, was extraordinarily hot). The first scene took the form of a public meeting to plan these Winter Olympics. The Committee was on stage and the Chairman pontificated about the benefits of such a venture. The audience found themselves, unwittingly, to be part of the open discussion and voting arrangements. Other sketches featured known places in the locality which were to become ski-slopes, curling rinks, and skeleton runs. Appropriate music and songs with vaguely relevant lyrics offered some light relief from the drama. It is always a good idea to encourage audience participation so long as it is not designed to embarrass.
Some of our ideas come from watching the performances of others and that can be across the whole spectrum of what’s on offer: amateur, professional, comedy, drama, circus, music hall, and so on. The secret is to recognise what’s possible (given your resources) and what’s appropriate (given your potential audience).
Dealing with nerves
Audiences are usually made up of friendly people from your community, but actors do still worry beforehand. I often remind them that nobody is going to die if they forget their words, and there is always the safety net of a prompt. The prompt is rarely required, but is always there, discretely on the edge of stage to relay any lines to the actors if needed.
If it works, use it again
If a particular sketch goes well it’s worth re-visiting. We used the simple idea of six inept jugglers and tumblers of various ages, shapes, and sizes in one of our reviews. Dressed in long-johns with large, black, walrus moustaches and performing ridiculously simple feats; they were an immediate hit. When, four or five years later, we presented a Music Hall, they made a repeat visit to equally rapturous applause. We also have an older lady who dresses as a daredevil stunt woman. She has appeared in five different shows performing stunts such as being fired from a cannon, zip-wiring across the auditorium, and cycling through a ring of fire.
She says nothing, has her own quirky mannerisms, audiences chant her name, and there would be disappointment if she didn’t appear. Of course, she actually has a stunt double, a mannequin dressed in identical clothing, so there is no need for extra insurance.
How it affects community life
As well as the entertainment that every show provides, we focus on very challenging stuff too. We’re currently putting together a presentation based on the real experiences of soldiers who served in the First World War for the Remembrance Celebrations in November. This will be delivered alongside a film presented by the village Film Club.
Of course, we’re pleased to have helped in the business of keeping the church functional, but there’s so much more we’ve achieved for the performers and the audience. Laughter is very therapeutic for everyone, we’re in the centre of the village, and accessible to the elderly and disabled who may rarely venture further than the local shop. Talents can be nurtured and confidence developed, friendships created, and collaboration between different groups is facilitated; it’s all about encouraging individuals and community cohesion.
Our Theatre Group members pay an annual fee (currently set at £55 for seniors), which helps to cover the cost of hiring The Centre for the regular Wednesday rehearsals and occasional Sunday afternoons. There is no fixed stage, but we’ve bought good quality stage blocks and, when all are used, the main hall seats 120. We can, generally, guarantee an average of 80 or 90 per evening over three nights of performance. Pantomime, in the winter months, includes a Saturday matinee and evening show which are always fully booked. Tickets vary in price but, for a major production, £10 (£8 for concessions) is not unreasonable. Over the years, in addition to the stage blocks, we’ve got lighting, PA equipment, costumes, materials for stage flats, scenery, and props—as well as paying for the use of scripts. We’ve also applied for, and been granted, funds for specific projects—such as installation of proscenium curtains and wrap-around drapes.
A few words of advice
Be sure of what you want to achieve.
Make sure you have the support from trusted people with similar interests.
If you don’t enjoy the writing process, then you’re probably wasting your time. Try again with another scenario.
If you find it funny, that’s a good sign, but it’s not a guarantee.
Serious plays require people who really want to act.
Be bold; it’s amazing how much talent there is in any locality—you’ve just got to find it.
© 2018 John Dorsett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
John is a retired school teacher in a small seaside village who enjoys amateur dramatics, singer, performing, and song writing.