Producing Community Theatre in Rural Areas

California is a large state, with both urban and rural areas. For this article, we asked community theatres throughout the State about the effects of the differences in population and resources of these geographies. We also take a look at the National perspective, with responses from theatres throughout the United States. Learn about the differences and similarities, and find solutions to common concerns about producing theatres in rural areas of California.

*For the purposes of this article, we will consider rural to mean a population of fewer than 50,000 people.

For theatres located in a rural area as described above, what is your community's population?​

Some community theatres are thriving in rural areas, where arts are generally supported, and working artists are part of the neighborhood. Community arts centers, galleries, dance, music and theatre may be a way of life and a way of living for some small areas. A close-knit population can make word-of-mouth a powerful and reliable tool; it can also allow theatres to develop a personal relationship with patrons, advertisers and contributors. Support of the arts in general may mean support for theatre as a by-product. If a community theatre is the only theatre option in a town, that circumstance can create a great opportunity for loyalty and patronage.

On the other hand, for the coziness and consistency of a small community, producing theatre in a rural area might also mean tough competition for funding, and a smaller talent pool from which to draw actors, directors, designers and staff. Word of mouth can also work against a theatre.

"The above is a double edged sword. They know us. If an individual business person or even a person at City Hall (though at the city they are fair) does not like a particular individual it can have a negative impact, so we might have to send a different person. The good thing is we probably know somebody that is friends or acquaintances with that business person, if we feel we need them on board."

Another challenge (or perhaps advantage) may be selecting seasons and productions aligned with a community a theatre knows all too well. The question of whether a work 'should' or 'should not' be done because of the tastes of an audience (and whether or not is a responsibility or mission of a theatre to push patrons out of 'comfort zones') is a question asked by many theatres. But is the impact greater in a rural area when the outcome is predictable and theatres may not have the resources to take artistic risks that could alienate audiences or donors?

"We are a conservative community and if we choose something with dubious or polemic subject matter we can be scorned quickly. A city council member upon hearing we planned to produce Gypsy stated, "I heard they are planning on doing a show about a stripper, what the heck are they doing over there?""

Savvy community theatres find the benefits in producing community theatre in rural areas. A small population allows an organization to take a real temperature on the methods of marketing that work for their constituents.

"We have learned the best marketing channels for this area. We do a lot of Facebook campaigns and Constant Contact email blasts out."

Active and personal participation in community organizations also works in a community theatre's favor.

"I/we can walk in City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce a host of businesses and they know us by sight or name.... It opens up a conversation."

"The local newspaper and advertiser always give us FREE column inches of news space, show lots of pictures, especially the advertiser type "newspaper". We are allowed a lot of "window" space in local merchant shops for our posters, the local Albertsons has allowed us a 20"X 30" poster in a floor standing sign holder in their lobby two weeks and through the three weeks of any production."

For some theatres, a rural area resulting in a smaller community can mean having an acute awareness of its needs or deficiencies, and not just artistically in its production choices, but in programming as well. For example, knowing there is a need for arts in schools, a theatre in a rural area may be able to directly speak with educators and propose filling that gap through its theatre education program. In a larger area, there may be more saturation and competition in vying for such collaboration. Plus, there is the possibility that cultivating personal relationships is easier to foster in a small town. The same could be said for a community theatre's position in working with a local municipality; knowing politicians and how a City operates on a nuanced level could allow a theatre to work more harmoniously than in a larger area where there is a greater chance for anonymity.

The two greatest challenges faced by community theatres producing in rural areas are competition for the same talent (both technical and artistic), and for the same money. A lack of diversity in actors - from age to ethnicity - plagues towns with smaller populations. Theatres resort to contacting actors personally when casting shows, while staying true to casting locally.

"We actively try to recruit new actors and technical people. We do not attempt to cast folks from outside the area--as a "community" theater, we want to use local actors, musicians, and artists. In general, it works."

Funding and ticket sales in smaller communities is the next obvious challenge for community theatres. Not only are other venues and cultural institutions competing for the same corporate funding/ sponsorships, they are also often competing for the same audiences and ticket sales. Solutions to these challenges include taking 'baby steps' for reaching folks used to a certain type of theatre, and to introduce them to theatre in general or in a community theatre's season.

"This is a sports and outdoors centered community. It has been a long, slow process reaching folks who enjoy plays and musicals who live here or are second home owners, and even slower to understand how to publicize and advertise to tourists. Baby steps. More active efforts at fundraising and grant writing have helped some theatres fill gaps in the competitive local funding. Seeing the challenges and taking them head on can make the difference in a successful rurally-based community theatre."

As corporate and foundation (as well as individual) funding continues to be unpredictable for many charitable organizations in recent times, community theatres in rural areas cite a permanent challenge, not one that has steadily or unexpectedly crept up: in a rural town, there is likely to be far less corporate support simply because there are less big businesses to request funding from in the first place.

Likewise theatres in rural areas often have smaller audiences to see their shows. This means competition for patron spending - as many institutions feel - but also there are only so many 'butts to get into the seats' in the first place.

"We typically don't have much success with shows that run more than once as after one show (or a weekend if it's a play), most of the community that is going to see the show, has done so."

Some cite that smaller populations naturally mean a reduced number of people 'experienced' or interested in theatre in general, or ready/willing to see riskier theatre choices. A creative solution to this problem to maintain inclusiveness while still providing 'riskier' programming is to offer varying ticket prices based on the performances.

"We have different ticket prices for musicals vs straight plays. We make show choices to help "educate" the smaller percentage of our audiences. We market through our credit card customers, as well as social media. Still haven't resolved younger actors or diversity."

Limited resources not related to personnel also presents challenges to companies in rural areas. There may be restricted locations for rehearsals and performances, and with multiple performing groups vying for the same space, intense competition can effect community theatre. Many re-think and strategize their seasons based upon the talent they know in their community; others write their mission statement around it.

"Our mission fits in perfectly with our community as it was written with them in mind."

"Our production committee is and has been choosing very palatable shows the last couple of years and will continue to through our 50th anniversary season, 2018-19. The more "edgy shows" are now allowed black box space as we have changed up our schedule to allow for those a bit more easily."

Is the mission of an organization driven or modified by its constituents? This might be a question all institutions have asked themselves at some point in its lifespan. But, are theatres based in smaller communities more vulnerable to adapting to narrower tastes? For many theatres, it's not just a matter of the content being offered to their audiences; it's a matter of telling diverse stories, a challenge exacerbated without the ability to cast productions with diversity.

"We have only two adults and three children of color that have performed in the last three years... We will never do Fences, or similar, which is sad. But we have to think of all our actors, directors, techs and ALL talent that is available all year. Who might come out, who will not for any given show. We are doing a show with a large cast right now, The Drowsy Chaperone, and the small cast show following which is Boeing, Boeing can't seem to get cast for lack of young talent, 20-30 years of age. When we selected the season we did not foresee this as an issue!"

"Impossible. We have a very small ethnic population, so we simply can't do a lot of shows? (Ragtime? Forget it!)"

But, many theatres state they do NOT feel they a conflict with their artistic vision or mission statement and the resources of their rural area. They are able to adapt their season selections, and acknowledge that casting with diversity is a challenge faced too in larger cities.

"We are a grassroots community theater, we are proud to have "community" in the title, I think we are just about where we should be at two and a half years along as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Our biggest problem is shared by a lot of other groups in much larger cities. We have trouble finding enough men to play parts. What this has done is meant we tend to pick more shows with lots of females in them compared to our first productions."

All is not lost or permanently complicated when it comes to seeking and succeeding in creating solutions to the challenges of producing community theatre in rural areas of the State. Leaders can continue to participate in dialogue and reflect upon the unique place community theatre has in an area. When asked about what leaders would like to learn from other community theatre in rural areas, choice of productions and success at the box office is a common inquiry. Conducting surveys and simply speaking to theatre goers (and non-theatre goers) is likely a much easier task in a smaller community, where personal attention and access to members is possible. Cultivating talent and identifying new participants might take some resources and time. Connecting with the local high school or college can be a successful introduction to both students and instructors who may have yet to explore community theatre in an area. Workshops conducted by a theatre's designers and directors is also a great way to increase community awareness and help mentor participants with limited experience. These types of educational experiences can range from technical aspects to directing to acting, and beyond. An Artistic Director at a theatre in a small town implemented a special program of one-acts designed specifically for new directors.

"We have been very lucky, in that we have found excellent technical staff, and a lot of good actors. In addition, it seems that many professional musicians retire here, so we're able to find stupendous bands for our shows (always using the full original orchestrations)."

When it comes to seeking funding in a small town, we return to a recurring theme of a benefit of a small area - it's all about who you know. The advantage is the more direct and personal link to business owners and administrators at foundations or councils. Spending time attending meetings or inviting such individuals to attend performances is a great way to introduce funders to a community theatre. Find out from smaller non-profit or public sector organizations if they utilize a grant writer or resources to seek grants. The advantage with a smaller population is that a community theatre leader likely knows someone who knows that person or who can make an initial introduction on his/her behalf. A theatre may need to think creatively about who that person is but presumably the more one puts oneself out there, the more likely it will be to make that connection. The same goes for Board membership; take advantage of an intimate community by seeking those individuals most equipped to support and advocate for the theatre to serve on Board or committees.

Being transparent about a theatre's needs is also a great tool. Many people continue to perceive that funding for arts organizations comes solely or mostly through attendance, memberships, or tickets. Communicate to patrons, parents or family of youth programming attendees, and members of Chambers or communication organizations the reality of operating a theatre and what specifically funding helps support.

"The best advice I can offer from my experience is "just try it". I was told drama would never fly in "our little town" and now we have at least one in every season and it does very well. Know your audience and where you can push the boundaries a little at a time."

Thank you to the community theatres in California and throughout the U.S. who provided content for this article.

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