Saturday, January 08, 2011

More Than a Hobby

To many people out there, including those who perform in it, community theatre is considered a hobby. And I suppose that depending on how serious one takes it, it could be merely a hobby.

Yet acting in a stage production is more than a hobby to me, and while in general I don't like to label any given approach as incorrect, I have plenty of reasons to declare that if you are involved in community theatre, you should treat it as more than a hobby.

In most dictionaries, "hobby" is defined thusly:

"An activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation."

On the surface being in community theatre would appear top fall into this definition. Because few people make money doing it. Those that do do not make a living from it. Not as actors at least.

But let's look again. "Pursued for pleasure or relaxation." I can agree there is a certain amount of pleasure involved, though I think "satisfaction" is more applicable in my case most of the time.

I think we get into tricky territory when we include "relaxation", not only because theatre is not, by definition, a relaxing exercise for the actor, (at least it shouldn't be!) but because that cuts out just about all of the sports, and dare devil activities that people no doubt consider hobbies.

But even ignoring that, doing community theatre requires several things which place it outside of the category of the hobby.

To begin with, it is a collaborative effort. Even if one is doing a one-person show, there are at least several other people involved in making it possible. Director. Stage manager. Prop people. Ticket booth. The board of directors that gave the show the green light at their venue. None of those things are present when one collects baseball cards, or takes up knitting. The latter two examples are mostly solitary undertakings. A community theatre production, while not a source of income, does require accountability to other people. 

Not to mention other actors in any show that has more than one person. Other people are giving up their time to participate in a community production, and each for their own reasons. While your reasons cannot be forced to be exactly the same as those of the others, a lackadaisical approach to rehearsing and performing, wherein you justify half-assed attitudes by claiming "this is just a hobby for me" shows a lack of respect for other people. If you want to do things only for your own benefit, take up one of the hobbies I have already mentioned. Nobody will care how dedicated you are.

Then time itself is as issue. I don't mean to suggest that serious hobbyists don't put lots of time into their passions, because they certainly do. But unless they are entering a specific contest, or have entered into some kind of merchant's contract to sell their wares, their time is their own. I would argue in fact that the whole purpose of a traditional hobby is to take part in the activity in the time you have left after you fulfill all of your obligations. But when you are in a play, even at the community level, it is in and of itself an obligation on your time. At least it certainly should be. 

There are amateur actors who will blow off a rehearsal or two or three because "it's just a hobby". But as I have already mentioned, if you are going to show respect to all of those other people involved, you need to be present when you say you are going to be present. Your other actual hobbies may in fact have to take a bit of a back seat to your theatrical endeavors during the life of the production. It's not a sacrifice everybody is willing to make. But if one is not willing, one shouldn't audition.

And setting aside respect for other people for a moment, theatre, and all that it requires, has a lot to do with respecting yourself, in my humble opinion. Can you keep your word, without having to sign a contract? Does doing a good job at something, and producing a quality product with no pay something in which you can take pride? When your name is on that playbill, and you are there in front of public audience, what do you want attached to your identity? The mark of someone who tried hard to produce a visual art, or someone who screwed around in front of dozens or even hundreds of people just to get a chuckle out of it for himself? Being on stage when it is not the way you make your living is about stepping up and believing it is worth being there in more ways than one.

But if it is not worth it for you, consider that is should be worth it to the audience. The time, and certainly the money of people who come to see the show is being doled out. You may not be getting paid, but those people out in the seats, (no matter how few seats there are in the house), have paid money to be there. And for some of the community theatres I have been associated with, the ticket price is not always an easy one for working class people to cough up. 

But they come. They come because they want to laugh. To hear music. To think. To be moved. To be put into the Christmas spirit. To be scared. To escape. Any of those reasons, and more. But they come, and they give the theatre company money for the privilege. You may never pocket that money yourself, but that doesn't change the fact that people are handing over their own incomes for the chance to watch you do what you do on any given weekend night. I can't speak for every actor, but for me, that makes what I am doing in the rehearsal process a lot more important than simply, "it's just a hobby." 

Finally, I'll comment on the big picture for a moment. The importance of the arts to not just a society, but to a community. The arts as an institution play a vital role in society as a whole. They reflect where we are now, where we came from, and where we are going. Whether it be painting, dance, music, or of course theatre, the arts are a way for civilization to write a love letter to itself. 

I am frightened at how each year fewer and fewer people in power seem to understand this.  They write off the arts in schools as "flippant luxuries", and slash public funding for same right and left. This battle is a serious one that cannot be ignored, in my view. But until such a time as arts erosion on the societal level is addressed and reversed, each individual community can contribute to the overall health of the arts, by supporting them, and displaying them, and making them available to the public. 

There are many ways individual communities can do this. Amateur theatre is one of them. And even if your town's tiny little community playhouse is doing nothing more than its upteenth, unoriginal and boring rendition of "The Pirates of Penzance", it is at least weaving itself into the tapestry of arts patronage. And if you happen to be in that tired old production in your town, you should be able to take at least a bit of pride in the fact that you are playing not just a part in a musical, but playing a part in keeping the arts alive, even if only a bit, in your own community. When you look at it like that, it is far more than a hobby.

Remember, it isn't about how much talent you have, or how good your voice is, or how pretty you look under the lights. It is about how much of yourself you are willing to commit to a community production. How present you choose to be. How driven you are to do the best possible job that is inside of you, regardless of the company, the cast, the script, or the lack of pay. If you choose to view it this way, you are already the sort of actor with whom I love to work.

In the end, the standards I have set here are not going to be realistic for many people. And that's fine. People who don't want to approach it like I do are not bad people. Theatre isn't for everyone. But then again nobody makes you do it. It is voluntary. However, once you make that decision to volunteer your time and efforts to a community theatre production, upholding the standards I have outlined here to the best of your ability is, to me, the least you should be doing.


An Article A Day said...

In the too few theatrical productions I have seen, which did bring me much pleasure, the word 'hobby' never entered my mind :-)

Ty Unglebower said...

Exactly. When the people involved treat it as more than a hobby, that commitment shows through to the audience. Thanks for reading and commenting!