By day they’re sixth graders or techie nerds. By night they mount plays and dazzle a devoted audience. Despite glitches, jitters and very little money, in the tight-knit world of community theater, the show always goes on.
Photography by Peter Goldberg
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Tuesday, October sixth, is a typical day for thirteen-year-old Lauren Pothier.
Lauren, an eighth grader at the Edward R. Martin Middle School East in East Providence, wakes up at 6 a.m. She spends the day taking the NECAPs, the New England Common Assessment Program standardized tests. She also finds out that she’s been elected chorus president, and her older sister Sarah takes her shopping after school to celebrate.
But by six o’clock that night, Lauren isn’t doing homework or playing soccer or text messaging her friends, like most eighth graders. Instead, she is standing on a stage at the Assembly Theatre in Burrillville, twenty-seven miles from her home, belting out “My New Philosophy” from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The song, which helped actress Kristin Chenoweth win a Tony when she played Sally in the revival on Broadway in 1999, can be a showstopper.
Lauren, who has been in rehearsal for RISE on Broadway’s production of the show for ten weeks, is charming everyone watching. With her hands on her hips and her body bent at the waist, she delivers the song with the panache of a veteran.
A few scenes later, twenty-four-year-old Tim Crepeau is standing on that same stage, looking dejected.
In his yellow shirt with the familiar zigzag across the middle, it is hard to imagine that Tim spent all day at meetings in Framingham, discussing Global Systems Integration as a financial systems integration specialist for Staples. Tonight, slump-shouldered and grimacing, Tim is Charlie Brown, a kid just trying to get his kite to fly.
This is the addictive escape known as community theater, where account managers and eighth graders and everyone in between spend hundreds of hours singing and dancing and memorizing lines after work or school. They get no pay and little glory, except the applause of their friends and families and random people who simply love to see live theater like The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof and Annie, the top three musicals performed across the country in community theaters.
The oldest in the country is the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It opened its doors in 1809 as the New Circus, highlighting equestrian acts. But by 1812, with a production of The Rivals, theater managers turned to live plays and have been showing them ever since.
RISE on Broadway (Rhode Island Stage Ensemble), in its third season, is in its relative infancy. But its mission, to “…produce high quality, affordable live entertainment,” reflects the goal of community theaters everywhere.
When I was fifteen, I auditioned for my high school play and won the part of Tzeitel, the oldest daughter in Fiddler on the Roof. Although blessed with a loud voice and a dramatic personality, I can’t carry a tune. I talk-sang my way through “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” a la Richard Harris in Camelot. When I auditioned for Oliver! the next year, I got the forgettable role of the undertaker’s wife. The drama coach bowed to seniority and put on a comedy my last year so I could have the lead. I even fleetingly imagined a life on stage, a dream I wisely abandoned. But those few experiences were enough to show me the excitement of acting as well as the camaraderie that results from spending late nights and weekends rehearsing together. It’s no surprise then that my own son, Sam, got the theater bug early and I now spend a lot of time driving him to auditions, rehearsals and shows. In fact — full disclosure — Sam is Schroeder in this show. Instead of performing, I have the dubious honor of watching productions at just about every community theater in Rhode Island. And there are well over a dozen, including the oldest one, The Players, which just celebrated their hundredth anniversary in 2009.
But this production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is perhaps the best example of the mettle that characterizes community theater. The show has been wrought with calamities almost from the start. In fact, after the show closed, Tim Crepeau said, “I was almost shocked at how well each show has gone.” On that Tuesday of tech week, when Lauren Pothier stood center stage and sang “Just like a busy bee, each new philosophy, can fly from tree to tree, and keep me moving!” the director, board members and actors were all still shaking their heads over the obstacles they’d had to overcome to get to opening night, just three days away.
Little did director Pat Stevens know as she sat at the Columbus Theatre on Broadway in July watching more than two dozen people audition for the six parts in the show what lay ahead. All Pat could think of as she listened to potential Snoopys and Lucys sing “Beethoven Day” from the show, “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors, or “Happily Ever After” from Once Upon a Mattress was that this was a batch of particularly talented kids. They sang. They learned a dance number.