A few days ago, a bombshell hit the Hampton Roads theatre community: somebody didn’t like a show and had the nerve to tell people about it!
Of course, I’m being a bit glib here; while some were upset by Celia Burnett’s review of the Little Theatre of Norfolk’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the real cause of controversy was a certain statement therein.
Published reviews, good or bad, are a vital part of any theatre community. They keep us striving to better ourselves, they are essentially free publicity for the theatre, and (most importantly for our patrons) they give the people we are asking for money a sense of what to expect. We have an obligation to our patrons to treat published reviews with a degree of respect, and we certainly shouldn’t be questioning the reviewer’s qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, if someone saw a show, then they are qualified to review it. Period. Our patrons can decide for themselves whether they agree with the review.
The real cause of controversy, and the reason for this response, is the assertion in the review’s final paragraph:
The Little Theatre of Norfolk is an amateur community theatre. The appropriateness of their choosing a rock opera to produce is questionable. Their selection committee might want to consider simpler, less ambitious projects in the future if their goal is to present quality theatre.
I know and admire Celia Burnett as both an artist and a critic, but this statement goes too far. LTN is indeed an amateur community theatre. But we (along with the other theatres in the area) are an amateur community theatre that happens to have a massive pool of talent from which to draw. I, for one, have faith in this community’s ability to create exceptional work, no matter how ambitious.
I have seen too many shows in the Hampton Roads area to count. Some have been wonderful and some have been… well… not. In either case the ambition in presenting a particular show has been largely irrelevant. Occasionally a seemingly simple show will fall flat while a truly ambitious one will outshine even professional productions. (I am reminded, for example, of the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s sublime production of August Osage County a few years back, a truly difficult piece of theatre.) I have yet to see a show that I thought was too ambitious for this community, even if it wasn’t actually any good.
One can argue that a performer hasn’t pulled off a role or question the wisdom of directorial choices, but to suggest this community doesn’t have the talent is simply ridiculous. We have brilliant actors, amazing singers, accomplished dancers, and many of these are even the same people. We have limitations, to be sure, but these are usually based not on ability, but on physical characteristics required of certain roles and what our space can actually support (sorry folks, no Phantom of the Opera at LTN).
In addition to our mission to produce quality entertainment, LTN has an educational mission (as do other theaters in this area). We have for years presented a scholarship to students pursuing theatre at the collegiate level. We offer occasional workshops on acting, auditioning, and the technical aspects of theatre production like lighting and set design. We partner with local schools to provide students opportunities to have hands on theatrical experience. We take our educational mission seriously, and it does not end at the audition table. We routinely have new talent auditioning for us. Quite often we have people who have never been on a stage audition for us, and many of us view it as our duty to foster such talent. Sometimes this means taking a chance in casting a relatively unknown performer and working with them that they might grow and (hopefully) succeed. But just as important is our ability to provide opportunities for our more experienced performers and technicians to further hone their talents by trying new, more challenging projects. Hence, we do not shy away from difficult material. Our performers get to grow, and our patrons get to enjoy more skilled performances. That is, of course, assuming everything works out.
There are always risks when we choose to produce any show. Will the right person come out to direct? Will enough actors want to audition? Will their schedules allow them to? Will our patrons be interested? Sometimes taking those risks pays off, and sometimes it does not. But we will continue to take these risks, because to just sit back and only do shows we know will do well brings nothing new to the acting community or to our patrons. We could do nothing but Neil Simon, Noel Coward, etc., but does anyone really want that? Those shows can be amazing, and we certainly do them; but we also want to bring more to this community: a community we all love so very much that we offer hundreds of hours of our own time without any sort of compensation just to maintain the institutions of Hampton Roads’ community theatres.
I have been active in this community for a little over six years and have met hundreds of performers, yet I am still continually meeting new people who blow me away with their talent and professionalism. The volume and level of talent in Hampton Roads are incredible, and shying away from ambitious projects would do nothing to honor either our performers or our patrons. The former deserve the chance to shine, and the latter deserve a chance to see them do so.