Modern challenges to an old art form

MACT Logo. Upper portion is comedy/drama masks with comedy mask in yellow and drama mask in blue. Lower portion has the acronym "MACT" and below it the description MN Association of Community Theatres.

In an article from over a year ago titled “Minnesota’s community theaters adjust to the times, seek new audiences”, the Minneapolis StarTribune interviewed many community theatre leaders, including several MACT member theatres. They included Sylvia Newell of Calumet Players, John Schroeder of Grand Rapids Players and Julianna Skluzacek of Merlin Players. The article talked about the difficult times community theatres are facing. Here’s a link to the original article.

Many of the old, traditional Broadway favorites were written at a time when standards were different. You have to be more careful about content these days. Now you’re even likely to get complaints when presenting popular old shows like Peter Pan, where you’re likely to hear concerns about the term “injuns” and their depiction. One high school had to cancel their production of The Foreigner over threatened protests about the show’s inclusion of the KKK.

You have to be more careful about casting decisions, too. Having to cast a black women in the lead for Sister Act makes casting the show difficult for small rural community theatres. Theatres are even getting complains when the do musical reviews, like Smokey Joe’s Cafe, when they don’t cast people of color to sing the songs originally made famous by performers of color.

Many of the more modern musicals have subjects and themes that might keep the more conservative audiences of many small rural community away from the theatre. Shows like Rent and Avenue Q are not likely to be well attended in some areas. Doing shows with controversial themes may drive patrons away permanently.

The COVID pandemic has severely injured the entire performing arts industry, sometimes fatally. The performing arts were one of the first industries to be shuttered by the pandemic. And they were one of the last to reopen. While their income may have been slashed, many of their expenses were not. They still had to pay rent or make payments on their facilities. (Even theatres that don’t have their own performance space probably rent space to store sets, props and costumes.) They still had to have insurance. They may still have had staff to pay. They still had to pay utilities. But they had no income. Government programs to help them were geared towards the larger organizations that had large facilities and staffs. Most small community theatres received no government funding to help them survive. And that money has long since been depleted. Even after reopening, crowds have been very slow to return. Many performing arts groups have not survived.