Community

by Jamie Ferguson

I am a theater person. Surprising, I know, to find a theater person writing an article in a theater program, but anyway. I moved to Los Angeles recently, and I was a bit nervous about what I would find once I ventured into the theater community out here. I was afraid that in L.A., theater might get pushed to the side, marginalized in the shadow of the multi-million dollar film industry. I’m a big fan of film, I really am, but my loyalty lies in live theater. Live theater has shaped the majority of my life, and I was afraid that Los Angeles might be lacking the creativity, joy and dedication that I love about it.

Much of this love comes from my beginnings in community theater. My hometown is Tryon, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed “Friendliest Town in the South.” Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we are the very definition of a small town. I believe the last census put the population at 1,646 – there are high schools in Los Angeles bigger than my entire town. I tell you this so that you understand the scale I mean when I say “community theater.”

For a southern town – complete with the prerequisite generous portion of Confederate flags – Tryon is surprisingly artistic. The theater is fairly well supported by the community at large, which made it a great place to grow up. Us theater-people were a small family in the midst of a close-knit community, and I loved it. There were about forty people who were consistently involved, and I knew all of them very well. One of my favorite memories is walking in to a dress rehearsal for The Sound of Music (I was Mother Abbess at the ripe old age of 13). Singing The Beatles’ “When I’m 64,” I came in through the main auditorium, where Jimm Brink was working on the lights, passed through the green room, where Mrs. Bartlett was trying fruitlessly to force small children into nun habits, and into the make-up room, where various harried mothers were drawing wrinkles with eyeliner in an futile effort to make 10-year-olds look elderly. And in each room I passed through, everybody old enough to know the song joined me in singing, sometimes complete with harmony. For a moment, my life was as enjoyably absurd as Mamma Mia.

I lived in this tiny town for eighteen years, during which time, I was almost always involved in the community theater. And then, I moved to Los Angeles.

Now, I don’t know if you know this, but Los Angeles is big. It’s mind-blowingly, ridiculously, alarmingly big. Of course, I may feel this way simply because the entire population of my town could move here and not a soul would notice or care, but I still think it’s a fair point. It’s a large city. I can imagine nothing more different from Tryon. So imagine my surprise when I nervously began to venture into the world of theater out here and discovered that, although admittedly much larger, this theater community feels much the same as the Tryon Little Theater back home.

I recently attended a few shows on Theatre Row out in Hollywood, and even though I felt it may have been a good idea to carry mace and maybe a small shiv through the neighborhood, once I got to the box office window, I was suddenly at home. The shows and the atmosphere inside the theater felt just like walking into a Tryon performance. Everybody knew each other, everybody was laughing and smiling and being just a little overly fabulous (the way theater people do), and they were all so supportive. You could tell that everybody was there because they just love theater and would do anything to keep it going.

The same was true when I went to an audition. I was really quite nervous about this, because I know the market is astronomically bigger here. This is less like suddenly being a little fish in a big pond, and more like suddenly being a little fish thrown off the planet into the solar system to swim with planets. So, as you can tell, I was nervous. But as soon as I walked in, the feeling vanished. Everybody in the room was in the same boat as me. We all had the same interests, the same passions, and we were all there because we wanted to be there. As soon as I realized that, I relaxed and just had the best time. Whether that helped the actual audition or not, I guess we’ll see. But the point is, theater here feels like a family. Occasionally dysfunctional, I’m sure, but on the whole, there’s a feeling of love, excitement and innovation that is wonderfully familiar to me. It’s the same feeling that comes from producing a full-fledged production when you barely have the budget to buy a bucket of paint. Out here, the budget may be a little more than I’m used to, but the feeling is the same.

I am no longer nervous about Los Angeles theater. From what I’ve seen and experienced, I want to be a part of this. I want to know these people. I want to support them by going to their shows, and hopefully, I can become a part of their family.

And maybe one day, these will be the people joining me in the chorus of The Beatles as I pass through.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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