Local theaters have big impact on community


The audience is abuzz with anticipation, speaking in murmurs throughout the auditorium as they wait for the performance of “Godspell” at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bay City to begin. Backstage, cast members made up of pastors, baristas and everyday people just like you scurry around applying makeup, warming up their voices and making sure all their props are in place to ensure a smooth show. Places are called, the lights go down and the audience and cast embark upon a magical trip back to Biblical times as the parables and ministry of Jesus Christ is brought to life.

Community theater is credited for being the playground for performance minded people, the launching pad for young performers and a vehicle for impact on communities across the nation.

“The arts are essential to a community’s well-being, because they remind us that life has a higher purpose than the mundane,” said Ron Zeigler, a Fields Service Director for the American Association of Community Theater. Zeigler helps to organize and advise state theater associations across the nation.

“There is a trend of community theaters failing. Some communities see the value and those theaters continue to thrive,” said Tommy Wedge, adjunct faculty instructor of theater at Saginaw Valley University, who has directed many productions at Pit and Balcony in Saginaw. “Community involvement and community support is essential,” he shared.

The tri-city area is home to several longstanding community theater organizations such as Pit and Balcony in Saginaw, Bay City Players in Bay City and Midland Center for the Arts’ Centerstage Theater in Midland.

A launching pad and playground

These theaters have served as launching pads for actors such as Brian D’ Arcy James of Saginaw. He is currently starring in the Broadway show, “Something Rotten.” As a young person, D’ Arcy was active at Pit and Balcony as well as Midland Center for the Arts.

“If there had been no community theater, would there be a Brian D’ Arcy James on Broadway?” asked Martha Humphreys, president of Pit and Balcony in Saginaw for the past two years.

The majority of participants in Community Theater are not aspiring actors, but rather, regular people with a typical 9-5 job who have a knack for the dramatic.

“This is the same as a bridge club or bowling league. There has to be people who have that passion. I look at the adults and for them this is their outlet- they’re not going to go to New York. They get to do what they want to do and be creative,” said Humphreys.

Carly Peil of Auburn has performed with several theater organizations such as the Bay City Players, Pit and Balcony, and Centerstage Theater at Midland Center for the Arts since the beginning of her theater career at age 9 in 2005.

Peil shared, “For me it’s been a really good outlet. It’s one of the things I really feel like I belong and am decent at.”

Creating dialogue

Community Theater can also begin dialogue on important issues in society with shows such as “Next to Normal,” set to open in May at Pit and Balcony. “ ‘Next to Normal’ is dealing with mental illness in a very real and compassionate way,” said Humphreys. “Unless these things are addressed, then they are going to stay the same. “

Another show that has created dialogue has been the rock musical “Spring Awakening.” Peil played the role of Elsa in the 2014 Pit and Balcony production of the musical.

The musical dealt with topics such as teenage sexuality, suicide, depression and homosexuality. “It’s hard subject matter and it’s dark and profane. We were nervous going into it, but people thanked us for bringing this stuff to life,” Peil shared, “To see these intimate moment and these intimate things and intimate topics-It’s really powerful to see that on a stage.”

“To go see a show and start talking about the show and it gets you into the topic. It’s really cool. It just opens these doors that people are afraid of walking through themselves, but once they have that assistance of like that visual example of it, all of a sudden it just becomes a lot easier,” said Peil.

Giving children a voice

According to the American Alliance for Theater and Education, theater education improves academic performance, builds self-esteem and students who are involved in theater outscore their non-theater peers on tests such as the SAT.

“I see kids in the beginning of a theater camp, they are introverted and by the end of the week they make friends and really find their voice,” said Wedge.

“As a child, to interact with adults and have that high bar set for you, it really increases your confidence,” said Emily Anderson, who has been involved with Centerstage Theater since she was 16, not only a performer, but as a leader in the organization.

Her involvement in community theater has not only been a hobby and occupation, but a place to find love. Anderson met her husband working on “Hello Dolly” when she was in high school. “We were a show-mance and somehow made it through.”

Helping to fuel the local economy

In addition to its contributions to the art scene and bringing to light heavy topics, nonprofit community theaters contribute to the 61.1 billion dollars generated by nonprofits arts organizations. Add to this figure the 74.1 billion dollars spent on event-related expenditures by audience members. This money is being brought back into the communities of these theaters, according to a study done by AmericansFortheArts.org.

“It [having a community theater] shows you have a successful economy going on,” Humphreys said, “It shows diversity in an area because theater is common ground.”

Having a common ground in theater is especially valuable for a community like Saginaw, according to Humphreys, “Saginaw is an extraordinarily diverse community. Theater is all about inclusiveness and I think that’s the biggest role we can play.”

Getting involved

Getting involved in community theater is easier than you think, and being involved can entail anything and everything from performing to backstage work, office work, costuming, lighting and sound design. There is a place for everyone.

“We’re happy to have all of them- the more the merrier!” Humphreys said.

“Just give it a try one time and see how it affects you. I think that is something that people underestimate- that art changes lives, art helps people find parts of themselves that they never knew, art helps people be more comfortable with themselves,”  said Peil.

As the cast exits the auditorium of Westminster Presbyterian after the finale, the audience rises to their feet applauding the performance. Smiles on their faces, they are released from the spell the show cast upon them. As they leave, the performance becomes a memory of a night where members of the community came together in the name of theater and left a mark the community.

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