Whether your interest is focused on stage or behind the scenes, participating in community theater can be a great way to gain experience while connecting with other art enthusiasts. Not only is it ideal for building your résumé; getting involved in a local theater program can also open doors to further opportunities and connections. Here's everything you need to know to throw your hat in the community theater ring—or in this case, onto the stage.
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Every community theater is unique, but one thing they all have in common is that they are run by members of a community, for the community, featuring members of the community. This is different from a small local theater which employs professional actors and crew, also known as “regional theater.” Community theaters are typically run by volunteers, and offer opportunities for residents of all ages, experience levels, and vocations to get involved. Additionally, community theaters enable members of the community to enjoy live productions at an accessible price point, enriching the lives of everyone both on stage and in the audience.
How to join community theater
With over 6,000 community theaters in the United States according to the American Association of Community Theater, odds are pretty good that there's at least one in your area. Here's how you can find one (or more!) near you.
- Search online. Not all community theater companies maintain an updated website, but many do! You can search for "community theater near me" or "local theaters" to see who they are and what shows they've got coming up. You can also browse Backstage’s casting calls for plays.
- Check out your state's theater association website. Not every states has one, but those that do—like the Colorado Community Theatre Coalition, Georgia Theatre Conference, and Theatre Association of New York State—will likely be able to help you find community theaters in your area.
- Ask around. Your friends and neighbors may know of, or even be involved in, community theater programs in your area. Put the word out that you're interested in becoming involved, and you may discover you have theater connections you didn't even know about.
- Check local community postings. Many community theaters advertise their shows the old fashioned way: through fliers and posters posted around town. Check community bulletin boards at your local library, rec center, YMCA, coffee shop etc. to see if any shows are coming up.
- Email your school district. Lots of community theaters utilize public school stages for rehearsals or performances. The school district may be able to put you in touch with theatrical organizations that use their facilities.
- Explore social media. Most community theaters will have some sort of social media presence, and may follow other theaters in and around the same area. Once you find one, you can look through their social media feeds and see if they are connected to other programs—you may end up finding several all in one go.
Once you've found a local community theater or two, make sure to follow them on social media and sign up for their email lists, so you never miss an audition opportunity or announcement of an upcoming production.
How to audition for community theater
One of the great things about community theater is that it's open to everyone, regardless of experience. Whether you're an established actor or a beginner looking to try something new, you are free to audition for a role. Audition guidelines do vary from one community theater to the next, so it's important to pay attention to exactly what your local theater is asking for.
If your theater has a website or social media presence, it’s a good place to look for audition information. Additionally, newsletters and email blasts may send audition information to those who have opted in. If you can't find any information about how to audition for an upcoming production, you can always contact the theater directly by phone, email, or social media to inquire.
Once you've found the audition guidelines, you should prepare for it like any other audition. Learn the audition materials as best you can, show up on time, and follow any instructions you are given by the director. Community theater will likely not require a reel or headshot, but will still expect you to be prepared and enthusiastic when you arrive.
Can union actors participate in community theater?
Technically, Actors' Equity union actors are not supposed to participate in non-union productions, which includes community theater. However, if your community production meets Actors' Equity guidelines, members may apply for a Special Appearance Agreement in order to participate.
SAG-AFTRA rules apply only to performances for recorded and broadcast media, which should not apply to community theater unless the production is being recorded for public distribution.
How much does community theater pay?
If you're looking to make money acting, community theater is likely not going to be the way to do it. The vast majority of community theaters do not pay their actors, and nearly everyone who participates does so on a voluntary basis. That said, community theaters are still real productions, so it's important to take the commitment seriously even if it comes without a paycheck. And of course, gaining experience will lead to future opportunities, which means involvement could result in your ability to make money acting down the line.
A few off-stage community theater positions are sometimes paid, such as directors, designers, stage management, musicians and box office staff. However, these roles typically offer a stipend rather than a significant salary.
The simple fact that thousands of people participate in community theater every year as volunteers is good evidence that involvement is worth the time and energy, even without a paycheck. Although amateur acting alongside a cast of volunteers isn't likely to make you famous, there are still plenty of benefits from getting involved in your local community theater program.
Build your résumé. If you're just starting out, community theater is a good opportunity to get some solid credits under your belt. Typically, competition for community theater roles is far less fierce than professional theater, giving you a better shot at getting cast in a meatier role than if you were auditioning alongside an intimidating roster of established professionals.
You never know what your earliest stage credits will lead to; after all, actors like Andrew Rannells and Constance Wu started in community theater. And you also never know who’s watching. At age 13, future Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe caught the eye of his local Wisconsin paper while acting in community theater.
"Despite his age, 13, [Dafoe] does more than memorize lines and recite them at the proper time,” the Appleton Post-Crescent wrote. “He actually ACTS and reacts and works subtleties into the part. His embellishments, surprisingly for a youth, are not just hamming it up. This is a lad with a promising future on the stage."
Gain experience and confidence. Community theater gives you a chance to practice auditioning and rehearsing for live shows in a friendly and supportive environment. It's an opportunity to hone your skills in a low-risk setting, with a group of performers who are all rooting for you to succeed.
Make connections. While you're not likely to stumble across A-List Hollywood or Broadway talent doing community theater (unless they've got a kid in the show), everyone gets their start somewhere. Plus, everyone who participates in community theater with you has an appreciation for the arts and the stage, and some may even move on to work in the entertainment industry. Do a good job, be a team player, and support your fellow participants, and you never know when one of the connections you make across a local stage could be in a position to offer you a bigger job. And even if it doesn't work out that way, there's no downside to surrounding yourself with people who share your passion for acting and theater. Maybe you'll make a beneficial professional connection, or maybe you'll find lifelong friends. Either way, it seems like a win.
Support the arts. It's no secret that the arts are in a constant battle for survival in the United States. Participating in local theater programs shows community support for the arts, which helps programs gain funding and legitimacy. Playing Nicely Nicely Johnson in your community production of “Guys and Dolls” on a middle school stage might feel quaint, but every bit of experience helps, and every successful community theater production helps make the case that the arts are a vital part of a thriving society.
Bolster your community. Community theaters do a lot to enhance the lives of the people in their communities. Theater can provide children with opportunities to safely express themselves, build confidence, learn about teamwork and responsibility, and work out excess energy in a healthy and productive way. For adults, community theater offers an outlet for creativity and involvement, encourages civic engagement, and promotes the value of the community itself. It also gives the people who attend the performances something to look forward to and enjoy together, creating a sense of unity that can lead to deeper engagement in all aspects of community life.
It's fun! Most people pursuing careers as performers do so because they genuinely enjoy it. Community theater can serve as a reminder of all the things you enjoy about working in the arts, revitalizing your enthusiasm for performing and giving you energy to keep going.