A History of Community Theatre

In one sense we’ve always had community theatres, because theatre is so often the expression of a particular community. But in the sense of community theatre as we know it in this country today, we are talking about a much shorter history. America had amateur acting companies in Boston before the Revolutionary War, and one of the oldest continuing community theatre groups in the country, Footlight Club, founded in 1877, makes its home in that city today. In the West, a Community Theatre was founded in Salt Lake City in 1853; and in the South, the Thalian Association of Wilmington, North Carolina, has been in existence since 1788, hosting a number of community theatre groups.

But the community theatre movement didn’t really take off until the turn of the last century when, with the advent of movies, the small-town professional playhouses either closed due to the competition from this new art form or were converted to movie-houses. Theatre-lovers in these small communities still wanted the real thing – live theatre – and they took heart from such European examples as the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Antoine’s Little Theatre in France, and began to produce amateur theatre in small groups and associations all across the country.

At first known generically by the term “little theatres,” these groups soon came to prefer the appellation “community theatres” as more accurately reflecting their goals and ideals: to celebrate, promote and perform the dramatic arts using the pooled talents and resources of the community.

Today, there are literally thousands of community theatre groups around the country from gypsy troupes that have just started, to more established companies in remodeled opera houses such as the Lyric, to larger organizations that have built their own six and seven figure theatre houses in larger metropolitan areas. In the spirit of community, many sponsor competitions, play writing contests and scholarship programs.

The average community theatre doesn’t aspire to professional status (although most aspire to professional standards). Only a small percentage of members go on to pursue a career in professional theatre. All of them, however, share a love and enthusiasm for theatre that pre-dates the present movement and is rooted in the history of the dramatic arts dating back to Thespis and beyond.

We’ve seen an ever-growing number of these troupes hosting web-sites, which is only natural since the web is another form of community. We’ve listed a few of these sites as links and at the Association of Community Theatre’s pages. 

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