A Sense of Community: Small Theatre Companies Thrive in the Five Boroughs

Special Features   A Sense of Community: Small Theatre Companies Thrive in the Five Boroughs Which are the oldest theatre companies in New York City? The august Lincoln Center Theater? The venerable Manhattan Theatre Club? The longstanding Roundabout Theatre Company?
The Heights Players' home at the Alfred T. White Community Center.
The Heights Players' home at the Alfred T. White Community Center. Photo by Jan VanderPutten

Ha! At a mere 24 years, 39 years and 44 years old, respectively, they are veritable beginners, wet behind the ears compared to the 53-year-old Heights Players. What? Never heard of the Heights Players? That's because, in New York — the capital of American commercial theatre, the home of dozens of estimable nonprofits — the Heights Players is that most modest, grass-roots form of organized stage enterprise: the community theatre.

It may surprise some that a city so bursting with top-drawer theatrical attractions actually has any community theatres. But New York has many more than one or two. It contains dozens of troupes, some of them with histories stretching back decades. The Parkside Players have been putting on shows in Forest Hills, Queens, for 28 years. St. Gregory's Theatre Group in Bellerose, Queens, has been in operation for 30 years. The Gingerbread Players, also of Forest Hills, has a 37-year track record. The Bayswater Players of Bayswater, Queens, is 35 years old. And the Douglaston Community Theatre began staging plays 50 long years ago.

Looking at those numbers, you can't question the dedication of the largely unpaid men and women who run these theatres. But you have to wonder why, in a city blessed every day with a surfeit of theatrical fare, they should feel the need to present and take part in amateur theatre productions at all. Why go to the bother, when Broadway is a short subway ride away?

Turns out, the answer is much similar to the sort you might get in any other part of the United States. "Most of us do it for the hobby," said Tom Williams, a director at the Douglaston Theatre Company. "It's our hobby and our love."

"What really amazes me is we still have some of the original members," said Ann Gubiotti, the vice-president of the Narrows Community Theatre, which is 38 years old. "It runs the gamut — youngsters, young adults and seniors. One of the board members is in his early 80s." She added that some of the people who founded the group in the early 1970s are still active with the theatre. Ed Healy, president of the Height Players of Brooklyn Heights, has held that position for 20 years and has been involved with the troupe for 45. He typically puts in one or two nights of work a week; when a show is in rehearsal, his hours increase significantly.

Among New York's community theatres, Heights Players is perhaps the busiest. Most companies put on one or two shows a year; the Players stage a whopping nine, and have a subscription base of 200 — large for a theatre of its sort. Most community theatres collect their audiences on a single-ticket-sale basis.

The Heights Players are fortunate in other respects as well. It has had a permanent home at Alfred T. White Community Center on Willow Place since 1962. Conversely, most other troupes work out of religious spaces. The Bayswater Players performs once a year at the Bayswater Jewish Center, which has a stage. The Douglaston Community Theatre works out of the Zion Episcopal Church, its home since the 1950s. The Narrows Community Theatre had to abandon its old stomping grounds at the Ft. Hamilton Army Base after 2001, for security reasons. Since then, it has been at the auditorium of St. Patrick's Church in Bay Ridge.

One might think that, given the number of competing productions citywide, getting quality talent for community theatre productions would prove difficult. But, their inability to offer pay or significant exposure notwithstanding, many community theatres say they have little trouble attracting good performers. "That has not been a major problem," said the Narrows Community Theatre's Gubiotti. "If the show is really good, people come out for it." A recent Narrows casting call for a May production of Sweeney Todd lured actors from all over New York City.

"Most of the time," said Healy, "if we do a show that people are interested in, we will get the talent to come and try out for it." As community theatres go, Heights Players tends to be a bit more adventurous, staging shows that were recently seen on Broadway, or are not typically attempted by small companies. Several seasons back, the company staged Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally's ambitious multi-racial musical about life in America in the early years of the 20th century. "We got a lot of people who wanted to see how we would put it in that small space," said Healy. "And we had an extremely large talent pool for that, too. That seemed to drag people out of the woodwork."

The community theatres interviewed for this article said their audition calls caught the attention of people from far beyond the immediate neighborhood. Williams said Douglaston productions bring in actors from Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. The Narrows Community Theatre gets performers from New Jersey. Auditioners from Manhattan are fewer. "They're looking to get paid," said Williams, succinctly.

As with community theatres the nation over, much of the audience is made up of locals and people who are familiar with cast members. "Obviously, you have a niche audience in the neighborhood," said Williams. "But a good portion of the audience are people who know cast members."

Being so close, geographically, to Manhattan, the Heights Players sometimes runs into special problems in getting the rights to certain plays. Some authors' representatives are wary of licensing a production too close to Manhattan, in fear that it will discourage commercial producers from potentially doing a future production. Healy said the Players recently tried to get the rights to both Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, but failed on both counts.

As a substitute, the theatre went after the rights to Ken Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood, a comedy that had a staging at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, in 2003 and was, at one point, thought to be New York-bound. The Players were granted the rights. As a result, a community theatre is in the unique position of presenting the New York premiere of a new work by a major playwright. "We didn't think we were going to get it because of that," said Healy. "But the rights of that were easy to get."

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