April 29, 2020

“Beyond Broadway”: PU Professor’s New Book Celebrates Community Theatre

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The biggest revelation for me was the combination of seriousness and fun that I saw at every rehearsal I witnessed at Kelsey Theatre,” says Princeton University professor Stacy Wolf, author of Beyond Broadway: The Pleasure and Promise of Musical Theatre Across America (Oxford University Press, 2020). “I loved witnessing those emotions sitting together.”

Kelsey is the focus of “Community Theatre,” the fourth chapter of Beyond Broadway. As its title suggests, the book examines productions by organizations throughout the country. Wolf’s research included visits to Worthington High School in Minnesota; the Zilker Summer Theatre in Texas; and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Colorado.

Although Wolf lives fairly close to Kelsey, which is on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, she did not always intend for it to be the focus of the chapter about community theatre. “Originally, I assumed that I would write about a number of different community theatres across the country, and examine how they operate differently,” Wolf says.

That approach would have resembled that of the following chapter, “The Sound of Music at Outdoor Summer Musical Theatres,” which includes the Open Air Theatre in Washington Crossing, Pa., plus outdoor theatres in Austin, Texas, and Marin, Calif.

However, once Wolf started spending time at Kelsey she discovered that it is “a consortium of 12 different companies,” whose productions are scheduled and overseen by Kitty Getlik, Kelsey’s artistic director and manager. “Each show runs for six performances over two weekends,” Wolf writes. “After the curtain falls on the second Sunday afternoon, the cast and crew immediately strike the set … then, by early evening, the next show loads in.”

Replacing one show with another on consecutive weekends means that “Kelsey as a theatrical institution does a remarkable amount of work, because there are all these different companies,” Wolf says. “A typical, busy community theatre would do maybe four to six shows a year.”

The “Community Theatre” chapter follows productions by three of the 12 companies, and observes the work of the directors. Frank Ferrara directs Playful Theatre Productions’ Little Shop of Horrors; Kyrus Keenan Westcott helms Into the Woods for the Pennington Players; and Kat Ross Kline directs Pierrot Productions’ Next to Normal.

Stacy Wolf
(Photo by Justin Goldberg)

“I decided that I wanted to center the chapter on the directors’ work and the different kinds of theoretical and conceptual issues that come up around directing at a community theatre,” Wolf says. “So I focused on the idea of community, the idea of professionalism, and the idea of labor and leisure. Once I found that framework, I saw that I had more than enough material — too much, really — so I decided to focus on Kelsey.”

With the immediacy of a reality TV show, readers are taken behind the scenes to observe the three companies as they work through every phase of production: show selection, auditions, rehearsals, and returning rented props after the final performance. “One of the goals of the book was to share with non-theatre people how theatre is made,” Wolf says. “I wanted to highlight the labor, the repetition, and the pleasure of making a show.”

Each musical brings its own idiosyncrasies and challenges for the directors to finesse with their casts and production teams. Ross Kline assures the actor portraying Diana, a mother suffering from bipolar disorder in Next To Normal, that the character’s pain is coming across. Ferrara helps the actor playing Seymour — the mild-mannered protagonist of Little Shop of Horrors — understand that his character is actually the villain of the piece.

Keenan Westcott re-choreographs the choral finale to the first act of Into the Woods during a difficult rehearsal, after watching the members of the ensemble repeatedly collide. The revised, simpler steps solve the problem. Wolf remembers that the director “was frustrated, but he didn’t show it at all! He just fixed it.”

A key difference between community theatre and its professional counterpart is that the actors are volunteers, who juggle their families and day jobs with their passion for performing. So the directors have to be particularly understanding about issues such as scheduling conflicts.

“It was always clear to me, at every step of the process, that people were choosing to be there,” Wolf says. “The phrase ‘labor of love’ captures what I found so inspiring; people were working and working hard, but it was not their day job. They were doing this out of love.”

Kelsey increases the accessibility of musicals, both to patrons and practitioners. Audiences pay far less to see recent shows such as Next to Normal than they would to see the Broadway production, and more diverse actors are getting opportunities to perform.

Keenan Westcott was determined to bring In the Heights, a musical that calls for Latinx actors, to Kelsey; the theatre presented the show in 2016. For that production at least one actor traveled over an hour for the opportunity to perform. Most productions, such as Ross Kline’s 2019 The Sound of Music, tend to cast performers from Hamilton, Lawrenceville, or Princeton Junction — though participants have come from places as far as Bucks County.

Despite the financial devastation that social distancing requirements are imposing on theatres such as Kelsey, Wolf believes that “people will come back with a hundred times more passion, commitment, and desire to make theatre together. This current situation will in no way diminish the creative energy.”

Wolf reflects, “I think that we see the value of being in the same space at the same time, more than we ever did before, and the importance of what theatre can do.” She hopes that Beyond Broadway gives readers “a newfound appreciation of the pleasures of musical theatre, and of artistic activity where they live.”

Kelsey Theatre has hosted the Kelsey Awards, an annual event honoring the casts and creative teams from each of the 12 companies. As Beyond Broadway notes, the awards have included Outstanding Lighting Designer, Outstanding Ensemble Performer, and Outstanding Villainous Performance. (Keenan Westcott exuberantly emceed the first presentation that Wolf attended.)

According to Kelsey’s website, the 2020 Kelsey Awards have been rescheduled for August 8. Whether or not this year’s presentation is able to take place, Beyond Broadway offers temporarily homebound theatre aficionados a chance to learn about Kelsey’s past accomplishments, and to appreciate the crucial role live theatre plays in building and maintaining communities.