Listen, we need to talk. I’ve been around the Houston small theatre community for a while, now, and I have to say, I’m getting a little bothered by what I’m starting to see. To be honest, I think that much of the problem comes from a simple misunderstanding: You are not professional theatres, so quit trying to pretend you are.
Now, the reason I said, “small” theatre instead of “community” or “amateur” theatre is simple. I’m not just talking to those theatres that claim “education” or “community arts” in their founding documents. I’m talking to every little theatre that pays its actors less than Equity scale and its crew members less than minimum wage. You know who you are. I don’t care if you call it a stipend or offer them points on net as “co-producers”, if the total payout divided by the time you expect them to be there is less than a minimal living wage, you’re not professional. At best, you’re a start-up.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with running an amateur or startup theatre. You ask half of Hollywood and all of Broadway how they got their start and they’ll trot out some long, tear-filled story of the community theatre that first sparked their love of the boards. More so, small theatre inspires an interest in the arts in general, in literature, history, and even science and the trades. Small theatre is an honorable genre, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
It is not, however, professional theatre, so different rules have to apply.
You don’t get to prioritize yourself above your volunteers’ lives. The main difference between professional and small theatre is that, when all the numbers are crunched, professional theatres pay their employees something that comes close to what the government considers a living wage. If you’re not cutting checks for everyone in your shop, including for rehearsals, then you have no right to expect them to treat their hobby like a job. That means you have to make allowances for their real job, and sometimes for other issues that may come up in their lives. Parents have to put their children before their hobbies, and, these days, many adults are in the unenviable position of caring for an aged parent. These people can’t always maintain a grueling 30-hour-a-week rehearsal schedule. Or even a light 20.
I’m not saying anyone should tolerate bullshit. If an actor is skipping whole chunks of rehearsal or refuses to learn their lines or approximate their blocking, by all means boot them out like a hobo. No one wants a bad show, and tolerating bullshit is one of the quickest ways to get one. I’m just asking that you show some reasonable restraint. If an actor is otherwise tight, then letting him skip a Saturday to check on his aged mother is probably not going to kill you.
Really, I guess it all comes down to this: Never forget that your volunteers are volunteers. They don’t owe you a goddamn thing. Period. They do what they do for love of the craft and because you asked them to. Sets go up, props get built, and lights shine because someone— who isn’t even getting the thrill of having 50-100 people applaud their ability to spit out words —is making it happen. Ushers (and other lobby volunteers) get to see a show for free, but “free” often means they have to attend to the needs of 50-100 people, wrangle refreshments, ensure the balance of the box, and clean up the auditorium afterward. Don’t try to fob off unwanted chores on these people like they’re immigrant dishwashers.
They’re volunteers, and failing to show your appreciation of their effort is the easiest way to lose them. And without volunteers, you won’t have a theatre at all.