The Play’s The Thing

Act I: The Confession

In which Jerry admits past sins and the fact that he has become a sissy boy theatre rat and that it really isn’t so bad because community theatre (as opposed to theater) is good for Georgia.

I had my 15 minutes of infamy at 16. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, it was my job as a pretend Indian, employed in the service of the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad, to attack the train, terrorize the showgirls and threaten the passengers with a rubber tomahawk, before being dispatched by armed conductors. Most of the time the blood was fake.

We didn’t consider ourselves “actors.” If anything, we were poorly paid stuntmen employed in one of the most exploitive, politically incorrect and morally reprehensible forms of live entertainment imaginable.

Every show ended with the twisted bodies of fake Native Americans littering the ground while the conductors holstered their pistols, the showgirls fanned themselves and the train steamed off, blowing a triumphant whistle. It was sort of evil and I’ll probably spend eternity in the hell of a million sun dances for saying this, but … it was more fun than skinny-dipping in a sorority swimming pool during rush week.

That goofy job was my only steady theatre experience before moving to Northeast Georgia eight years ago. If I’d moved down the street from a ballpark, as opposed to a theatre, I might have learned how to throw my knuckleball for strikes. Instead, I’ve been learning lines and striking sets.

I’m in vast company. Across Georgia, from Sautee to Sumter County, community theatres are reeling us in – performers, technicians, directors. We work by day, play “let’s pretend” by night, unless it’s a matinee. Our disconnected statewide troupe has enhanced quality of life and economic development in every corner of the state. The best estimate puts the number of community theatre groups at somewhere between 50 and 60.

Sure, we may blow some lines and break some props and we probably do shows like “The Sound of Music” way, way too much, but we make you, dear audience, feel good because you are conspiring with us to pull it off.

Well, we don’t always make you feel good. When we performed “The Elephant Man” here in Sautee, it was a somber affair. Stories about deformity and the struggle to define normality can be sad. And I don’t recall any of my fellow spectators humming a happy tune following a recent performance of “Equus” by the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. The show was stunning, but it’s hard to smile after two hours of heavy psychological drama about a boy who blinds a stable of horses.

So, even if the experience involves a little emotional pain, we make you feel better about yourself, or sorry for us – which in turn makes you feel better about yourself.

“I remember one awful production,” says Vicki Pennington, executive director of the Valdosta-based Georgia Theatre Conference, which promotes theatre of all types (community, professional, youth, etc.). “The scenery was falling down and actors were missing lines. It was obvious to everyone they were having a lot of trouble. You could feel the audience pulling for these poor people on stage. At the end we gave a standing ovation because the cast managed to get through it and survive.”

Getting through it and surviving is a rush. At 32 I played baseball in an 18-over league. I did it for the rush. Got busted ribs, an aching back and a sore arm for the effort, and still couldn’t hit my weight. I’m 45, slower, heavier and physically timid. But I still need the rush. It doesn’t have to be fun, but a worthwhile challenge, a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of camaraderie would be nice. That’s community theatre.

Forget the Wild West show. For me, theatre got interesting in October 1998 with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. The Sautee Nacoochee Center – a restored 1930-ish school building, with a 100-seat theatre – was a few hundred yards from our house. My daughter Sam and I, looking for something to do together, strolled down our little country lane to the center one day. We auditioned, got parts, met strange and wonderful people, and the play’s been the thing ever since.

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