Volunteering with your community theater supports the beauty of the arts, and you get a free pass to see some incredible plays.
By Jane Hess Collins
You’d never guess from the outside that this gigantic, corrugated box of a building housed MetroStage, a vibrant community theater and the oldest professional theatre in Northern Virginia.
The lobby is a 180-degree turn from the Kennedy Center across the Potomac. A couch and a handful of bistro tables and chairs offer a place to sit, and flyers strategically placed on an end table near the door advertise upcoming plays at other community theaters throughout metro DC. The nostalgic-looking counter did double-duty as the box office and concession stand, where patrons could buy water, plain and peanut M&Ms, cashews and wine. Adele sang “Rolling in the Deep” faintly in the background.
Several of my friends have volunteered at community theaters and seen some fantastic performances for free as a reward. This was definitely an opportunity to check out.
While this 130-seat theater didn’t need ushers, there was plenty to do in the hour before show time. Dannielle Hutchinson put me to work.
A multi-tasking actor who is performing at the Wooly Mammoth Theater later this month, Dannielle has run everything from concessions to stage sets at MetroStage for the past five seasons. When she’s not in Virginia or DC she teaches children’s and after school acting classes in Maryland.
Dannielle was also my trainer. My most important responsibility, she told me, was to stand by a black step in front of the stage when the theater doors opened. The step and floor were both painted black and my job was to be the human shield to prevent audience members from tripping over the step.
Dannielle and I wandered into the dressing room to check on a prop. “Hey! Nice to meet you!” Veronica del Cerro, who would re-appear as the character Linda Rotunda in an hour, called out to me cheerily.
“Hi! How are you?” came a male voice from around a partition. Michael Kevin Darnall, who plays the hottie character Tony Aronica, stepped out to say hello.
Like many actors in DC area local theater, both had studied and performed in New York and throughout the region. Darnall had played a recurring character on the HBO series The Wire.
As the theater goers arrived Dannielle and I positioned ourselves behind the counter to sell and verify tickets, hand out programs (that doubled as tickets receipts) and sell M&Ms and wine. Dannielle ran back and forth between the service counter and backstage to check the stage props. Tonight was easy, she told me, since there were no scene changes.
An older woman approached us timidly and asked for a reserved seat in the middle because she was visually impaired. Easy enough-I placed a cardboard “reserved” sign for her on a seat three rows up directly facing center stage.
The next woman asked for front row seats because her husband was crippled. The poor guy was bent over at almost a right angle. Two more “reserved” signs appeared on two front row seats.
These personal touches and services are what I love about community theaters, and what makes them unique from their big brothers and sisters.
Twenty minutes to go. I anchored myself in front of the black step, but first hopped onstage and pretended I was about to perform in front of 130 of my closest friends.
It was terrifying. I hopped off.
Show time. I sat in the front row to watch the play Savage in Limbo, written by John Patrick Shanley, the genius behind the Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable and the Academy Award-winning Moonstruck (Savage in Limbo received a terrific review in the Washington Post and closes October 16).
The stage and the five actors were about four feet away from me. I could see every emotion, every tear, every freckle. Even the farthest seats were closer than front-row seats at a big playhouse. I was so close that when “Laura” and “Tony”, who were now speaking authentic Bronx, walked in front of the stage I had to move my leg so they could pass by me.
Volunteering with your local theater is a unique and rewarding way to give back, and free entrance to watch professional actors and playwrights is a perk like no other. Most communities have their own theater group and many have more than one. They all need volunteers. Check them out. Break a leg.