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Theatre@First puts the 'community' in community theater

Posted by Meena Ramakrishnan  December 12, 2011 10:11 AM

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“There’s something of a joke at Theatre@First,” began Beckie Hunter, one of the founders of the Davis Square community theater group and the producer of the current show, “Pride and Prejudice.” You can tell she’s told this joke before.

“It’s not a real show unless somebody loses a job, gets a job, finds a boyfriend, loses a girlfriend, and goes to the emergency room,” Hunter continued. “Sometimes we even have someone who needs to get bailed out of jail. But we all help each other through all of this.”

And that’s how it’s been for the past eight years.

Since its beginning as a small group of family and friends in 2003, Theatre@First has grown into a nonprofit arts organization with over 700 people involved, if you’re counting the people on the mailing list, or over 300, if you’re counting the people who were directly involved last year. But for all its success, Theatre@First remains focused on community over everything else.

“We’re really not just about making really quality theater,” Hunter said. “We’re about having fun and taking care of each other.”

Theatre@First began in 2003 when siblings Beckie and Elizabeth Hunter found themselves attending a lot of community plays to watch Elizabeth’s husband Jason, an actor.

“I and my sister would go, ‘Hey, we could do this,’” Beckie Hunter said. There were no other theater groups in Davis Square, and they were in a convenient location near the Red Line, so they decided to go for it.

They asked friends for help, and those friends asked friends, and soon Theatre@First - named for First Church Somerville, which offered practice space, though Theatre@First has since moved on to other locations - was placing signs out for auditions for their first production, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

During the auditions, “People were showing up off the streets, it was amazing,” Hunter said. 38 people were involved with the first show, about a dozen of whom still work with Theatre@First.

“By the time we were done, people were saying, when’s our next show? And we realized, Hey, we have a theater group. And eight years later we still do,” Elizabeth Hunter said.

For their next show, “All in the Timing,” more people got involved; and then more, and more, until Theatre@First reached its current staggering size.

And Theatre@First just keeps growing. About half the people involved in any production are new to the group, and Theatre@First encourages people at all levels to participate.

“You meet so many people from different backgrounds and with different skill sets, especially, and you learn from everybody. And not just the theatre people – even the newbies have experiences to bring in,” said Jessica Raine, who is in charge of music for “Pride and Prejudice.”
Raine has been involved with Theatre@First for about five years, since a friend asked her to be a stagehand.

“This is a great place to be a newbie,” Raine said.

Newbie Annika Blake-Howland agreed. She’s a Simmons freshman and a newcomer to Boston from Portland, Maine.

“Theatre@First reminds me of my old theater group in Maine in that there are a lot of really strong, amazing women,” she said. “Not that the men aren’t amazing, too. But where there are a lot of women getting together to create something artistic, that’s where I want to be.”

There are many more women involved with Theatre@First, but plenty of men, too – Elizabeth Hunter places the ratio at about 60-40.

Part of what makes Theatre@First different from other theater groups is its commitment to inclusivity. The mission statement says participants are welcome “at all levels of experience, without regard to race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, national origin, body type, age or disability.”

“I think a lot of theater companies are too focused on pretty people, or people who look just like the actors the BBC picked,” Beckie Hunter said. “Elizabeth has a way of seeing beyond that, the way of seeing who has that special something to bring to the role.”

Elizabeth Hunter agrees.

“We’re not Hollywood,” she said. “I like to think that I in particularly as a director am more concerned with acting ability and sincerity onstage than particularly with appearance.”

“We’re a community theater,” she added. “This is what we look like. These are the people in our neighborhood.”

Erika Smith can be reached at ewsmith@bu.edu.

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