Community theatre is a thriving pastime for enthusiastic actors and diligent behind-the-scenes staff, writes Dionne Christian.

You probably know her best as Shortland Street's grandma-from-hell Mona Mckay, but to me Judy Rankin will forever be the Standard Four teacher who helped encourage my love of reading and drama and held my hand when I cried with homesickness at the school camp.

Today, though, she's playing a different role again. Judy is directing Howick Little Theatre's May production of Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It. On this particular Sunday, she's addressing a roomful of about 35 hopefuls who have come from all over Auckland to audition for one of 17 roles.

Many are in their late teens or twenties and women outnumber men two to one. The "auditionees" are chatty, friendly and keen to be involved with a community theatre production, one of a huge number that go on around Auckland - indeed the entire country - every year.

When you start writing about community theatre, also known as amateur dramatics, you quickly realise just as every suburb and small NZ town has a rugby club, it also has a theatre group and many have their own purpose-built facilities that they're justifiably proud of.


In fact, there's so many groups, it's impossible to include them all in this story (sorry) so those featured have been picked to give a wide geographical spread or because they're marking a special anniversary.

For Howick Little Theatre (HLT), on stage since 1954, it will be the first Shakespeare staged in 20 years. There's a worldwide Shakespeare festival going on this year linked to a British campaign for a Shakespeare celebration to run alongside the Olympic Games in London.

Community and professional theatre companies in New Zealand are joining the celebrations by staging productions. Shortly after HLT's As You Like It, the Ellerslie Theatrical Society will perform The Winter's Tale while Titirangi Theatre presents The Merchant of Venice.

Judy wants HLT's As You Like It to be fun and polished.

If Ngaire-Ann Hobson, who's assisting with the production, is representative of the people involved, it will be. Four years ago, Ngaire-Ann quit her job as a fluoro-jacket wearing and fork-hoist driving warehouse supervisor and made a list of things she wanted to do.

Close to the top was to go to Hollywood and be a movie star. Ngaire, a mother of three grown-up kids, spied a newspaper advertisement to audition for a show at HLT called Lipstick Dreams - most community theatres advertise and hold open auditions that anyone can attend - so she went along and was stoked to land a leading role.

Now 48, Ngaire has since performed with Howick's musical theatre company Harlequin (who, in 2009, performed Cats at the Civic in Auckland city) as well as working backstage on a number of productions.

"I remember my aunty took me to kids' theatre shows when I was little so, yes, I was always a bit of a theatre buff but my family's a rugby, racing and beer kind of family so most of our spare time revolved around sports activities. It's been fascinating for me to see how a show is put together, and become more involved.


"My family come to all the shows I'm involved with and they're a great audience but they do some outrageous things like start Mexican waves round the auditorium and dance in the aisles. The actors love it, though, because it shows the performance is being appreciated."

Appreciation is very much welcomed given the work that goes into staging a show. Because most community theatre stalwarts also have day jobs, rehearsals usually begin two to three months before opening night, getting more frequent as it approaches.

There's a whole team involved both on stage and behind the scenes. Barbara Hieatt, president of the Papakura Theatre Company, says backstage volunteers are as important as those who want to be in the spotlight. "A community theatre relies on one big team and to put on a successful show, you have to have that from the front to the back or it does not work."

She says doing the more technical sound engineering or costume making is a fantastic way for people to keep alive hobbies and interests they might not do in the course of their normal working lives.

Increasingly, younger people are joining community theatre clubs because they studied drama at school and though they don't want to - or can't - make a full-time professional career out it, they wish to stay involved.

Onehunga's Dolphin Theatre turns 50 this year and has just staged The Mousetrap as its 250th production. President Sheila Summers says Helen Clark's Labour Government introduced a new drama syllabus into secondary schools which has proved an extremely popular option and drawn younger people to the theatre.

"We used to have a young Dolphins group but we don't have that anymore because the youngsters get such good tuition at school. When they leave, they come and join us."

And though it's still difficult to find older male actors, Sheila says because they've studied drama at school, including the backstage technical crafts, younger men no longer view theatre as something for girls.

"When it comes to the difference between community and professional theatre groups, I would say the dedication and the striving for excellence are exactly the same. The main difference is that professional people have it over us because they have the luxury of 80 hours rehearsal time and can cast people who are all fully trained actors."

But, occasionally, professional actors and backstage crew, like director and choreographers, do work on community theatre productions or come along to run training workshops.

Depending on how active they are and how many members they have, community theatre groups stage from three to six shows a year; it's usually a mix of musicals, dramatic classics, comedies and pantomimes or dinner shows for the Christmas season.

Work by everyone from Noel Coward to Henrik Ibsen has been programmed this year by groups across the region.

It's also heartening to hear home-grown plays - especially those by Roger Hall - are especially popular. HLT stages the Auckland premieres of local playwright Gary Henderson's coming-of-age tale Peninsular and Alison Quigan's (Yvonne, from Shortland Street) comedy Ladies for Hire. Down the line, Tokoroa Little Theatre is putting on acclaimed local playwright Dave Armstrong's Le Sud which features a first act with a large chunk in French.

Musical theatre is a genre all of its own and there are a number of companies who specialise in this, including Centrestage Theatre in Orewa (going strong since 1956) which stages mainly light musical comedies, according to spokesman Michael Sanders.

Its first show for 2012 is the circus musical Barnum, directed by Michael and for which the cast learned to juggle. He says it's the type of feel-good musical that appeals to local audiences - and given that the cost of getting the rights can be up to $10,000, it's important to find the right musical.

"You're only as good as your last show so if the last one was a bomb, it means you've got less money to spend on the next one and we want our production standards to be high."

All theatre groups depend on ticket sales for funds so they like to ensure their shows will appeal to a wide audience.

There's also an extra incentive for musical theatre companies to get it right. Most belong to the Northern Area Performance Theatre Awards (Napta) Charitable Trust which recognises excellence and talent in amateur musical theatre in the Northern region - from Pukekohe to Kerikeri - of parent group Musical Theatre NZ.

The Napta Awards started in 2001 and ever since have been hotly contested. The awards evening is eagerly awaited. They were held earlier this month to honour successful 2011 productions and the big winners included Whangarei Theatre Company for Best Musical (Miss Saigon).

So what's the attraction of community theatre for those who become actively involved and for those who come to see the many shows? Sheryl Watson manages the Playhouse Theatre in Glen Eden, where Playhouse Theatre Incorporated is the resident company.

Sheryl, who's directing the PTI's first show of 2012 Are You Being Served? (yes, it's based on hit the TV show), says live theatre always draws bigger crowds when times are tough because it provides a place where people can be together, be entertained and forget about the worries and woes of daily life.

"People come to a live show and they get bitten by the bug. For those who join, there's a real buzz about taking part in a production and being there from the first read-through of the script to seeing it all come together with the huge number of elements involved.

"Live theatre isn't like anything else; it allows you a chance to break out of everyday life. I mean who wants to sit around watching television when it's all sports, reality shows and meerkats?"

Contacts and what's on:
* Howick Little Theatre: The Priory until March 24; As You Like It May 12 to June 2

* Titirangi Theatre: Four Flat Whites in Italy until March 24

* Ellerslie Theatrical Society: Les Liaisons Dangereuses until March 24

* Company Theatre, Belmont: Fawlty Towers, until March 31

* Centrestage Theatre: Barnum - The Circus Musical, until March 31

* Harlequin Music Theatre, Howick: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, until April 5

* Pukekohe Light Opera Club: Shirley Valentine, March 27 to 31

* Dolphin Theatre, Onehunga: Ladies Day, April 7 to 28

* Mairangi Players: Mystery at Greenfingers, April 13 to 28

* Papakura Theatre Company: Footrot Flats - the Musical, April 14-28.

* Playhouse Theatre Incorporated, Glen Eden: Are You Being Served? April 14 to 28

* Waiuku Theatre Group: Unoriginal Sin, April 19 to May 5

* Manukau Performing Arts: Oliver, April 28 to May 12

* Auckland Music Theatre: Chess, May 12 to 26

* Waiatarua Performing Arts Society
* Steel Magnolias, May 16 to 26

Auditions this weekend:
* Waitemata Theatre, Henderson: Sunday: Blast From the Past - a cavalcade of musical memories. See the Auckland Community Theatre Trust's website for more on community theatre and groups we may have missed.