The Footlight Club remains a staple in JP for nearly 150 years
By Sophia Bartlett
The Footlight Club, established in 1877, is the oldest community theater in America, according to its website.
Despite its history as an elite and selective social club in Jamaica Plain, the volunteer community theater group is creating opportunities for anyone, whether in a performance or in the audience.
“We don’t want to forget where we came from,” said Liz Bean, the club’s president. “[We] really try to make sure we get out there in the community and show who we are … and how much people are welcome.”
When the Footlight Club was founded, Jamaica Plain was a neighborhood of prominent, wealthy white families. Now it is much more diverse. Joining the theater club was a “rigorous process” to help build a community in JP, Bean said.
Now, the club is reaching out to a broader audience, focusing on the community’s needs and trying to be a resource for Jamaica Plain.
The organization’s goal is to present the best in non-professional theater while preserving Eliot Hall, a Greek revival-style building built in 1832, according to the club’s website and Bean.
This season, the Footlight Club has performed “Stepping Out,” “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” and its annual “A Carol Christmas” show. Next year, the group will perform “Sweat” and “Tuck Everlasting!”.
Auditions are open for people with any talent, skill or general interest in theater.
“We have some people who audition for every single show and just keep coming back and coming back…but we always get new people, which is always so interesting,’’ said Bean. “We keep continuing to reach new people that either haven’t heard of us, or they have heard of us, and they just hadn’t come in and auditioned for us yet.”
Bean, the president of the club’s board of directors since 2020, has been a board member for 14 years and was the volunteer director for about 10 years.
Bean said the only paid people involved in Footlight are music directors, musicians, directors, and choreographers. The club also offers paid memberships at varying tiers, for those who would like to contribute.
“So many people get their start in community theater,’’ Bean said. “There’s so much talent in and around Boston…I just think that it’s so great to see new and emerging faces up on any community theater stage.”
Lorie Komlyn, director of volunteers, said she found Footlight Club when writing her dissertation on multi-functional opera houses in New England. She started volunteering for the Trustees of Eliot Hall to help preserve the building, and soon after started volunteering as an usher for shows. “Joining the Footlight Club as the volunteer coordinator is a way that I hope to support the work of all the artists,” she said.
Volunteers help with various projects like serving as ushers, creating sets and costumes, writing grants and helping with restoration projects at Eliot Hall — proving there is a space for everyone to help within the club, according to Komlyn.
“When volunteers are able to see their contributions collectively on stage, it imbues a sense of magic. And magic and wonder is vital,” Komlyn wrote.
Meredith Weaver, membership director, has never spoken a word on stage. She grew up in ballet and found a place in Footlight Club where her skills in advertising art, costuming and set building were valuable. “That is a place where there really is genuinely a spot for everyone, you know, everyone has a skill that is going to be of great value,” she said.
Volunteer work allows memberships and donations to help pay for work volunteers cannot complete, such as installing an elevator at Eliot Hall, allowing the building to be fully accessible in December 2020, according to Bean and Weaver.
Renovation projects continue to increase the accessibility of Eliot Hall, thus opening the door for even more members of the community who, just a few years ago, would not have been able to come and see a show. During “Stepping Out,” the first program of this year’s season, one of the actors invited members of the retirement community where she works to the show, and the first few rows of the audience were full of individuals using mobility devices, according to Komlyn.
Community theaters are incredibly valuable to the arts, said Bean. “Not only is there talent onstage, (but) there are so many people who are so talented that you just don’t know about.”
Sophia Bartlett is enrolled in a Boston University College of Communication Reporting in Depth class, which focuses on community reporting.