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The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of an American Community Theater

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As a child, Leah Hager Cohen was fascinated by community theater-its magical pageantry and the complex camaraderie among its small-town adult participants. Twenty years later, Cohen set out to describe what would be an extraordinary year at The Arlington Friends of the Drama, in Boston. The theater had just celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, amid disputes over structural changes, and was about to hold auditions for its most controversial production, M. Butterfly. Celia, the brilliant, hard-driving director, struggles with the stars of the play; backstage, sets are designed, costumes are created, and the lighting is orchestrated. Chronicling the vibrant process of putting on the production, Cohen creates a poignant portrait of the dynamics that drive American community theater.

256 pages, Paperback

First published May 7, 2001

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About the author

Leah Hager Cohen

20 books150 followers
Leah Hager Cohen has written four non-fiction books, including Train Go Sorry and Glass, Paper, Beans, and four novels, including House Lights and The Grief of Others.

She serves as the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews
Profile Image for KP.
527 reviews7 followers
October 31, 2017
A lovely book detailing the exploits of a community theatre working to put on a production of M. Butterfly. I fell in love with this book hard and fast- I work in community theatre myself, and was both charmed and wryly amused to discover so many of the same people in their theatre as are in mine. I read excerpts aloud to my husband, who also works in our theatre, so that we could marvel at how familiar and recognizable all the struggles are, and the triumphs, and again, the people. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be making sure I purchase a copy for my shelves.

Where the book struggles a bit is that the author has chapters, somewhat randomly, from their perspective. Given the tenseness in the narrative (will Jimmy learn his lines?? will people come to the show?? will Patrick open up??), it was frustrating, and I found myself skipping those chapters to return to later. I also wish there had been some sort of afterward, indicating where all the key players were "now" (in 2001), or something at the end in general- it ends somewhat abruptly.

I loved this book, though, and will be pushing it at all my community theatre friends. It's rare to find a book that has a narrative ABOUT community theatre- professional theatre, summer stock, other sorts, it's out there, but community theatre is often neglected. So happy to have stumbled across this book.
Profile Image for Ethan Everhart.
85 reviews23 followers
March 5, 2021
Hager Cohen understands the inarticulate desire to put on theatre even without the possibility of compensation and how in some ways that's an even more "pure" way of experiencing that desire. The characters are all exquisitely drawn and relatable even in their weird ridiculous upper-middle-class lives because I share their weird insanity about this specific activity.
I greatly appreciated her interlude about her experience in revolutionary Nicaragua and how theatre there was political and community and relevant and the distinctions were blurred.
My main "criticism" of the book is that it could have been much longer, but there's a beauty in the brevity as well.
Profile Image for Liz.
534 reviews2 followers
January 27, 2016
Okay, my involvement with community theater is as a musician, the one facet that is not addressed in The Stuff of Dreams. Still, after reading it, I feel like I have done this play! These people are people I know, and their thoughts and their struggles have all been laid bare in discussions I have had or conversations I have overheard. Anybody who has been involved in a local theater is going to feel the same way – I guarantee it
Profile Image for Moira.
512 reviews25 followers
August 3, 2009
Picked this up on a whim -- the author occasionally gets a little too cutesy with her prose style and the alternating chapters of potted-performance-history vs. actual-community-theatre-production don't work, and it's about half as long as it needs to be, but entertaining and even fairly informative about what it really takes to make a theatrical production -- even "just" an "amateur" one.
Profile Image for Pamela Baker.
298 reviews4 followers
May 30, 2008
I liked this book mostly because I was going through the experience as I read it, though my play was vastly different than the one in the book. The similarities between the community theatre group and the ones I've been involved with were remarkable.
Profile Image for Ross Jones.
12 reviews
July 23, 2016
It was a very long read for me. It took me a while to get into the book, but once I was into it, I was mildly satisfied with the ending.
Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews

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