Mark Van Coutren is a 2017 graduate of Francis Howell North High School and will be attending Truman State University in the Fall. He has been active in his high school theatre program and a few surrounding community theatres. I had a chance to talk with him and get a younger perspective about community theatre.
What was the first community theatre show you did?
Inherit The Wind at Clayton Community Theatre. I was 16 at time.
How long have you been doing theatre?
I did one show in 6th or 7th grade. That was my first show in school. I kind of got away from it for a while. Then my sophomore year I was cast in The Bad Seed. It was an amazing experience. I loved it. I met so many people. I was kind of on and off until last year. We did Beauty and the Beast. I had such a good time there, I met so many good people. I decided from then on I was gonna do shows no matter what. I was put on crew the next semester for Wait Until Dark. I was head of the props. That was a very interesting experience learning how to help backstage. I now understand why the props people say, “Don’t touch the props.” After Wait Until Dark I was cast in Peter and the Starcatcher at O’Fallon Theatre Works. It was an amazing experience. I met so many new people. I absolutely fell in love with theatre again after that. Then I did Grease in my high school. And now I’m doing Shrek, Jr. This is my last show before I go to college.
What made you decide to audition for your first community theatre show?
I did a few shows at school and I decided, you know what, I’ll keep a look out. And then my mom, she saw it on Facebook. She said, “Hey we’ll just go to this. Sign up for this and try to get you outside of your school.” I was so casual about it. I walked in, I didn’t have anything prepared. I was just kind of like, ok I’ll try it. It was an amazing experience. I loved it. It was absolutely one of the best times of my life.
What about that show made you want to do more community theatre?
I was just able to work with so many talented actors.
What did you learn about the process in a community theatre that you could take back with you?
I learned actually how a theatre, how a show outside of school is run. At school, we just stay after school. But now we have rehearsal on this day from this time to this time. And actually how it’s structured. And sometimes if they don’t need you that day, they won’t call you. I wasn’t used to that. I would just show up sometimes and wasn’t needed. It was just seeing how efficient it was run. At school, since it was mostly kids, sometimes there is people not trying, people leaving early without telling anyone. And it’s just kind of annoying when that happens. But the people here were just so dedicated and always there. I knew definitely, I would keep doing this.
What have you gotten out of your community theatre experiences that you can take with you?
I’ve gotten a lot more confident. I’ve met so many new people. I’ve learned so much as an actor and as a person. I’ve gotten a lot more friends, people to know around the business that I’ll see.
Have you declared a major for college yet?
I have not yet. I’ve given it a little bit of thought. At first I was thinking I would either major or minor in theatre. But I’m not entirely sure that’s the direction I want to go in life. Community theatre, I fell in love with it, so I’m going to continue doing theatre for at least the rest of my life. At least. When I was looking at colleges, I told my parents they need to have a theatre program. So that narrowed it down.
What else has it done for you to help you prepare for going away to college?
It’s got me being a lot more comfortable around new people. When I first walked up to the audition for Peter and the Starcatcher at O’Fallon Theatre Works, it was very intimidating. Because I didn’t really know anyone. And they were all older people. I walked up, they talked me, got to know me, I got to know them. They were so nice. It got me a lot more comfortable. I got to learn a lot of new things. I had never really worked on set before, building stuff. And then at Peter and the Starcatcher, we all got there to help with the set. When I actually did it, I realized, hey I kind of like building this stuff. So that’s definitely something I want to help with.
Would you recommend other students of your age get involved in community theatre?
Definitely. One of the reasons is, this is why people fall in love with theatre. There’s nothing quite like it. Going to rehearsals, doing the shows. It’s kind of hard to describe. But people who have been in theatre know what I’m talking about.
How different is it from working with students that are all your same age than working with a cast of a variety of ages?
It’s a lot different. It’s kind of weird in high school, because the person who is playing the big, mean bad guy is the guy you’re sitting next to in math class or something. When you’re here in community theatre, you get to see many more experienced people. In high school, there are a few who stand out. But most of the time you all kind of have the same experience and the same level. Here, you’re with people who have done it for 20 years and people who this is their first show ever. It can be a little intimidating. It can be a little like a culture shock because there are a lot of differences. When you’re young and you’re in a play, if sometimes people get a small role, they won’t take it seriously. But when you’re in community theatre, most of the time, even if they have the smallest role in the show, they will give it 110% and so much dedication. In high school, it’s more like a club. It’s kind of like a social thing. The people here, that put in the work, that put in all that effort, and all that time, and sometimes money. There’s a lot more dedication.
Do you have any recommendations or words of encouragement for others?
Community theatre, and theatre in general, has just been an amazing experience in my life. It’s affected me more than I can tell. I wouldn’t know where I’d be without it. If anyone is on the edge of actually trying to audition, audition for a couple shows. And maybe help out backstage. There’s no real down side to it. It’s an amazing experience and I can’t recommend it enough.