The State of the Theater
New Bay Times Takes the Pulse of
Chesapeake Bay Country's Community Theaters
by Carol Mallozzi Glover
Ken Sabel, Joe Wildermuth, Roy Fulton and Peter Kaiser, right, in Colonial Players' My Three Angels. Hannah Thornhill, below, auditions for The Talent Machine's Holiday Magic while Jessie Crouse and Sarah Snyder look on.
The lights dim, the coughing stops, the rustling of the playbills fades. We are transported into another world, and in it our spirits rise as the play unfolds.
The lights come up, the applause reverberates, familiar faces nod and smile. It's been a great show, costing little more than a movie, taking up less time than a 30-minute drive to the theater. We even have time for coffee and dessert on the way home. Isn't community theater great!
"Non-professional theater that's open to members of the community," is how Robert Kauffman, head of the Performing Arts Department at Anne Arundel Community College describes community theater.
In Chesapeake Country, non-professional definitely doesn't mean amateurish. It means non-profit. Actors work for the love of it. Like The Talent Machine, where parents paint and change sets and sew costumes, most area companies don't pay their people. The Colonial Players all donate their time and talents. Patuxent Players and Alumni Players perform at fund-raisers, keeping enough revenue to pay for costs; the rest of the money benefits the sponsoring organization.
There are exceptions. Second Star Productions, for one, pays small honorariums to get the people they want, and Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre pays small stipends to its director, music director, choreographer and other technical personnel.
Methods of operation vary, but area community theaters are similar in their quest for quality and variety. Theater companies entertain their audiences, slipping in challenging and thought-provoking works among those old chestnuts we love.
As each theater tries to balance financial success and artistic integrity, local audiences see great shows.
Theater benefits the Chesapeake Bay community in many ways: giving local artists an outlet for their talents, engaging audiences, adding to the economy and enhancing our quality of life.
"Theater gives people a chance to show another side of themselves," says Annie Osborne of Alumni Players.
All artists need to practice their craft; the more challenging the role, the more artists hone their skills. Area theaters also give local artists a chance to learn and stretch; this is true for not just the performers in front of the lights but also for technical people. Colonial Players, for example, helps aspiring directors learn the craft by producing one-act plays for them to direct, by offering workshops that teach directing and by mentoring the inexperienced. The Talent Machine and Alumni Players teach youngsters all facets of theater: singing, dancing and acting as well as behind-scenes jobs like set painting and costume design.
Motivations are many. Thriving on the recognition, some artists perform to be seen. They love being stopped at the grocery store or a neighborhood restaurant and greeted with 'Oh! I remember seeing you on stage.'
Others perform because they can't not do it. "It's critical to their well-being," says Jane Wingard, a founder of Second Star Productions.
Community theater satisfies yet another need: artists who can no longer commit to - or chose not to do - full-time theater can manage a few months for a local show.
All the area theater companies hold open auditions for all their plays. Like many, St. Martin's Community Theater encourages new artists to audition, presents new works by area playwrights and performs musicals featuring local youngsters.
For those of us who love theater but have no idea where our talents might lie, all the community theater people echo Pasadena Theater Company's Sharon Steele: "Come on down and we'll put you to work."
Acting is also therapeutic; many people do it to relax. That's because, as Steele says, "Acting makes you forget about problems. A good performance makes you feel good."
Jeff Paulsen, CeCe Newbrough and Andy Bower in Colonial Players' production of Neil Simon's Lost In Yonkers.
Second Star Productions' Wingard agrees that community theater develops strengths. "When you work at other jobs, acting provides an outlet for creative energy. Other responsibilities like administration prepare you for leadership outside the theater. When you work backstage, you find valuable skills you didn't know you had. Working in theater teaches responsibility. If you let down on your job, the whole thing goes."
Actors gain recognition and increase their skills. Behind-the-scenes workers get self-satisfaction. Young people get a chance to learn theater and problem-solving skills. The community as a whole gets to feel, in the words of Anita O'Connor of Chesapeake Music Hall, "the 'Cheers effect,' where everyone knows your name."
"Theater enhances our quality of life; kids who perform make new friends, teenagers heading down the wrong road feel part of the theater family," says Mary James of St. Martin's Community Theatre.
Each theater company embraces its volunteers to build a family. Youngsters acting, parents helping, community members pitching in to sell tickets and work the lights - all get to know each other. Every theater company spokesman mentions community spirit as the glue that binds it together.
"Theater puts people in a good situation, working toward a common goal. The Talent Machine is a family thing; friendships made here last forever," says Bobbi Smith. "We've had kids who didn't fit in; they found people here with the same interests, and that made all the difference."
Not only do our community theaters build spirit within; they also reach out to embrace the community at large.
"I wouldn't want to live in a community that doesn't have theater of excellence theater shows us life in its many facets," says Beth Whaley of Colonial Players.
photo by Mel GrierVolunteers give shape to the set behind the scenes at Bowie Community Theater.
Bringing theater into a community has the potential to enrich us all, from the very young to our seniors. Lower ticket prices for students and senior citizens encourage all ages to see live shows. Troupes take their shows on the road, to senior citizen centers and retirement homes, bringing quality productions that save their audiences the hassle of travel to Washington or Baltimore. Nearness to home is an advantage for all audiences, but seniors appreciate it especially.
They, in turn, make up a large part of the audience of community theater, attending local productions in droves. Charter buses from retirement communities are a common sight waiting out front for the shows to end. Elderly theater lovers, who no longer drive, have access to affordable entertainment in safety.
At the younger end of the spectrum, some of the companies perform at local schools and encourage drama departments at the high schools to bring students to see their performances. Chesapeake Music Hall, for one, has Saturday morning shows for the younger set, complete with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Seasonal shows become part of the family tradition. Many area families see A Christmas Carol every year at one of the local theaters. It's a Wonderful Life, planned as a seasonal show this year by the Pasadena Players, has the potential to become part of our holiday celebration.
The Talent Machine Company not only has youngsters under the spotlights but also loads its audience with babes in arms, school-age kids and teenagers, all enjoying the show and enjoying the sight of siblings, schoolmates and neighbors performing.
To continue attracting these audiences of tots to grandparents, the area theaters perform a yearly juggling act to choose just the right shows. Some companies use a play-reading committee; others take suggestions from board members or let the directors choose the season.
Chesapeake Music Hall's David Reynolds - as Marley - warns Tom Quimby that Scrooge had better change his ways.
"We watch trends and try to gear our shows to the wishes of our audience. We put on shows that they love and introduce them to works not seen," explains Mary James of St. Martin's Community Theatre, which plays "a varied season and musicals with live orchestra."
A theater's season has at least one show for every audience type. "We have a balanced slate: comedy, mystery and one thought-provoking show," Colonial Players' Whaley confirms.
This season's local offerings fit into several categories: old favorites such as The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls; splashy musicals like The Wizard of Oz; thought-provoking plays such as Agnes of God and new-to-the-area treats like Sylvia.
By putting together such a varied season, our local theaters appeal to broad audiences. Some theater-goers come to be challenged by ideas and to mull over important issues. Others show up to hear music and to see exciting choreography. Still others come out to relax and to laugh.
As we become more familiar with our local theater companies and more at home in their theaters, we use performances as part of our celebrations: multi-generations show up at Chesapeake Music Hall to celebrate an anniversary; family members meet in the lobby of Colonial Players to ring in the holiday season with A Christmas Carol; tickets to Second Star Theatre's Nunsense make a birthday gift.
An effective way of introducing theater to non-theater goers and youngsters is outdoor shows. Outdoor theater is less threatening to audiences. Young and new-to-theater people can come to a show in an informal atmosphere, wearing casual clothes and sitting in seats much like those found in their own backyards. One visit to Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre convinces many.
We can measure some of the effects of local theater on audiences from the amount of ticket-buying and from audience comment cards. Colonial Theater sells out its subscriptions and St. Martin's Community Theatre musicals play to a packed house. Local theater's impact on the area's economy is harder to measure.
"We're a vital part of downtown Annapolis in the summer. Four nights a week, 200 people spill onto the streets, before the show for dinner and after the show for coffee and ice cream," says Carolyn Kirby of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre.
Restaurants near Bowie, Annapolis and the Route 2 corridor are regular meeting places after theater performances. Performers and audience members eat late meals or order restaurants' signature dessert.
"Our theater brings people from around the state into Bowie," Wingard says. "Having arts available locally makes it a better place to live." Real estate agents mention various companies like Bowie Community Theatre and Colonial Players as a selling point to prospective buyers.
Additionally, theater groups pay rent to churches and schools and lease space in community buildings. Companies lucky enough to own their own space add to the tax base.
"We spend on average $18,000 on a musical, buying lumber, renting costumes or going to the fabric stores - and we shop locally," says Kauffman of Anne Arundel Community College, explaining local theater's support of area businesses.
The companies that perform at fund-raisers for the Red Cross, local fire departments, museums and other charitable organizations ease the burden on local taxpayers.
Community theater contributes not only to Bay Country's quality of life but also to its economic vitality. How do we as a community reciprocate for all the wonderful nights spent in their company? Yes, we buy tickets, but other kinds of support are important as well.
"Performers appreciate the appreciation when we sell out a house, when the audience gets to its feet, the cast can be in tears," says Jane Wingard of Second Star Productions.
One of Wingard's set designers says "I work for hugs." Besides warm fuzzies, the community rewards its theater companies in more concrete ways. The Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County supports theater through funds, as does the Maryland State Arts Council.
The city of Bowie, for example, supports the troupes using the Bowie Playhouse by subsidizing 75 percent of their operating costs. Experienced theater personnel operate the sound system and lighting, help with set design and construction. A $50,000 renovation was recently completed; another $25,000 is budgeted for 1999.
Community support also comes from area businesses in the form of advertising in programs, lending props and providing services - such as printing the programs - at cost. The old-fashioned dental chair in the Music Hall's Little Shop of Horrors was borrowed from a local dentist.
Sharon Steele of the Pasadena Theater Company would like to see the area's newspapers devote more print to local theater, to help out more. "Many times press releases are not published, making it difficult for the theater to get the word out about auditions and upcoming performances," she laments.
Jeremy Ragsdale, of Broadneck High School, wears Joseph's Technicolor Coat in Annapolis Summer Garden Theater's production.
Yet a look at the Arts sections of many regional newspapers shows an abundance of live theater. Baltimore is blessed with the Morris, Mechanic and Center Stage; DC has become a mecca for regional theater and the Kennedy Center and the National Theater are pre-Broadway tryouts venues.
Theater lovers can always find out about local theater in New Bay Times. Through ads and calendar, readers can plan their theater season and read reviews of local plays. Feature articles and interviews spotlight all the arts. "Full local theater coverage is part of New Bay Times' commitment to improving the quality of life in Bay Country," says editor Sandra Martin.
Audrey grows bigger and hungrier in Pasadena Theater Company's Little Shop of Horrors.
But nobody's support matters more than the audience's. "One of the most satisfying ways of thanking us," says Osborne, "is just to verbalize 'I had a wonderful time.'" Many season subscribers write notes of appreciation and come back year after year.
Being in the Baltimore-Washington corridor also has an effect on local theater.
"People who have seen one of our shows performed at the Kennedy Center compare our efforts favorably. They get as good a show at one-third the price," say Lee and Mel Grier of Bowie Community Theatre.
There's a difference of opinion on the subject of the Baltimore-Washington corridor's impact on community theater. Some local theater people think being here between the big cities enriches the arts, leading to a strong interest that spills into their own backyard. Others, like Kauffman of the Anne Arundel Community College, say it draws off some of our potential audiences. Osborne agrees - up to a point: "Being in this corridor siphons off support - but just until local theaters prove themselves."
Being here certainly gives us a wide range of talent to draw on. Local colleges have drama departments, trained theater people live in the area and talented locals who chose not to move to the big cities stay here to perform.
"Professional theater sets the bar at a high standard. The sophistication of audiences is at a high level. A company has to prove its merit," says Wingard.
Patrick Palamara and Ray Fulton from Annapolis Summer Garden Theater's production of Kiss Me Kate.
Steele thinks there are too many theaters in Anne Arundel County. There's competition for talent as well as for actors. Mary James disagrees, arguing there's room for everyone. But, she says, it's hard to get rights to plays. Professional Equity companies can put a hold on performance rights, so community theaters must wait until the rights are released in order to perform certain shows. Sylvia, which St. Martin's Community Theatre will do this season, is one of those.
All agree that there are companies in our area who do such quality work that they can compete toe to toe with the professionals.
The state of theater here in Chesapeake Bay Country? It's -
"Healthy, growing, solvent and here to stay"
Mel and Lee Griers, Bowie Community Theatre
"Audience attendance is up this season, new groups are starting, it's a wonderful place to be."
Carolyn Kirby, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre
"We stack up against anywhere, the quality and talent are competitive."
Anita Patton O'Connor, Chesapeake Music Hall
"Some of our theater is very good, and we are in a position to grow."
Annie Osborne, Alumni Players
"We have excellent quality, can compare ourselves to off-Broadway. People need to pay more attention to us."
Sharon Steele, Pasadena Theater Company
photo by Mel Grier for Bowie Community Theater
Local theaters pump thousands of dollars into area economies on everything from rent to music, lumber for sets and makeup and fabric for costumes.
We have good variety, healthy competition. There is an active need to establish centers for the performing arts."
Mary James, St. Martin's Community Theatre
"We're healthy, with a large number of quality theaters."
Jane Wingard, Second Star Productions
"We're healthy but suffering from our audiences aging. We have to woo the young people, need to find ways to encourage people into the theater."
Beth Whaley, Colonial Players
We've taken the pulse of our community theaters and found it healthy and strong. Chesapeake Bay theater enriches the artist, entertains the audience, donates its dollars to the community and in return receives kudos from us all.
Author's note: In this article, I've presented as many local theaters as I could find. If I've left your theater group out, it's unintentional. Please write me care of the paper and I'll add you to our list. -CMG
Contributing editor Glover is NBT's theater reporter.
Anne Arundel County Anne Arundel Community College Pascal Center, Anne Arundel Comm. College * 410/541-2457 Guys and Dolls, Nov. 13-15, 20-22; TBA, April Price * $9 with discounts
Robert Kauffman, head of the Performing Arts Department, encourages students at the college, as well as members of the community, to audition for all roles and backstage work. "Theater here is fun," he explains. "I want students to have an enjoyable, satisfying experience."
Kauffman takes students to seminars with Broadway professionals, sets standards and stretches his performers so each production becomes "magical." Because the Pascal Center is in demand for theater as well as dance and music, only two shows are produced each season. Kauffman chooses challenging, well-written plays that are not being produced in other area theaters.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre 143 Compromise St., downtown Annapolis * 410/268-9212 TBA, Outdoor theater during summer months only Price * $10 with discounts
Founded in 1966 to give actors from Colonial Players and college students opportunity to perform during the summer, ASGT is housed in the former Shaw Blacksmith shop. Purchased from the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in 1967, the property was renovated as part of the renewal of downtown Annapolis, the abandoned workshop and stable becoming the stage.
ASGT brought Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to packed houses this summer. Three shows are produced under the stars each summer season. In October, board members take suggestions from the casts, the public and their membership and select the next season's plays.
Chesapeake Music Hall (Dinner Theater) 339 Busch's Frontage Rd., Rt. 50 * 800/406-0306 42nd Street, Thru Nov. 22 A Christmas Carol, Nov. 28-Dec. 29 Greater Tuna, Jan. 8-Jan. 31 The Sound of Music, Feb. 12-March 28 Big River, April 9-May 23 Grease, June 4-July 25 Sugar Babies, Aug. 6-Sept. 19 Price * $31.50 with discounts
The Music Hall, which is a for-profit venture, is included because of the integral part it plays in the life of theater in our area. Many of the actors at the Music Hall, who receive small salaries augmented by their tips as waiters, also perform gratis at local community theaters.
Doug Yetter and Sherry Kay became owners during the winter of 1995. Yetter, with 25 years experience performing and directing, has composed eight musicals including the Christmas Carol produced each year at the Music Hall. Sherry Kay is an actor, director and choreographer with theater experience throughout Maryland. Anne Arundel County's only dinner theater also hosts murder mysteries, cabarets and children's shows.
Colonial Players 108 East St., Annapolis * 410/268-7373 The Rainmaker, Thru Oct. 3 On Golden Pond, Oct. 23-Nov. 21 A Christmas Carol, Dec. 3-13, Sat. Nov. 21 Barefoot in the Park, Jan. 22-Feb. 20 Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, March 5-April 3 Angel Street, April 23-May 22 Price * $11 with discounts
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Colonial Players sets a high standard for community theater. Nine-time winner of the prestigious D.C.-area Ruby Griffith Award for best overall production by any community theater, Colonial Players is housed in its own building in Annapolis. Purchased on an option to buy in 1955 (three of its volunteers signed the note for the mortgage), the former garage is now just one of the three buildings owned by the Players; two industrial condos are used for shops, props, costumes and rehearsal space.
Colonial Players aspires to excellence, and many of its actors and directors started working in the theater as youngsters. A Christmas Carol, produced each year, has ticket purchasers lined up for blocks. At $5, it's the best theater bargain in town, with part of the proceeds donated to charity.
In recognition of its 50th year, Colonial Players is publishing For the Love of It: Colonial Players 50 Years of Community Theater. A hard-cover 120 page book, it is full of photos and priced at $40.
The Pasadena Theatre Company Humanities Recital Hall, Anne Arundel Community College * 410/969-1801 Dracula, Oct. 9-25 It's A Wonderful Life, Dec. 4-12 Godspell, Easter Season California Suite, Summer 1999 Agnes of God, Fall 1999 Price * $12 with discounts
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, The Pasadena Theatre Company has led a "gypsy" existence, moving from one venue to another: high schools, community buildings and a food market. They are now performing at Anne Arundel Community College.
This theater company takes pride in its use of live music for its shows and takes community theater seriously. It also promotes a family atmosphere, and family members work on the shows together.
The Red Cross will have a blood drive during the run of Dracula, with discount tickets for donors.
St. Martin's Community Theatre St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Benfield Blvd., Severna Pk. * 410/647-4360 Sylvia, Nov. 6-21 Wizard of Oz, May 7-22
Started in 1991, St. Martin's Community Theatre features live music for its shows. Mary James, president and artistic director, describes a "special theater company for everybody, that treats people well." A generous portion of their revenue goes to charities, which they have investigated and approved. Their board of directors has a cross-section of the community from a veterinarian to owners of a MacDonalds and a consignment shop.
The Talent Machine Key Auditorium, St. John's College, Annapolis * 410/956-0512 Holiday Magic, Dec. 11 - Dec. 20 Breakfast with Santa, Dec. 5, 12, 19 Ram's Head, Price * $10 with discounts
The Talent Machine Company showcases the talents of Bay Country's kids. Bobbi Smith, founder, director and choreographer, brings out the best in youngsters from three years to college age who are bitten by the acting bug. Many of her "children" are now performing on Broadway, in touring companies and as professionals in area theaters. Smith is proud of the number of college scholarships awarded to members of her troupe.
The Talent Machine's goal is to provide a drug-free environment in which kids learn about theater and work side-by-side. Each summer, area youth can attend camp, where they learn to sing, dance and act, then appear in summer productions.
A true family venture, Talent Machine parents and friends volunteer their time to build sets, sew costumes and provide technical assistance for the shows.
Calvert County Alumni Players Throughout Calvert County * 410/326-0466 TBA (Winter & Summer)
This theater company began as the Alumni Association of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Solomons to raise money for the school's arts fund. Annie Osborne, a former professional performer, is the founder, assisted by a core group of 10 volunteers.
This is a traveling company, on the road in Calvert County to help community groups with fundraising. A minimal fee is charged to cover costs; the rest goes to the charity.
Osborne also runs a summer theater camp for area children, bringing theater professionals from D.C. to work with the kids on mime, set and costume design.
Osborne is choosing scripts for the Alumni Players' two shows now. Auditions will be held in November for the winter show and in May for the summer show.
Patuxent Playhouse Solomon's Firehouse, Calvert High School Auditorium, Prince Frederick * 410/326-1401 Clue, The Musical Calvert High School Oct. 2, 3 Price * $10 for show only, $25 for dinner theater.
Founded in 1989, the Patuxent Playhouse's motto is "honesty, integrity and ability." This company travels into the community for fundraisers, performing for the Elks, The Calvert Marine Museum and at senior centers. This year, their production will benefit the volunteer fire department in Solomons, where they played in September, and the Calvert High School Band Boosters. They make enough to pay the royalties and some costs; the rest of the money goes to the organizations.
Patuxent Playhouse emphasizes community unity and working together. Geri Ford, one of the founders, points out that "kids come out of their shells, and adults make friendships that last."
Twin Beach Players Chesapeake Beach and North Beach * 410/257-7529 Christmas Carol, December TBA, March/Summer
Twin Beach Players is searching for a home. Meanwhile, Joyce Halley, the director, is planning for a four-play season, some dinner theater, starting with A Christmas Carol for the holidays.
Workshops in make-up, auditioning skills and improvisation are planned starting March 1999.
Prince George's County Bowie Community Theatre, Inc. Bowie Playhouse, Rt. 301 * 301/464-1205 Sylvia, October One Act Plays, Dec. 11,12 Trip to Bountiful, March Marvin's Room, May Price * $12 with discounts
In 1965, a group of Bowie residents interested in theater began performing in each other's homes. Sets were painted in driveways and stored in garages. Through the years, the name of the company has changed and so has its performance venue. Called Bowie Community Theatre since 1995, they perform at the Bowie Playhouse, a facility designed for theater and owned by the City of Bowie.
Winner of the 1997-98 Ruby Griffith Top Prize for Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, this company produces top notch productions with quality directors.
According to longtime theater boosters Mel and Lee Grier, "five years ago we were hanging by our fingernails. We received a grant that pushed us over the top. We've survived for over 31 years, and we're not going to let the theater group die."
Second Star Productions Bowie Playhouse, Rt. 301 * 301/205-0502 Nunsense, Nov. 6-Dec. 5 Noises Off, Jan. 29-Feb. 28 A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, May 29-June 26 Price * $15 with discounts
Second Star Productions was started in the fall of 1995. There is no board of directors; instead a core group of individuals volunteer for the productions. Jane Wingard, one of the founders, describes the company as "creative people who build off each other. We set high standards, have a love of craft and a lot of heart. Our T-shirt shows a sandbox and says, 'Come and play.' We're not a machine."
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VolumeVI Number 39
October 1-7, 1998
New Bay Times
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