Curtains Rising on Bay Country Theatre
by Carol Glover
A dozen community theater troupes plan to fill your nights - and some afternoons - with thrillers and chestnuts, comedies, kiddy pageants and Christmas Carols, musicals and melodramas. While you wait for the curtains to rise, here's a peek behind scenes.
The theater lights dim. The music swells. The footlights focus. The play begins. Transported, we join neighbors and friends in places, circumstances and characters built from imagination and dreams.
We don't have to drive far, ticket prices are reasonable and the plays are good in Bay Country's many community theaters.
Most companies are non-profits run by amateurs who work, in the true sense of the word, for love instead of pay. The actors or set designers may be neighbors; the usher or sound engineer might be the high school kid down the block.
All the companies have loyal followers, the playgoers who show up regularly and feel most at home with that one company. Local actors are vagabonds traveling from company to company, hanging their hats wherever there's a production that suits them. Opening night seats fill with actors who come to encourage and support their on-stage compatriots.
Each theater company has its own DNA, the characteristics that hold true whether comedy or drama lights its stage. These traits can include a family atmosphere, conscientious volunteers, convenient location, charitable works, growth opportunities for performers and crew, playgoer loyalty and quality of productions.
As the millennial theater season opens, NBT peeks behind the curtain at our community theater companies, charting the traits they have in common, their differences and the obstacles they must overcome.
Just Like Home
Most area theater companies cite "family" as one of their appeals, but they define family in many ways. For some companies, it means planning a season with at least one show the whole family can enjoy together. In Calvert County, Alumni Players president Annie Osborne adds a summer family show to a regular program of "dinner theater for adults and old-fashioned fun shows with nothing offensive."
Thinking along those same lines, the board of directors of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre picks family-oriented plays that appeal to wide audiences. Diana Smear, director of marketing, explains that "the shows we pick can be enjoyed and understood by school-age children." This probably explains why Summer Garden Theatre draws groups of young people to its productions, even to Shakespeare.
Especially popular are family attractions at points in the year that bring generations together. Pasadena Theatre Company brings the audience back year after year with traditional favorites at Christmas and Halloween.
"Families like to take their children to a seasonal show. Dracula was very popular," says company president Sharon Steele. For the last two years, the company has had similarly good response to It's a Wonderful Life because, Steele thinks, "it gets people thinking why we have Christmas and what the season means. It's a welcome change from A Christmas Carol."
This year, Pasadena Theatre Company will oblige with one new and one familiar holiday offering: Jekyll and Hyde for the Halloween season and It's A Wonderful Life during the winter holidays.
The "families" of other companies are homey and welcoming. At the Chesapeake Music Hall - a commercial venture included here because it's a vital part of our theater community and a lively venue for many actors who appear in nonprofit community theater - owner Sherri Kay, at right, talks about "our family atmosphere."
"People feel comfortable here," Kay says. This feeling emanates from performers who come up close to wait on your table and Kay herself as she strolls through the theater playing hostess. Entering Chesapeake Music Hall is indeed like visiting family: they remember you, talk about the production and make you feel at home.
This same warmth envelops the audience at Colonial Players. Pat Browning, who's taken on the job of publicity director in the Players' 51st year, describes the company as "a close knit family, very welcoming to newcomers."
As at Chesapeake Music Hall, Colonial Players' audiences are all in the family. Eighty percent of their shows are sold out in advance to loyal subscribers who attend year after year. This love of the local company was very much in evidence during its 50th anniversary season. Journeying from as far as Hawaii for the anniversary party were over 200 people: performers, backstage volunteers and theatergoers. Browning describes the event as a "family reunion."
Every Hand a Star
Volunteers are the workforce of community theater. They're responsible for a theater's welcoming atmosphere, its successes - and for opening its doors. Without volunteers, there would be no community theater.
What do these volunteers do and what's in it for them? Lots, they've told us: from socializing to trying on new lives to living a dream to being part of something grand.
Mel Grier - charter member, actor and board member at Bowie Community Theatre - is a typical, dedicated volunteer thespian. When Grier puts on his actor's hat, his satisfaction comes from interaction. "When I have a comedic part and deliver a line well, I get a great charge as the audience responds," he says.
Volunteering has repopulated the world of Colonial Players' Browning. Now she hopes it will someday propel her into a new orbit. "I have contacts with people of all different vocations. Not only have I made new friends, but I'm hoping my experience as a photographer for the Players will help me get into advertising some day," says she.
Second Stage thrives on the chemistry between people. "We attract people who want to meet other people," says Mary James, president of Second Stage. What's more, James adds, Second Stage is an open, democratic society where everybody can rise. Second Stage has a no-stars policy. "Everyone from stagehand to lead is equal," says James.
For the dedicated volunteer, all jobs are equal as well. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, which prospers on "hundreds of volunteer hours," attracts volunteers who want to become part - any part - of theater. "Our volunteers are willing and talented people. They'll do any job: scrub chairs and work on costumes," says Smear.
Love of the theater, a way to meet new people, a way to fill time are all reasons to volunteer time at a local theater. Another of the benefits of belonging to a theater company is personal growth in the form of opportunity to learn and try new things.
Second Stage, for one, is known for giving new people a chance. "In our production of Wizard of Oz, the two lead actors had never acted before," explains James.
Colonial Players - which, like Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, has no trouble finding volunteers - trains them with formal workshops in topics such as set building, light and sound, even directing. That's how the Players keep their large talent pool refreshed.
You're never too young to learn, and youth is the focus of some community companies, like Talent Machine.
"This is a disciplined business. Kids learn to be focused," says Talent Machine's Bobbi Smith. "Their benefit is that I can help and develop them. When they come they may be able to do one thing, dance. They learn more, singing, acting. We stretch a lot and the kids can see growth throughout the season."
Many of Talent Machine's backstage volunteers have a vested interest in their work: They're parents of performing young stars, glad to promote their offspring's success by running the box office, sewing costumes, painting sets or setting up lights.
Helping shoot youngsters to stardom by helping them expand their personal best is a powerful motivator inside the theatrical as well as the biological family. As Mel Grier of Bowie Community Theatre talks about his work as producer of a teen summer theater, he describes the quality of the youth: their high energy, talent and dedication. The enthusiasm and warmth in his voice explain why Grier pours hundreds of hours into putting on plays to transport you this season.
Theater is a "disciplined business. Kids learn to be focused," says Talent Machine's Bobbi Smith, who brings families together to produce and enjoy such plays as 42nd Street.
Packing the House
The same reason you live in Bay Country - location - explains why community theater thrives here. Almost equidistant between Baltimore and Washington, local theaters reach out with long arms to embrace the Northern Virginia area as well. Actors from our neighboring state gladly trek to the area. Second Stage attracts actors from Bel Air to Northern Virginia with no trouble. 2nd Star's founder Jane Winguard proposes that this area's central location "provides great accessibility for actors and ups the quality of productions as well as attracting patrons."
Sherri Kay, Chesapeake Music Hall's owner, agrees. "We're adding more and more new people. We have a gentleman from the Virginia area who acts here. As word gets out to friends we'll have more."
Theatre thrives on audiences as well as actors, and Chesapeake Country fills both bills. Summer swells audiences with tourists, to the benefit of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, whose downtown location and summer season attract both regulars and visitors.
"Our downtown Annapolis building is so unique. Tourists love it when they find us. Even local people will stick their heads in the door and say, 'I didn't know you were here,' and then make reservations," Smear says.
Tourists are cream. Subscribers and loyal patrons keep the companies in the black and allow them to pay rent, buy supplies and keep the lights on.
Bob Kauffman at Anne Arundel Community College is one of the fortunate few who doesn't have to battle red ink and the bottom line. His Moonlight Troupers are subsidized by Anne Arundel Community College, and the Student Association is an enthusiastic booster. On the other hand, "80 percent of most theaters' budgets comes from the box office," he explains.
Being around for a while helps the bottom line. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is so well-established as a warm-weather tradition that Smear no longer has to work very hard at promoting the season. "Next year will be our 35th summer. People now come to us and ask what we're doing. The phones start ringing as soon as the schedule is out," she says.
Each theater has its own special audiences, a role St. John's College satisfies for Summer Garden Theatre. "The college brings a different community to the scene," according to Smear. "St. John's fills the theater with actors and audience members who come here for Shakespeare."
The loyalty of Colonial Players patrons is a mixed blessing. On the one side, explains Bob Marchon, vice-president elect of Colonial Players, "We can take risks because of our loyal following. We're economically stable and can afford to have a play that doesn't make a significant profit."
The other side of the coin is that this loyalty doesn't allow for many empty seats. New, younger audience members don't have a chance to buy tickets. Publicity Director Browning would like to see younger people in the audience.
"Lack of knowledge of our stand-by policy also keeps new people out. They call up for tickets and are told that we're sold out. What they don't know is they can buy stand-by tickets one hour before the performance. At five minutes before performance time, stand-by ticket holders can get seats if they're available or get their money back," says Browning.
The Players have another great audience base in area educators. "They have students come to see a play they're reading: it's live, rather than just on the page. It's wonderful to see the light come on as they watch the play and relate it to what they've read," Marchon explains.
Longevity and reputation for putting on the best possible show keeps Pasadena Theatre Company's productions filled to capacity. Steele talks about Pasadena Theatre Company as "a long-time theater group. Our 21-year tradition keeps the audience coming." Close to three dozen people were turned away for each Godspell production last spring.
How a Star Is Born
A theater company can have the best location, comfortable seats, inexpensive prices, lots of volunteers and company members who are experiencing personal growth - and still flop. It's the quality of the productions and the talent of the personnel that make the difference. All the theater companies agree on this most important ingredient.
Smear credits "talented performers willing to work for free" with a major part of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's success. The shows this summer prove her right. Alongside some of the area's younger thespians, older performers with a wealth of experience and talent lent the shows depth and stability.
Why has Chesapeake Music Hall succeeded where other Annapolis dinner theaters failed? Sherri Kay credits her "performance degree, technical background and directing experience in area theater over the years." As a choreographer, set and costume designer, singer, actress and producer-director, Kay has done it all. Experience at the top translates into well-polished productions.
In addition to Kay, this season has seen Anita O'Connor take the reins as musical director. A former rock band keyboardist and singer with a music degree, O'Connor has put the shine in this season's successful musicals, Grease and Big River. According to Kay, "O'Connor teaches the cast members constantly. She spends a lot of time with them making sure they get the harmonies down."
Anne Arundel Community College's Kauffman, a theater professor as well as director, describes the 50-year-old Colonial Players as the leader in Chesapeake Country's theater community. "I remember in 1972, their productions were spotty. But over the years, every production has had excellent qualities to it," he says.
Their reputation for excellence helps their subscription base. The Players' Marchon credits this excellence to differentiation of duties. "There are three areas to production: artistic, technical and administrative. We have such a strong company and so many volunteers that you can confine yourself to one main interest instead of having to do a little of everything to keep the company going," he says.
2nd Star Productions is also big enough to reap the benefits of specialization. So says Winguard, who has these proud words to say about the quality of her theater: "We have a wealth of experience. I've taught art and drama, and director John Guyton has extensive dinner theater experience. Donald K. Smith, our music director, was formerly music director for Burn Brae Dinner Theatre. He and the top-quality area musicians he recruits are responsible for the live music at our shows."
Live musicians give a lift to all of 2nd Star's productions. Hearing the great sounds coming directly from the instruments makes musical theater a magic experience, uplifting for audience and actors.
Winguard and Guyton's theater strengths, dramatically and artistically, are an extension of their careers as owners of Corporate Creations Company, a scenic design firm that has just finished work at Six Flags and will be working with Ballet Theatre of Annapolis and the Annapolis Opera this season.
Winguard frets that "our highest consideration, quality, is also our detriment. Our bank balance shows that we've spent too much on a show, and then we're scrambling for funds for the next one." Winguard and Guyton have solved that dilemma by attracting talent to another area, business. "We're artistic, we spend too much. Now we've got a business staff and a production manager to keep us in line and crack the whip," she says.
Accentuate the Positive
Like most of us, theater groups try to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative. But behind scenes, they're jumping over obstacles to produce good shows. For most, money is the big one. While Colonial Players, Moonlight Troupers and other long-time players have a fairly comfortable revenue flow, many of the newer troupes scramble for money.
Bowie Community Theatre, not a new group, is marketing itself to its neighbors by taking its shows on the road. "We've analyzed our attendance for the last six years to find a profile of types of plays the audience preferred," says the company's president, Craig Mummey, recovering from a season in which they "lost their audience" to ill-chosen plays.
This year, Bowie Community Theatre will try to win its audience back with comedies and mysteries that "appeal to our actors and audiences."
Sometimes the constraints are physical space. Chesapeake Music Hall has low ceilings, so you won't see Peter Pan flying in that hall. That may also be why sound is uneven throughout the theater. The Music Hall accentuates the positive by avoiding high-flying plays, but they haven't found a way to eliminate the negative of their sound deficit.
As a theater in the round, Colonial Players' has built-in space challenges. "We don't have escape traps and our ceiling height limits lighting angles," says Marchon. Creative thinking and careful choice of shows minimize the obstacles.
After losing the lease on the church they rented for years, 2nd Star finds itself homeless. "We've imposed our own constraints," explains 2nd Star's James. "We want to stay in Severna Park. People want us to stay here. It's where our identity is. We're looking for a home in Severna Park, not just for us but also a space that can be used by other theater companies, seniors, children and youth."
Jack Reynolds, a director at Patuxent Playhouse in Calvert County, can commiserate with James. He sees Calvert's lack of space for rehearsal as well as production as a true limitation to his theater's growth.
Pasadena Theatre Company's one concern is production space. They've been using the Humanities Hall at Anne Arundel Community College for the past two seasons. During the week, other groups use the hall, and the Theatre Company has to take apart and rebuild its set every weekend. Moving into the new state-of-the-art Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park when it opens should eliminate that problem.
The one factor beyond control is the weather. No matter how good the show, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's open air productions can't go on in the rain.
Anne Arundel's Kauffman agrees that budgets and performance spaces are common limitations to area players. At the Pascal Center on the community college campus, he, too, sometimes has to take down sets if the theater gets used during the week.
Kauffman points out what he believes is another limitation: too much theater to choose from. "We're competing with each other. Most theaters are producing fair to good work. If I were the only kid on the block, I'd have good attendance at all my shows." Competition for the Pascal Center limits Moonlight Troupers to two shows a year.
Pick of the Crop
What may bode ill for a theater company leaves a feast for us. Here in Chesapeake Bay Country, we can pick and choose from the offerings of a dozen theaters.
I can't vouch for the plays ahead of time, but for the price of a movie you'll find live local theater to meet almost every taste.
Look at the dates and shows and plan out your calendar.
This Season's Theater
A romantic comedy tba
Auditions October 1999
Opening January 2000
Anne Arundel Community College Moonlight Troupers
The Boyfriend - Nov. 12-14, 19-21
FSa 8pm; Su 2pm
Children's Theatre - April 14-16, 21-22
F 7:30pm; Sa 2pm, 7:30pm; Su April 16 2pm
Pascal Auditorium, Anne Arundel Community College: 410/647-5979
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre
Closed Sept. 5 - spring 2000
Season set in January 2000; auditions in February or March
Compromise St., Annapolis: 410/268-9212
Bowie Community Theatre
FSa 8pm; Su 2pm
Philadelphia Story - Oct. 15-30
Nightwatch - Feb. 4-19
Brighton Beach Memoirs - April 28-May 13
Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, Bowie: 301/805-0219
Chesapeake Music Hall
Doors open 2 hours before curtains part with dinner 30 minutes later. Showtimes F 8:30pm; Sa 8pm; Su 2:30pm. Also monthly matinees W and occasional shows Th; call for times and dates.
Anything Goes - Sept. 8-Nov. 20
A Christmas Carol - Nov. 27-Dec. 26
Nunsense - Jan. 7-Feb. 13
My Fair Lady - Feb. 25-April 23
Annie - May 5-June 25
A Chorus Line - July 7-Sept. 3
339 Busch's Frontage Rd., Annapolis: 410/626-7515 · 800/406-0306
Th 8pm ($8); FSa 8pm ($11); Su 2:30 & 7:30pm ($8)
Talley's Folly - Sept. 3-5; 9-12; 16-19; 23-26; 30-Oct 2
Learned Ladies - Oct. 22-24; 28-31; Nov 4-7; 11-14; 18-20
A Christmas Carol - Dec. 2-5; 9-12: Tickets go on sale at theater Sat. Nov. 20, 9-12
The Road to Mecca - Jan. 21-23; 27-30; Feb. 3-6; 10-13; 17-19
Hogan's Goat - March 10-12; 16-19; 23-26; 30-April 2; 6-8
Robber Bridegroom - April 28-30; May 4-7; 11-14; 18-21; 25-27
108 East St., Annapolis: 410/268-7373
Pasadena Theatre Company
FSa 8pm some Su matinees 3pm
Jekyll and Hyde, nonmusical version - Oct. 1-17
It's a Wonderful Life - Dec. 3-12 w/matinees Sa 4 & 11 at 3pm
Godspell - March 24-April 16 w/matinee Sa April 8 at 3pm
Old-Fashioned Melodrama tba
Humanities Hall at Anne Arundel Community College: 410/969-5409
Little Shop of Horrors
Sept. 3, 4, 10 & 11 @ Patuxent High School; benefits Drama Club
Sept. 17 & 18 @ Calvert High School, benefits Band Boosters
Winter production tba
FSa 8pm; Su 2pm
Chapter Two - Nov. 5-21
Spring musical tba
Location to be determined: 410/544-6654
2nd Star Productions
FSa 8pm; Su 3pm
I Do! I Do! - Sept. 3-Oct. 2
Fiddler on the Roof - Nov. 5-Dec. 4
You Can't Take It With You - March 3-April 1
Man of La Mancha - June 2-July 1
Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, Bowie: 301/205-0502 · 410/798-7001
Christmas Spectacular - Dec. 16-21
St. John's College Key Auditorium
Breakfast Party with Santa - Dec. 4, 11 & 18 at 9am, kids perform, audience gets to dance with the performers at Buddy's Crabs & Ribs, Annapolis: 410/956-0512
All plays, schedules and prices are subject to change; check with the theater box office. Season subscriptions are available at most theaters.
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Volume VII Number 34
August 26 - September 1, 1999
New Bay Times