Sunday, June 22, 2003

Volunteers spin hard work into plays

If you're interested in the world of the stage, a theater near you is looking for your help

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Community theater volunteers, clockwise from lower center are: Elizabeth Boland, lighting design, Catherine Ross, set decor, and costuming, Linda Roll, director/producer, Barb Hoffmann, set painting and props, and Tom Fox, directing and lighting.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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In search of - fun? new friends? a creative outlet? If you have a flair for drama and a few spare hours - from two to 200 - community theater will make sure you will never again wonder what to do on a Friday night.

Community theater is serious business in Greater Cincinnati. Thousands of volunteers working onstage and backstage put on the hundreds of productions that are seen here every year. Lifelong friendships (and a lot of romances) are forged.

Can't act? No problem. If you can saw or sew, collect tickets or hand out programs, play an instrument, or screw in a light bulb, an amateur troupe is ready to raise the curtain for you, probably within half an hour's drive of your home.

It's easy to get involved. Here's some advice from experts.

Set decor/performer

Catherine Ross of Fort Thomas came to theater as a performer - she has a degree in acting from Point Park College in Pittsburgh. She's a newcomer to set decorating.

After her first job in 1998, when she was approached to dress the stage for Dark of the Moon for Footlighters, she had a baby, then another. So she didn't get back to set decorating until last season.

[IMAGE] Pianist Nita Clarisey and singer Rita Winters rehearse for Cincinnati Music Theatre's production of Ragtime.
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"Since time is precious with kids at home, I have decided that I have to do what I call 'commando theater' for a few years." She says it is possible to set one's own times, go in, do the job and get back home. Last season she worked on Footlighters' Arsenic and Old Lace and Ovation's The Diary of Anne Frank.

Among her secret weapons, Ross lists prop-meister colleague Barb Hoffmann and "Janet Beason from Playhouse. Their loan program is an incredible boon to community theater."

Ross has even done double duty on shows, at one point stepping on stage for a final rehearsal. For that show, she laughs, she won a community theater Orchid award for her set decor "But not for my acting!" she says laughing.

Ross opens (onstage) July 10 in Something's Afoot at Northern Kentucky University's Summer Dinner Theatre.

Rehearsal pianist

Nita Clarisey of Blue Ash has been the go-to gal at the ivories since friends at Nativity Players recruited her nine years ago.

"It came at a time when I happened to be wanting more music in my life," says Clarisey, and that's what she has.

She's Cincinnati Music Theatre's regular rehearsal pianist and accompanies auditions for a lot of other groups, including Mariemont Players, Loveland Stage Company and Footlighters. ("Playing auditions is a great way to learn new music - on the spot!")

OCTAFEST good window into community theater
Area's acting troupes
Rehearsals and performances for a single show involve about 100 hours, Clarisey estimates, not counting her own practice time. "If it's someone like Stephen Sondheim, I spend lots of hours at the piano."

How to get involved: "E-mail John Wesseling (president of ACT- Greater Cincinnati) at wesseljj and ask him to send word out on his community theater e-mail list."


At Wittenberg University, Tom Fox of Mason carried dual majors: political science and theater. ("The theater training has served me well in law school and the courtroom - more than the poli sci has.")

His expertise at lighting keeps him busy in Warren County, but "My heart and the bulk of my training remain with directing," he says.

This year, he directed Talley's Folly for Mason Community Players, which will be excerpted for next weekend's OCTAFEST, the showcase of 20-minute excerpts by theaters in the southwest region of Ohio Community Theatre Association. He also directed Hood at Rising Phoenix in Middletown in 2002, "a wonderful chance to help a new play get on its feet."

Directing is a time commitment, "minimally 200 hours. That starts with reading the script and preparing it for production. Most community theaters have about 80 hours of actual rehearsal time to mount a show.

"Hood took almost a year of my life, just a drop in the bucket compared to that invested by Jay Brunner, the composer/co-lyricist and Corey Bowman, the playwright/co-lyricist. I stopped counting hours when we cranked up the work level for the last three months."

How to get involved: For experienced directors new to the area, Fox suggests, "See shows to learn what different theaters can stage. If you know the theater's resources, it will improve your chances."

He advises novices to look for theaters that will stage a night of one-acts or to "serve as an assistant director. It can teach you a lot and introduce your talents. Attend workshops.

"Remember, theaters are looking for you. See a show and let any usher know you're interested in helping out. Every group I know will have someone talk to you."

Set painter

"In 1972, I saw a small announcement in the Enquirer for people to work painting sets for Cincinnati Music Theatre. The show was Kismet at Anderson High School. I'm still at it 30 years later!" says Barb Hoffmann of Roselawn.

She started with one show a year; now she works five or six.

Hoffmann has a degree in interior design from University of Cincinnati and lists well-known local community theater design names like Deirdre Dyson, David Straud, Dennis Murphy and Mario Pitocco for teaching her on the job.

"Set painting blends into set decor," which she says is "like a scavenger hunt." She calls her basement a "miniwarehouse of props, chairs, toys, flowers, pillows. If I don't have it, I probably know where to get it."

How to get involved: "If you can hold a paint brush or a roller, you can do it!"

Hoffmann says she'd love to form a guild of people to work on painting sets. "So many times, bodies are needed at the last minute for several evenings of work."

Lighting designer

Beth Boland's first exposure to theater was being cast as a mouse in Snow White in a kindergarten production. So of course when she went to college she applied for a work-study job in theater. That's where she learned to love the technical end of theater.

She moved to this area with her family in 1988, finished her college career at University of Cincinnatiand finally started to feel as if she "fit in" here when she became involved with Footlighters in 1994.

Boland, who lives in Fort Thomas, has been lighting designer, set designer, master carpenter, producer, assistant director and general volunteer.

Boland gives "approximately 150 to 200 hours" to a production, which starts with meetings and working closely with the director on the design process. Boland says her volunteer hours "is really not much compared to the other participants."

How to get involved: "Anybody who can listen, follow directions and climb steps will do! Not being afraid of heights is a plus!"

"Community theater isn't just for performers," Boland says . "And it's not just for people who have been in theater all their lives.

"In 1994, I introduced my husband to working the back side of a stage and he's been a producer, master carpenter, stage manager, back stage manager, stage hand, spotlight operator, master electrician and has really enjoyed acting on stage. We'll just have to see if our daughter is as interested as we have been!"

Costumer and all-rounder

Jan Yearout, Price Hill: "My first visit to Sunset Players was during its original production of Little Shop of Horrors (in 1989) with my son, Jerry, who was at that time still in high school. So I take full credit for his introduction to community theater."

Jerry Yearout, Price Hill: "I got involved with Sunset when I was 25, six years ago. I wear a lot of different hats (including actor, director, stage manager, set design.)"

Jerry's interest in theater was set in high school. Jan was captured when he joined Sunset Players.

Jan: "During Mr. Roberts, Jerry informed the director I could sew. I've never hemmed so many pants in my life. I even got to make a collar and a nametag for a goat - a real live goat. He was wonderful. The real highlight of that experience was dressing my son in a coconut bra and grass skirt."

Jan says she spends a lot of time in thrift stores, fabric shops, borrowing clothes and at her sewing machine.

How to get involved: "What you basically need to do is show up," says Jerry. "We welcome new people, experienced or not, to come and play with us. A lot of people learn the craft of theater as they go."

Founder, historian

In 1994, Linda Roll put an ad in her community newspaper to see if anyone was interested in starting a community theater in Milford.

Fifteen people showed up at that first meeting, they collected $37, and this fall Milford will celebrate its 10th anniversary by reprising its first show, Arsenic and Old Lace, with many of the original cast.

Roll, of Miami Township, spent all her school years doing theater but "it wasn't until my children were grown that I decided to get back into the one area that brings me so much joy."

Along with duties at her home theater, Roll is the newsletter editor and historian for ACT of Greater Cincinnati, the local association of community theaters, and she has happily begun writing about the early history in the ACT newsletter.

How to get involved: "If a person is interested in joining a theater, Cincinnati is the place to be."

"If you don't know what you are doing, there are lots of people to teach you the skills you need. You can become a carpenter, an interior decorator, a makeup artist - anything at all!"


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