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HITTING THE SMALL TIME : County’s Community Theater Regulars Just Do It for Show Biz

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Reasons why actors ought to like big-time show biz better than community theater:

-- In big-time show biz, if your production calls for a spiffy hot rod to zoom on-stage, you get a cherry ’57 Bel Air or a juiced-up Eldorado. In community theater, you get a beat-to-a-pulp MG with cardboard fins. And you have to push it yourself.

-- In big-time show biz, if you are cast as a pirate, you get to dress like Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood.” In community theater, you wear a Pittsburgh ball cap that says “Pirates.”

-- In big-time show biz, you get a pit orchestra. In community theater, you get a tape recorder. And no pit.

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-- In big-time show biz, you get fruit baskets and chintz couches in your dressing room. In community theater, you get fleas.

-- In big-time show biz, you get paid lots of money. In community theater, you pay lots of money.

Reasons why actors like community theater anyway:

-- There’s no business like show business.

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And that’s that. Forget the fancy explanations. Sure, community theater actors will say they do it because they like the idea of becoming someone else for a few hours, or they like dressing up like Cleopatra or Cardinal Richelieu or a London hooker, or they like the camaraderie after rehearsal, or they just plain like to get laughs.

One thing they won’t say, however, is that they are in it for the fame or the money. Because there is precious little of the former and absolutely none of the latter.

But in community theater, that’s show biz. And that’s why, in Orange County, dozens of dentists and construction workers and secretaries and computer programmers and teachers disappear from home and family and friends for several weeks each year to act or dance or sing or build sets or operate the sound or the lighting--or do all those jobs--for not one cent.

Show biz.

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“Some people bowl; I do shows,” said Bill Bodner, a veteran of about 10 community theater productions in the county, mostly at the Cabrillo Playhouse in San Clemente. “Sometimes it’s all-consuming. A few years ago, I did seven shows in 13 months.”

Bodner, 52, who is directing Cabrillo Playhouse’s production of the comedy, “No Sex Please, We’re British” (opening Sept. 8), said he is typical of many community theater players in Orange County: he works at a day job (as a typography salesman), he has previous theater experience, and he doesn’t particularly care if his face ever appears in TV Guide. It is just that, every now and then, he gets this itch. . . .

“Every so often,” he said, “you say to yourself, ‘It’s time to do a show.’ There’s just the need to get back and communicate with an audience again.”

So it is back to the little stucco house on the corner at 202 Avenida Cabrillo, where Bodner is presiding over the English play about the antics of a woman and her family and friends whose lives are thrown into disarray when she sends off a mail order for Scandinavian glassware and receives Scandinavian pornography instead.

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Ibsen it is not. But in community theater, that’s show biz.

“Places like South Coast Rep can come in with message plays or something heavy, but in community theater, you have to suit your audience,” Bodner said. “If people are going out to a community theater production, they usually expect to see something light.”

Often that means light opera, which is what the Buena Park Civic Theatre was up to throughout August. The theater group, which is sponsored by the city’s Recreation Department and stages its productions outdoors at the city recreation center on Knott Avenue, recently ended a run of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

It was a free-wheeling, enthusiastic production, and most of the cast members--like most community theater actors--were young and had never performed professionally. Others, like Becky Held, a 25-year-old teacher from Orange, had some experience in related disciplines before their work in the operetta.

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“I was looking at a stretch of time in front of me where I could make myself available for something like this. I’ve always loved singing, but the only opportunity for that in the last couple of years has been in classical music,” said Held, who sings throughout most of the year with the Pacific Chorale. “I love the musical theater, but I’d never had time to do it. My girlfriend was constantly inviting me to do these productions, and she kept throwing audition sheets in front of me.”

As it turned out, Held needed the time.

“It’s really demanding,” she said. “There’s a five-night-a-week requirement for at least a month and a half, you’re going from 7 to 10 at night and sometimes later, and you’re putting out a lot of energy. The rest of your life just stands still. Your family and friends have to be really understanding.”

Still, said Held, who played one of the daughters of the Major General, the work “has to take over your life for you to really understand the part. The songs play in your head at night. I had to go to sleep to country music, otherwise I’d wake up singing Gilbert and Sullivan. I don’t like country music, but it’s the only thing that can wipe out Gilbert and Sullivan.”

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Held said that she didn’t feel handicapped by a lack of on-stage acting experience.

“Not at all,” she said. “My stage is my classroom, and when the door closes, I can act with my kids in order to keep them awake. Playing a dippy daughter is simple. I act like that all the time. I feel like that’s an extension of myself that I’m not able to let show in the professional world. Here, I can let it hang out without somebody shaking a finger at me and saying: ‘That’s not professional, Becky.’ In the theater, it is professional.”

That word may crop up frequently in rehearsal, as, say, an exhortation from a director to his actors for a more polished performance. But literal professionalism is rare while an actor remains in community theater.

A community-theater career sometimes is “a short-lived thing for most of the actors,” said Jeff Biddinger, 25, the recreation coordinator for the city of Buena Park who also teaches theater and technical theater classes at the Hamilton Academy of Music in Los Angeles. “Either they get out of it because of the time constraints or they go into it for money. Most of the (community theater) actors in Orange County, by the time they’re 30, they aren’t in it any more. The norm is that you have maybe 80 people auditioning for a show and their average age is 22.”

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However, said Biddinger, who has worked in nearly 30 community theater productions in the county in the last eight years, there are “a select few who are very good who will come back again and again just for the fun of participating. They make it a lot more interesting for everyone else.”

Alene Hyatt is one. She began her community theater acting career in Southern California during World War II.

“My dad put me on the stage of one of the local theaters as a flower pot when I was 5,” Hyatt said, “but I actually started with the Long Beach Community Playhouse when I moved to California in 1942. I acted with them until 1945, then I got married and didn’t do any theater for 25 years. Then in 1969, my boss, the city clerk of Lakewood--I was her secretary--said the Lakewood Recreation Department was having tryouts for a play and she wanted me to try out. I told her I couldn’t do it because I took minutes of meetings on Tuesday nights and that was the night rehearsals were scheduled. She told me that if I got the part, she’d take the notes. Well, I was cast and I haven’t quit since. Actually, I think I’ve been acting since the time they spanked me on the behind and I opened my eyes.”

Hyatt said she hasn’t kept track of the number of community-theater productions she has acted in over the years, but she estimated that she has performed in nearly 20 since 1983. Like many actors, she keeps her age a secret.

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“They have a card that you fill out at auditions that has a space that says ‘age range,’ ” said Hyatt, who lives in Seal Beach. “I always put, ‘From here to eternity.’ ”

Currently, she is cast as a Rydell High School English teacher in Westminster Community Theatre’s production of the 1950s rock-and-roll musical “Grease” (opening Sept. 9).

“There are more and more opportunities (in community theater) for older people,” said Hyatt, who is retired. “But I don’t want to join Equity and become a professional. (Amateur acting) is just something I’ve always liked to do. And there’s a social aspect to it. I like to get around and meet all the different people, and I thoroughly enjoy working with younger people. That’s why I move around and do different productions.”

Others, however, like Don Endsley, a 32-year-old electronics technician who lives in San Clemente, occasionally flirt with the idea of taking the step into the world of professional theater.

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“If the opportunity (to act professionally) came along, I think I would take it and make it a career,” he said. “I really would aspire to go on because when you work on the community level you work with a lot of people who may not want to move up, and I want to be challenged. I’d like to get paid some day. In community theater, you spend a lot of time, and you still have to pay for your gas.”

Still, Endsley--who acted in college productions and has worked in two shows for the Cabrillo Playhouse--said he enjoys his day job, and he remains realistic about his chances.

“I think it’s every actor’s dream to make it to the top and be a star,” he said. “But if I don’t go anywhere with it, I’ve still got many years to act on the community level. If I can’t be a star professionally, I can still be a star in San Clemente.”

Lisa Coles, who plays Sandy, the female lead in “Grease,” has already made forays into professional acting and said she intends to continue.

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“I’ve done several commercials and I model full time, but this is the first musical I’ve ever tried out for,” she said. “I definitely want to be a professional, but I want to be prepared before I go out and try to get agents, so I’m working on this. I haven’t really felt like I was comfortable enough to jump out there until this year. I got kind of lucky.”

Coles, who lives in Huntington Beach and said she is “college age,” is a former captain of the L.A. Rams cheerleading squad. She is also the choreographer for “Grease.”

“A lot of young people like myself who do community theater are pointing toward a professional career,” she said, “but the people in their late 20s and 30s are usually doing it just for fun. They do it simply because they like to act and they’re good at it.”

Others, like Ron Lipp, 35, find themselves nearly consumed by their involvement. Lipp, who played the Major General in “Pirates of Penzance,” did almost as much work offstage in that production as he did on it. He was listed in the show’s credits as the auxiliary lighting technician, and his wife and sons also were involved in staging.

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“Professionally, I’m an electrician, and I do the electrical work and the audio at the Anaheim Convention Center,” he said. “But at Buena Park, I do set construction and painting and props, and my on-stage performing is strictly amateur. I think I’ve done 12 shows here so far, and now my entire family is involved. My two sons have done performing, and my wife is involved backstage in all the productions in one way or another.”

Lipp sang in high school choirs but never gave acting or musical theater a thought until “four years ago when I bumped into somebody while I was working at the convention center. I was teaching a friend who was working with me to sing. We were just tearing down these walls and singing. This lady stopped by and asked me if I’d considered doing anything on the stage and said there was an opening in the chorus in this production called “Sugar” that Buena Park was doing. Since then, it’s just been one show after another. It’s become a passion with me.”

But not a simple one. Lipp said he quickly found that facing an audience can be daunting.

“It’s been a challenge, every show,” he said, “overcoming some of my own inhibitions as far as speaking in front of people. When I first started, I was somewhat in a blur as to what was going on with the audience. But since then, I’ve learned to feed off the audience’s energy.”

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Friendships within the cast lighten the burden, Lipp said.

“The people involved in the theater are very open,” he said. “You go from show to show, and you need the ability to get along well and make friends quickly. It’s a good environment to be in. I’ve made many dear friends as a result and I see them quite frequently.”

Like Lipp, most community theater actors are multidisciplinary out of necessity. Because of low budgets, the non-union actors frequently find themselves doing decidedly non-union things. When they’re not acting, they may be obliged to move scenery, or go out for doughnuts, or paint flats, or--in “Grease"--push a heavily overburdened 1959-vintage hot rod called Greased Lightning (actually a late-model MG) onto the stage.

And in both “Grease” and “Pirates of Penzance,” the actors, rather than being able to follow a conductor’s baton, must synchronize their singing and dancing to a recorded sound track.

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In such jury-rigged environments, gaffes--the stuff of often-told stories--are almost certain to occur.

Years ago, Bodner recalled, the backstage area of the Cabrillo Playhouse was bombed for fleas, the result of neighborhood cats lingering there.

“But they didn’t bomb the entire building,” he said. “All the fleas went out in the audience and on opening night we looked out and the whole audience is out there rubbing around and scratching.”

On another occasion, he said, “we were doing ‘The Rainmaker’ and the con man comes to this town that’s been having a drought and he’s talking to the farmers and he’s going to make it rain and nobody believes him. It happened that there was a rainstorm that night and there was a leak in the roof. There was this constant drip coming down on stage through the whole play.”

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During still another play, produced in Oregon, Bodner said the actors frequently had to suspend the action--simply freeze silently--on stage until commercial jets passed low overhead. The theater, he said, was directly beneath an airport traffic pattern.

Some actors who are frequently cast in community-theater productions face other perils.

“I’m inclined to forget who I am,” Hyatt said. “In a production of ‘All Because of Agatha,’ I was supposed to enter and say, ‘I am Mrs. Boggs.’ However, what came out was, ‘I am Agatha Forbes.’ And Agatha Forbes was very much dead. I had no idea I’d said that. After that, I posted a little note at the entryway that said, ‘Alene: You are Mrs. Boggs.’ I still hear about that, and that was back in 1970, for crying out loud.”

With the production pitfalls, the lack of money and time and the frequent unavailability of such basics as complete costumes, sufficient acoustics, props, music and technicians, community theater might seem to be more of an adventure than many people would be willing to take on. Those who do, however, say they find that when they are cast in a new show, they walk into not a lion’s den but a new circle of friends. And that, too, is show biz.

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“The thing that surprised me,” Held said, “was the lack of competition among the members of the cast, and their feeling of camaraderie. It’s instant, actually. We all get very attached to each other. Theater people are so warm and not afraid to express their emotions. In the career world, I don’t think that happens too often.

“There’s always that one binding cord between us: the love of the theater.”


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