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At Theater Americana, the Play's the Thing--Not the Money

January 24, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

On a dark, cold winter morning 30 strangers gathered in a dark, cold hall to audition for roles in a play they had never heard of. They were a strange mix of old and young, sophisticated and scruffy, professional and amateur.

They wanted a chance--that is all they appeared to have in common--and they had come to the right place.

For more than 50 years Altadena's Theater Americana has offered a chance for playwrights to get their works produced, for directors to direct and for performers to perform. Almost nobody gets paid, and still they clamor to get in.

The tiny volunteer enterprise has never made it big in the Southern California theatrical scene, but it has endured. Its backbone is a membership of 117 theater buffs who believe theirs is the oldest non-equity community theater in the country that is producing original American plays.

The president is David Bushner and the chairman is Eric Haugen, who took over from Ned Estey, who resigned recently after serving as chairman for 20 years.

In the case of the 30 auditioners, five were to be chosen to perform "Joys and Blessings," an original work by Harriet Dexter of Los Angeles, directed by Ann Farthing of Pasadena.

As always, it will be performed in the William D. Davies Memorial Building in Farnsworth Park in Altadena, near the northern end of Lake Avenue. It opens Feb. 15 and will run on weekends through March 10.

Theater Americana began around the turn of the century as Ye Little Theater of Altadena when the area's early settlers acted out plays in their homes. It grew steadily, and began looking for a home in the 1930s.

The Davies Building set the stage for Theater Americana and its philosophy of providing a chance for the enterprising, although it was a coincidence that it worked out that way. The building was a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project during the Great Depression of the 1930s, giving unemployed Altadenans a chance to earn money in its construction. The heavy stones that form its base and massive fireplaces were hauled by mule teams from the nearby arroyo.

Throughout its 50-odd years, Theater Americana has done a little experimenting, such as moving to a nearby church for a couple of years, and giving six plays before settling on four for each season. In some ways, it has never varied.

"We keep it squeaky clean and family oriented," said Lorraine Girard, a long-time member and sometime performer. "Some plays are scrapped by the script committee because of their content."

The 30 auditioners shivered in the dark auditorium that soon will be packed with audiences of up to 200. There was a muscular man in a T-shirt that proclaimed "the theater is my life," an elegant middle-aged woman in designer clothes, a slender dark-haired beauty, several jeans-clad kids--the kind of crowd you might expect in a supermarket on a busy Saturday.

Farthing interviewed and tested them all, looking for the perfect mix of non-professionals and serious actors. They will portray three generations of a family in a serious play that raises questions about their conflicts and their futures.

"Joys and Blessings" was chosen from 120 plays that were submitted for this season. Selection was made by a committee headed by Lenora Jones. It will have a cast of three women and two men.

The chosen ones will relinquish most of their leisure time through March 10 without a dime of compensation.

"But they'll get plenty to make it worthwhile," Farthing said. "They have to learn, and they have to have a good time. And that's a lot to get, or they wouldn't be here."

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