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Community Theater Gives Novices a Shot at Self-Expression


SAN DIEGO — OK, you watched Paxton Whitehead shuffle across the Old Globe stage last summer as Richard III, moaning about his grotesque looks, wooing lovely Deborah May, and it looked like fun, right?

Maybe--someday when you're really in the mood--you'd like to try that. You know, getting up on a stage with the lights and the makeup and the costumes and all and seeing if you can make people laugh and cry. Or at least take notice of you.

But you're chicken.

Deep down inside, you know you can act as well as those people you see on TV. But, well, maybe next year.

Relax. Then go check out the kind of people who are finding true happiness at your local community theater.

"I think that it's important to help people love theater," said Christopher R, a 20-year veteran of the San Diego theatrical scene who gives much of his time to community theater.

"Sometimes it's not the professional actors you need to help love theater," he said on a night off from directing "Table Manners" for the La Jolla Stage Company. "It's the little guys who need to express their own selves in order to grow . . . in order to be kinder to their fellow human beings and understand each other."

R (who revealed, after years of mystery, that his real name is Roze) said he gets a lot of satisfaction from working with people who have never been on a stage before. He likes to watch them blossom.

"It's helping people to self-expression . . . getting them to find that part of themselves that can become free and unabashed and free of all apprehension," he said. "I feel that this is a director's job, too, not just to give them blocking and say, do this, do that, but to help them find the joy of acting."

Be warned, though. Everything connected with the theater, from directing to hammering nails backstage, is very addictive. A director with Roze's patience and sensitivity--and there are quite a few working in San Diego's community theaters--can get you hooked for life.

They tend to say encouraging things, like this tidbit from Roze: "I have a few little pet theories about charisma. Charisma is simply confidence, and confidence is brought about by practice. It's a very simple process."

He offers the example of an older man who thought he might like to give acting a try. After eight weeks in an acting workshop and only three weeks of looking, the neophyte actor landed four commercial jobs.

The key to his success? "An open mind. No preconceived notions of how it's supposed to be," Roze said.

Not that becoming an actor is an easy task. Bill Barstad got hooked on community theater two years ago. The 22-year-old started spending his time off from the Navy at the Coronado Playhouse, one of San Diego's oldest community theaters.

"I'd watch people up on stage and sometimes I'd even be appalled about what they were doing. I would say, 'I don't like that. I wouldn't do it that way, I'd do it this way.' So I decided to go up there . . . and just put myself in their shoes," Barstad said.

He quickly changed his attitude about the whole business.

"It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of soul-searching," he said. "I've learned patience, and to listen a lot because reading lines is not all there is. I mean, it's more just feeling what the part is, too, what's behind it--and you can even take that to real life."

He said it has been difficult to get his Navy superiors to understand his new preoccupation with theater, which he described as "exactly opposite" from the military's rigidity. But he managed two weeks' leave to appear in local writer Jack Barefield's "Play by Play," a play about the history of plays that is being performed for area high school students on the Coronado stage.

Barstad's fellow cast members agree that every moment spent working for free on a community stage is a golden one.

Nan Garcia-Wood is a 33-year-old "dancer-actor-nurse-secretary-model" who works odd jobs and odd hours in order to pursue her passion for performing. "Theater is a temple and either you worship at the art or not," she said.

Timm Bettridge, also 33, classifies himself as a professional actor. He earns much of his income performing as a ventriloquist, with puppets he builds himself. But if a role comes up at a community theater, where they generally can't pay him as an actor, he'll also design and sew the costumes, build the sets, and do the makeup to earn his small wages.

"This is my life," he said. "I live and breathe the theater."

Jena Lynn Kirsch just wants to accumulate as much stage experience as possible. "I've really been working on my discipline," said the 21-year-old actress. She is in eight performances a week of "Heaven Can Wait" at the Fiesta Dinner Theatre, two shows a morning of "Play by Play" and four hours a day behind a computer terminal at UC San Diego to make it all come out to a reasonable living.

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