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Volunteers Play Vital Theater Role


SAN DIEGO — If you look around San Diego County for a place to try out your acting skills, or to learn how to hang lights, or just somewhere to soak up the creative vibes, you will very quickly discover that this is a volunteer's market. There are more jobs that need doing around local theaters than there are hands to do them. Free hands, that is.

The San Diego Theatre League tries to maintain a complete and up-to-date list of San Diego County theaters. With the number of amateur and professional organizations totaling right around 96, this is a nearly impossible task, said league president William Purves.

Associated Community Theatres (ACT) keeps a very short list, on the other hand. A recent ACT newsletter listed just nine member organizations. But there's a community theater in nearly every corner of the county--some with permanent quarters, some transient, and all driven by a love for this particular art form.

Theaters come and go like dandelion puffs on a summer wind. If the seed doesn't sprout in one location, the people with the vision and dream of making theater often pick up and move to a new place, a new neighborhood and (they hope) a new audience.

Others, like the 40-year-old Coronado Playhouse or San Diego's thriving professional theaters, are much more entrenched in the community. Each seems to have its own style and personality--a kind of theatrical flavor that has developed over years of having certain people work together.

It doesn't take long to get a sense of that personality, to decide whether you fit in. And if one organization doesn't seem right, there are plenty of others.

At the Santee Community Theatre, for instance, the emphasis is on getting the whole family involved.

"We don't hesitate to use people of all ages, both backstage and on stage," said vice president and co-founder Merrie Williams.

At least one Santee production each year is aimed at the whole family. Williams and her husband, Jim, and theater president Kevin Mullin all teach classes for kids, from 4 years old through high school age.

Santee's next production, an evening of one-act plays, will soon be calling for actors. And, like every community theater, the Santee group always welcomes people who want to help with the box office, or publicity, or sawing, hammering and painting.

"We're always looking for people that want to be trained," Williams said, particularly in lighting and sound.

The catch is that theater work requires a very firm commitment of time, for a short, intensive period. The length of that commitment varies from theater to theater, play to play, but generally runs about eight weeks for actors, two to five weeks for technical crews.

On-Stage Productions in Chula Vista has been producing a play about every seven weeks since it moved into a storefront in Park Village Plaza in September. The tiny, 40-seat house is a temporary home, said president Walter Trook, while the City of Chula Vista explores the feasibility of building a $2.2-million, 250-seat theater.

Trook said his theater's current focus is on attracting more volunteers and producing more serious dramas, like its successful "Waiting for Godot" and "Agnes of God."

"What we found out is that if you do something heavy, but with excellence, you can delight your audience just as much" as with simpler fare, he said.

The next On-Stage auditions will be held near the end of July, announced--as are many local auditions--through an audition hot line operated by the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company.

With the exception of the Coronado Playhouse, which boasts gorgeous views of bay, boats and bridge, the Pine Hills Players dinner theater probably sits in the middle of one of the county's most beautiful locations. That may be why the Julian area theater has drawn actors from as far away as Chula Vista.

Contrary to the reputation Julian has for coolness toward outsiders, the theater group is said to be quite congenial, made up of locals like the new chiropractor, young people looking for something to keep them occupied, and long-distance drivers like the actor from Chula Vista.

The group will be holding auditions for "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the end of this month.

Coronado, of course, is the right location for those who like a sense of history. The playhouse was actually brought across the bay in 1946 on the ferry and reconstructed on its prime Silver Strand real estate by the founding group of Navy wives and their helpers.

The building will soon be razed by the city, though, while the theater takes up temporary residence in a vacant armory building. That means lots of work for lots of eager volunteers.

The search for adequate performance and rehearsal space is universal among performing groups. La Mesa's Lamplighters are frequently cited by other community players in pleas to local government for city-funded spaces.

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