Mimi Wilson and Bob Wright didn't have to go very far two years ago when they started the nonprofit, professional theater company that makes its home at the Norris Community Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates.
The two were already familiar faces around the 450-seat theater as members of the Norris management board, and they had produced several of the premiere events when the Norris opened in 1983. Both are longtime Palos Verdes Peninsula residents with credentials as stage and television producers.
"It is special to experience well-produced, professional theater, and it is exciting for the community," Wilson said, recalling that the management board felt the theater was ready for such a venture and that the Palos Verdes Peninsula and South Bay communities would support it.
The result was New Place Theatre Company, which was a kind of double word play. "New Place was appropriate because the Norris is a new place," Wilson said. But it also is the name of the home Shakespeare purchased in his native Stratford-on-Avon and retired to after his London successes.
The first presentation, in 1986, was Cloris Leachman as Grandma Moses in "American Primitive," which was a new work. When two Anton Chekhov plays were presented during that first season, one performer was William Douglas, a member of the Seattle Repertory as well as son of the late Supreme Court Judge William O. Douglas.
Now into its second season, the company--which employs Equity actors--is still building its audience and roster of regular donors.
"It's difficult to get professional theater going," Wilson said. "You have to get the word out that this is real theater."
Fighting to Be Known
Palos Verdes people, she said, are used to going to Los Angeles for theater, and New Place is still fighting the battle of becoming known in its own backyard. "We're better known in Los Angeles than we are here."
Charles Dickens should help a bit.
For the second year, New Place is staging "A Christmas Carol" and plans are to make it an annual holiday event. "Glendale has been doing one for years, so has the South Coast Repertory (in Orange County)," Wilson said. "Palos Verdes should have it."
The company received $25,000 last year from the Norris Foundation, a family foundation that supports a variety of charitable and cultural organizations. This year, the company got $10,000, which Wilson said allowed it to present "A Christmas Carol" for $15 a ticket and $12 for seniors, students and military personnel.
The show opened last night and will play tonight at 8:30. Other performances are: Saturday, 2:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.; Tuesday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. and Christmas Eve, 2 p.m.
Some cast members are repeating from last year, but there is a new director, Brian Kulick, different costumes and an augmented set. One addition is a 17-foot-high gate, which Wilson calls "magical" in that special things happen when the spirits make their appearance through it.
9 Children in Cast
Of the cast of 20--who among them play 64 roles--nine are children, all of them from the South Bay area. "When we audition them, we find amazing talent in these children," Wilson said.
One youngster, 11-year-old Jeff Holland, is already a veteran of television commercials and about to start his first movie--all because he was Tiny Tim last year and was signed by a talent agency after doing the play.
Freckle-faced Holland is Tiny Tim again this year, and says he is having more fun because "I'm not as nervous as last year." But despite his early show business success, Holland says he doesn't want to be an actor: "I want to be a chef."
Scrooge is portrayed by Raye Birk, who played the role for three years with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and has done the role at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
The version New Place uses is an adaptation by Adrian Hall with original music and lyrics by Richard Cumming first done in 1977 by the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R. I.
A Touch of Dickens
Director Kulick, who also has worked at the Taper, said the company is trying to give the show an authentic Dickens touch. "This is a dream play--it is Scrooge's dream--and the dream aspect for us is very important," he said.
He said specific images, based on color, are being created for each of the three spirits of Christmas, and the big rusted gate is used to help create Scrooge's world. "The gate closes as Scrooge's heart closes," he explained, "and at the end of the play, it opens as he finds his heart . . . . The children, and Tiny Tim, open his heart and at the end he says he is as happy as a baby."
Wilson says she expects that people who saw "A Christmas Carol" last year will come back. "One couple said they'll be back, and they're bringing their 14 grandchildren," she said.
Wilson described New Place Theatre as a producing company that attracts hundreds of actors when it casts a play. "These are working actors who go from company to company doing whatever," she said. Ultimately, New Place would like to develop a regular group of actors, including those who live in the South Bay. That already is happening in "A Christmas Carol" with actresses Nora Boland and Jane Schulmann, who live on the Peninsula.
The casts sometimes are headed by familiar stage or television names, such as Ken Berry who opened this season in October in "I Do, I Do." Charlotte Rae in March will be in "The Immigrant," which Mark Herelik wrote about his grandfather's life in a small Texas city. The season ends with an outdoor Shakespeare in July at the South Coast Botanic Gardens.
Wilson said the group strives for a mix of the classics, musicals and contemporary plays that qualify as Broadway or Los Angeles hits.
"We're doing entertainment here," Wilson said.