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Playing on a Shoestring : They're in It for Love, Not Fame or Fortune, at Sierra Madre Theater

October 02, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

The little playhouse with the old-fashioned movie marquee is clearly not the Pantages or the Doolittle, Sierra Madre residents concede. No stars vying for parts in its shows. No opening night glitterati perched on its 121 seats.

But the Sierra Madre Playhouse, which sits in the middle of the city's downtown commercial district like a cupcake in a bread rack, is theirs, residents say. And they're proud of it.

"It generates a great deal of civic pride," stationer Jerry Meyer says.

Charles Andrese and Stan Zalas have been putting on plays there for nine years. They've staged just about everything Neil Simon ever wrote. They've done Agatha Christie mysteries, Stephen Sondheim musicals and a slew of standard community theater fare, like "The Miracle Worker" and "Life With Father."

"We're trying to keep it in the realm of family theater," says founder/producer Andrese, a small, carefully coifed man who also works as a hair stylist. "Not that it's all very light and frothy," insists artistic director Zalas. "But mysteries and comedies seem to be what our audience is mainly interested in."

The theater rarely has to worry about bringing in audiences. With general admission for its middle-of-the-road fare selling for $7, many of the theater's performances are sold out. Audience members come from as far away as Orange County and Los Angeles, the producers say, but most are San Gabriel Valley residents. Some are first-time theatergoers, but many return again and again.

Step into the theater. It's rather plain. "A little down at the heels," one actor describes it diplomatically. A small proscenium stage--with, these days, a set roughly depicting a New England vacation home--extends across the front. Upholstered seats, none farther away from the stage than about 50 feet, fill the floor of the theater. The ceiling is puckered and water stained. Battered paneling is nailed to the walls.

Andrese and Zalas talk wistfully about someday buying a "grand drape" for about $3,000, so that scene changes can be hidden from the audience.

Nevertheless, when the lights go down, the gloom dissipates quickly. In expert hands, the producers say, the stage can quickly turn into a castle, a London slum, the deck of a ship or a villa on the Riviera.

Of course, there's not much money for fancy sets, says Zalas, an English teacher at Arcadia High School. The Sierra Madre Playhouse relies more on acting magic--a little dramatic hocus-pocus along with "the intimacy of the theater"--to conjure up the strange and the exotic, he says.

"On television or the movie screen, the characters are disembodied," Zalas says. "People aren't really there--they're just images. A lot of our patrons say they get much more out of an intimate theater like ours. They get the dialogue. They're much more involved with the characters."

The current offering is "Mr. Hobbs Vacation," an adaptation of Edward Streeter's best seller about a Cleveland businessman's vacation with his family on a New England island. The show opened two weeks ago, before a largely unresponsive audience, which greeted much of the play's bland humor with apparent indifference.

Each cast always has a distinct personality, theater people will tell you. Asked to describe the personality of the "Mr. Hobbs" cast, one actress said: "Worried."

There had been technical difficulties, she said. A couple of cast members had dropped out at the last moment. The backstage crew was still tinkering with props and sound effects on opening night.

"It's scary," another actress said during a dress rehearsal. "Everything's so chaotic."

On opening night, there were awkward stretches when there were no actors on the stage. Scene changes, with crew members moving around the stage in a half-light, changing the drapes or placing fresh flowers in bowls, sometimes faltered. At one point, the shadowy stage stood empty for a few long moments, until the audience began to stir restlessly. Finally, a door opened and a hand reached out and hurriedly placed a coat on a coatrack. The coat, it turned out, was a key prop in the following scene.

But by last Thursday, the production was chugging along. "It's getting better," director Bruce Alan Coen says. "Every night, it's better."

Performing in a community theater like the Sierra Madre Playhouse is clearly an act of love. You rehearse four nights a week for a month, pitch in to build sets, help with tasks such as moving props between scenes, and you get paid next to nothing.

The policy at the playhouse is to divide 5% of the box office receipts among cast and backstage crew. But with 13 actors and six backstage workers, the "Mr. Hobbs" cast doesn't stand to reap much of a financial reward. "They'll be lucky if they get gas money," Coen says.

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