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Actors Pay the Rent to Revive Theater : Stage: The 50-member company opens its first season with David Rabe's 'In the Boom Boom Room.'

May 11, 1990|CHRISTINE ZIAYA-ZEIGER | Ziaya-Zeiger is a regular contributor to Valley Calendar.

Above Jerry's Deli in Studio City is a 48-seat theater that until January was the home of the Donald O'Connor Family Theater. After a rent hike, however, the theater decided to close its doors.

But this being Los Angeles, as soon as it folded, another group of actors was waiting in the wings. And now the space is the home of the Company of Characters.

Headed by Herb Mitchell--a former stockbroker and businessman who turned to acting 10 years ago--the 50-member company is ready to start its first season. It opens tonight with David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room" and ends in the fall with "Fiddler on the Roof"--a production that will also play the 900-seat Komedy Theater in Leningrad.

To help the company survive, Mitchell realizes he will have to take a different tack. After all, after opening in November, 1988, the Donald O'Connor Theater experienced a modicum of success.

During its 15 months at the Studio City location, it produced four main-stage productions, beginning with "Charley's Aunt," starring Donald O'Connor, and ending with "The Great White Way . . . Broadway."

The latter, said Alicia O'Connor, producing director of the theater and Donald O'Connor's daughter, received good reviews and was sold out every weekend during its three-month run.

Nevertheless, ticket sales alone could not offset the theater's increase in rent. And there were other reasons the theater closed, Alicia O'Connor said. She became more interested in producing films and in acting, and her father decided a larger theater would better suit his needs.

Mitchell says the rent he pays on his monthly lease is "pretty high." But he said all theater spaces are expensive these days.

He expects to keep his theater alive through a plan that clearly exhibits his business acumen.

Each member of the Company of Characters is charged $125 a month--which is not unusual for participation in a theater group. But what sets Mitchell's company apart from some others is that in exchange for their dues, members are offered a variety of classes and workshops.

Included are scene study classes twice a week, a commercial workshop once a week and showcases twice a month for producers and casting directors, to help them shop for talent.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the theater will feature a production on its main stage. Each member of the company is guaranteed the opportunity to appear in one major production a year, although not necessarily in a major role. In addition, beginning this summer, a series of one-act plays will be presented on Thursday nights.

Diana Carpenter, a Marina del Rey resident who has been acting for seven years, said one reason she joined the company was because of the classes and workshops. "To me it seems like a reasonable price," she said. "It's a unique program. . . . It's a very aggressive plan."

Mitchell expects that next year the company will start presenting four main-stage productions. This year's three shows tentatively include a comedy set for this summer.

Mitchell said his philosophy in choosing shows is to pick plays that are uplifting, both spiritually and emotionally, "although this doesn't apply to the first show we are doing."

"We want to do good theater. I want the audience and actors to find love in the work. With all the hate in the world, we want to do our part in showing there is a lot of love."

Mitchell said the company will probably focus on doing established works since he is particularly interested in well-written plays. Often, he said, original material by unknown writers does not fill the bill. However, he added, "We're not closing our eyes to original stuff."

Another objective is to present plays that have roles for women. That's one of the reasons he chose "In the Boom Boom Room." Of the 50 members in the company, about half of them are women.

Company members, whose acting experience varies, range in age from 18 to 60. Many of the performers are in their 40s and 50s, he said, so they can play roles close to their actual ages.

Most of the members hold other jobs while waiting for a break in show business. "We even have two accountants and an attorney," Mitchell said.

But not everyone wants to act. The Company of Characters includes about half a dozen people interested in producing, eight to 10 directors, and several writers and choreographers.

Mitchell started the theater group, he said, after he got tired of hearing friends say, "Let's get a show up." So he took the initiative.

All the company's members are his friends or acquaintances.

"I called them up and asked them if they'd be interested in joining the group," he said. "I respected them, and they respected me."

Anthony Leonardi, an actor who lives in Reseda, said the main reason for joining the group "is Herb Mitchell. . . . He's a great acting coach. He lets actors find their way."

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