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Community theater like family to thespians

November 23, 1997

Community theater like family to thespians

By CLYDE FORD

Staff Writer, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Susie Miller pointed to the spot where she wanted one of the trees to stand, but she had to wait for the trees to stop giggling before she could get their attention.

As director of the Old Opera House's production of "The Wizard of Oz," she's dealing with the community theater's version of flying monkeys, singing trees, a dancing scarecrow and a little dog, Toto, too.

"Lori, can you start at 'Apples?'" Miller asks.

"Okay," replies Lori McKinney, 19, who's playing Dorothy. She takes the scene from the top.

For the past month, the amateur actors who make up the community theater have worked on their roles for the holiday production.

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For many of them, acting is a hobby.

"It's like any other hobby. You find people with the same interests," said Michael Hulett, a veteran actor from Lovettsville, Va., who is playing the Scarecrow.

Throughout the Tri-State area, the credit managers, electricians or chemical engineers in real life might spend their spare time chewing the scenery at community theaters like the Old Opera House in Charles Town, the Apollo Civic Theatre in Martinsburg, W.Va., the Potomac Playmakers and Washington County Playhouse in Hagerstown or the Chambersburg Community Theater and Conococheague Players in Chambersburg, Pa.

"It's a very social thing. When we're not doing shows together we go out to dinner together," said Dick Hershey, 73, of Hagerstown.

Those in community theater say that involvement with other people is one of the biggest reasons they get involved in productions.

"How many other people get 68 hugs a night?" said Miller, of Ranson, W.Va. "They're like family here," she said of the cast and crew.

Miller often gets her husband and son involved in the plays, either on stage or behind the curtain.

"Everybody in theater practically makes up a large family," Hershey said.

Hershey said many of the amateur actors audition and perform at a variety of theaters, so they get to know each other well. When they're not performing in a show, they are on hand to watch others perform, he said.

Hershey is not in the current production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Old Opera House, but he directed a production of another play last summer.

Hershey said his interest in community theater was sparked when as a youngster he was "dragged, kicking and screaming" to a school play.

He found he liked it.

About 30 years ago, he got involved with the Potomac Playmakers, a community theater group that's been together for 75 years.

"I'd rather be in theater than be out bowling three or four nights a week," Hershey said.

He said the stage brings together people who otherwise might never meet.

"We have doctors, bankers, lawyers, factory workers, housewives. It is such a melting pot," Hershey said.

"I've become a fan of community theater. The thing that excites me is it's home-grown and crafted theater," said Dick Shope, 44, of Chambersburg, who is a regular with the Chambersburg Community Theater and the Conococheague Players.

"There is something very democratic about community theater. This is family and friends who risk themselves on stage," Shope said.

Shope started in community theater about five years ago at the encouragement of friends. He had majored in theater in college, but after he graduated he put it into the background and got a job in another field.

Now that he's back at it, he realizes how much he missed it.

"It's a lot of work and at times you scratch your head and wonder why you do it. But then the show comes together. There's just something magical about it," Shope said.

"On opening night, when the audience looks at you and connects with you it makes it all worth it," Miller said.

Miller said she spends hours each night on the production, time she said probably would be better used studying for her classes at Shepherd College, where she's majoring in education.

"There's a small cost, but a big reward," Miller said.

As director, Miller gets paid $300 for her work in the play, but she estimates she will spend at least $600 to help put on the show.

She estimates she's directed 43 shows, including the Miss West Virginia pageant in Clarksburg, W.Va., since she first got involved in community theater 11 years ago by walking in off the street.

She had gone to the Old Opera House to inquire about renting a Halloween costume and was drafted into helping with props and costumes. Soon she was a stage manager and then director.

Most of the cast and crew have no formal training in stage work.

"These are people off the street," Miller said.

Some, like McKinney, a musical theater major at James Madison University, have stage training.

This is her first community theater production.

"I need the experience," said McKinney, who spent the summer singing as part of the cast of a show at an amusement park in North Carolina.

Some of the actors are as good as professionals, she said.

"It's like a conglomeration of all different skill levels," McKinney said.

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