Out and about

March 21, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Bill Morgan came to The Old Opera House Theatre Company in 1996. The manager and artistic director of the 336-seat North George Street playhouse grew up in Mississippi and graduated from Lambuth College in Tennessee where he studied business and drama.

"I wish I had gotten a degree in plumbing and maintenance," he quips, referring to his work in the nearly 100-year-old downtown theater that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

The theater was called the New Opera House in February 1911, when the first show was presented in the brick building a block from the courthouse where abolitionist John Brown was tried for treason in 1859.

The playhouse survived two wars and a depression, but its stage went dark in 1948. Then, in 1973, the land and building were donated to a group of local citizens, 35 dumptruck loads of pigeon droppings were removed and the theater was restored.


The Old Opera House Theatre Company Inc., a nonprofit organization, was formed and has been enthusiastically engaged in community theater ever since.

Morgan has seen improvements and changes at OOH: the theater has gotten a new roof and $25,000 worth of new lighting and rigging. Last year OOH's building committee started talking about expanding - making office space more accessible, getting more rehearsal space, Morgan says.

But the Old Opera House is much more than the physical plant.

OOH offers six mainstage productions, a children's production in the summer and occasional dinner theater productions at area restaurants. A part-time Children's Program Director position was created to direct the summer children's program and to serve as a liaison between the theater and local schools.

On the boards now through Sunday, March 24, is "Run for your Wife," a British farce about a bigamist.

On Thursday, April 4 and Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m., Shakespeare Generation, a group of about 25 young actors ranging in age from 6 to 21, will present "Twelfth Night" at The Old Opera House.

The diversity in programming is great, Morgan says.

This year will mark the return of the New Voice Play Festival, which debuted in 2001. The festival, June 21-23, will present unpublished new plays, winners of OOH's competition.

The theater is supported by an active theater guild, and receives thousands of dollars a year from the Op Shop, a volunteer-staffed secondhand clothing store. But OOH's secret resource is people who love theater.

The community theater audience includes carpenters who don't really care about "Oklahoma" or "Camelot" as well as others who travel to New York twice a year to see a Broadway show, Morgan says.

Carroll Neal, the theater's part-time employee and box office manager, knows the patrons and works to accommodate their needs. Morgan enjoys knowing patrons who have become friends, seeing them in the theater lobby, running into them at the gym and having them thank him for making them laugh.

The Old Opera House was one of the main reasons Bill and Winky Francis retired to Charles Town from Bowie, Md., in 1988. Being acquainted with young people helps the retired couple to remain youthful, Francis says. "It sort of bonds people together," he adds.

"Run for Your Wife"

Francis, a member of the theater's board of directors, enjoys being involved in OOH productions - behind the scenes as well as on stage. "All of it is fun," he says. He plays one of two detectives in "Run for Your Wife."

Francis is enjoying the play. "It's one of those shows where the audience reaction brings out the best in the actors," he says.

And, the theater brings out the best in the audience. "They trust us enough to come to an unknown show," says Amy Barley, who plays Mary Smith, "Wife No.1," in "Run for Your Wife."

The set for the play is split - one side of the stage is the Wimbledon flat of cab driver John Smith and his wife Mary; the other side is the flat he shares with his wife Barbara.

John Smith, the cabdriver husband with two wives, is played by Michael Stiles. Stiles, director of Musselman High School's theater department, has worked - or played - at OOH before, acting and directing.

He likes working at the Charles Town theater because of the quality shows and good working atmosphere. OOH is very well organized and there's "very little angst," he says. "You go there and you have fun with theater," he adds.

Morgan enjoys the accessibility of community theater. Somehow, between the days of the Globe Theater and today, theater has gotten a bad reputation for being snobbish, Morgan says. But if it hadn't been for the common people who paid their penny to see Shakespeare's plays, today's theater wouldn't exist.

Morgan and OOH are trying to get across to a wider audience that there's something for a lot of people at the North George Street playhouse.

For those on the stage, there's another reason to participate.

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