July 13. It’s 7 p.m. on a hot day in Largo when 21 men and women enter the half-lit auditorium at the Largo Cultural Center and take seats facing the stage. They’re all here to audition for the Eight O’Clock Theatre’s production of Proof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Auburn play scheduled to open in September. The play is mostly about Catherine, a famous mathematician’s daughter who may or may not be mentally ill. The other characters are Robert, her father; Claire, her older sister; and Hal, the young professor who’s looking through her father’s notebooks for mathematical gold.
Sitting at a table between the audience and the stage are director Rand Smith and stage manager Cathy Winchester. At the moment, all eyes are on Smith, who will shortly ask two of the actors to take the stage and read from the play. There’s a nervous tension in the air, interrupted by quiet voices and occasional giggles.
Clearly something important is at stake.
Smith, 43, looks kind of actorish himself, with his carefully groomed hair and perfect goatee (grown for his role in The Fantasticks, Eight O’Clock’s July show). And in fact he’s been performing for nine years and directing for only two, here and at Tarpon Springs Cultural Center and the St. Petersburg Little Theatre.
Like almost everyone else on hand tonight, he has a day job: systems project analyst for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which means, he tells me, that “I’m the computer guy for Pinellas and Pasco County.” But he doesn’t see his work in community theater as less important than his full-time gig.
“Theater’s always been my passion,” he says.
As it has to be for anyone working in the theater, because, well, it doesn’t pay much. And in the case of community theater actors, it pays nothing at all.
That’s the basic distinction between our area’s professional troupes and its community theaters: The former pay their actors (and in some instances can afford to employ members of Actors’ Equity, the professional actors’ union), and the latter do not.
Does that mean that shows by the pros will necessarily be of higher quality? Or do the longevity and success of our community theaters suggest something else: that they don’t get the respect they deserve?
As a longtime local theater critic, I’m here tonight to begin to find out.
Smith calls for the first two actors: Ashlie Mohney to play Catherine and Michael duMouchel to play her father Robert. I’m surprised to see duMouchel on a community stage; I still remember his brilliant portrayal 10 years ago of James Tyrone in O’Neill’s A Moon For the Misbegotten at Tampa’s Stageworks. Tall, gaunt and bearded, with his long black-and-gray hair tied back, he could easily be the famous mathematician whose mental imbalance has perhaps been inherited by his daughter. And Mohney is a credible Catherine: charming but short-tempered, deferential to her father but unwilling to revert to little girl in his presence. They finish the scene, leave the stage, and Smith calls up the next two actors, and the next.
Travis Moore, an aspirant to the role of Hal, has the ultra-serious look of an unmitigated math geek (his wife is here too, auditioning for Catherine). Jan Ray, whom I reviewed when she was in Hat Trick Theatre’s production of The Pavilion, is trying out for the parts of Catherine and Claire both; and T.J. Gill brings to the part of Robert a friendly teddy-bear gruffness. Over the next three hours, all 21 performers play scenes from the play, and more often than not they give auditions that wouldn’t be out of place in a professional theater. They’re showing sparks — and sometimes full-on flames — of talent. Though a few of are clearly wrong for the parts, some are already persuasive.
Which doesn’t surprise director Smith at all. “I’ve seen a lot of talented people in this area who are not professional,” he says. “That doesn’t say that everyone here is talented, but there’s a very large pool of talent, and probably people like myself who just didn’t want to venture out and try to make it on their own that way.”
Smith was seriously involved in theater projects during his high school years in Lakeland. He graduated from Eckerd College with a business management major and theater minor, but eventually found his way to a career in computers. “And it was my wife who said, ‘You need to get back in theater, because that’s really where your heart is.’ So I started doing mystery dinner theater, then I made the jump to community theater in acting, and it just kind of progressed naturally to directing.”
With three children to feed, he’s confident he was right not to become a professional actor. Still, he admits that he sometimes wonders what would have happened if he’d gone pro. “If there were a way for me to do it, and a way for me to keep the family happy, I would do it.”
Now the auditions are over, and Smith is talking to the actors for the last time this evening. They’ll get a call, he tells them, by next Saturday night at the latest, telling them yes or no. Meanwhile, everyone’s invited to come back tomorrow night, to read with the next group of actors. It’s not a requirement, but it won’t hurt anyone’s chances either. I look at this hungry crowd, and I’m sure of one thing: Most will be back. No one’s just passing time.
According to Julie Crawford, executive director of American Association of Community Theatres, there are about 7,000 community theaters in the U.S. compared to 2,000 to 2,500 professional theaters. For many audience members throughout the country, these amateur companies provide their only contact with live drama.
In the Tampa Bay area, any discussion of community theater has to begin with St. Petersburg Little Theatre, which, founded in 1925, bills itself as Florida’s oldest, continuously running amateur house. But if SPLT can claim to be the oldest of Tampa Bay community theaters, it’s by no means the only one. There are at least 11 other such companies offering yearly programming, from the Carrollwood Players and M.A.D. Theatre in Tampa to the Frances Wilson Playhouse in Clearwater and the West Coast Players in Dunedin.
If they all have one defect — or virtue, depending on your point of view — it’s a strong tendency to produce unambitious crowd-pleasers at the expense of more challenging material. Looking at 11 different 2008-2009 seasons, I find hoary old musicals (High Society), time-tested thrillers (The Mousetrap), and proven light comedies (Same Time Next Year) — with only a few exceptions.
So there is one major difference between community and pro theaters in this area: If you want to see August Wilson or Martin McDonagh or John Guare, you’ll have to go to American Stage or Jobsite Theater or Gorilla Theatre. Eight O’Clock may be producing Proof next month, but that’s unusual; coming up directly afterward are The Pajama Game and Guys and Dolls. Not exactly the cutting edge.
July 20. Smith has made his casting decisions: Ashley Mohney for Catherine; T.J. Gill as her father; for her sister Claire, Jan Ray; and as mathematician and love interest Hal, Travis Moore. What he finally looked for, Smith says, was a group that fit together, seemed part of a single world. Particularly difficult was deciding who would play Robert: Smith thought four of the auditioners were talented enough.
Now is the day of the first readthrough in the Largo Feed Store, a big old building just a few hundred yards from the Cultural Center. Six weeks of rehearsal lie ahead — nights, Sunday to Wednesday — before the opening. Moore arrives first, then Gill, Ray and Mohney. All are in good spirits, and the tension that I sensed at the auditions is fully gone. Smith displays a drawing of the set — the back of a house, with porch and backyard — and a floor plan. There’s some joking around — Gill especially seems to specialize in self-deprecating humor — and then all open their scripts to the first page of dialogue. Stage manager Winchester reads the stage directions and the play begins. Catherine and Robert are speaking on the back porch of the house they share. Robert remembers it’s Catherine’s birthday.
I’ve seen three productions of Proof. And it’s not unusual for actors to treat a first readthrough of a script with what might politely be called a lack of enthusiasm. But as this reading continues, several scenes hold me rapt. In other words, these actors are good — and some pivotal confrontations are riveting. Already Catherine/Mohney is a troubled young woman whose sanity may or may not be tottering, Robert/Gill is a caring, quiet-spoken father who is careful not to put too much pressure on his child, Claire/Ray is an ultra-bourgeois busybody with some stubborn ideas about her younger sister, and Hal/Moore is a diligent young mathematician who may also be an insidious opportunist. I’ve witnessed full productions by professional companies that weren’t this impressive.
Afterward, I ask director Smith for his thoughts. “I am awfully excited,” he says. “It was spectacular. I have to say, I expected it to be good, but it was even that much better to hear the four people that I saw portraying those roles. … That was really nice.”
Who are these actors, and why aren’t they on the professional stage?
Ashlie Mohney, 28, is a loan officer at AAAA Mortgage in Tampa (she lives in Pinellas Park). She majored in acting and directing at the University of Northern Colorado and moved to the Bay area with her first husband after college. She thought she would pursue acting in graduate school, but “you end up developing financial and other responsibilities, and so kind of took a side track there. But I still just try to stay as active as possible in it.” Soon after arriving in Florida, she took a role in Noises Off at the Carrollwood Players, then acted in several other shows around the Bay area, even winning the role of Eliza Doolittle in Eight O’Clock’s My Fair Lady. Having seen Proof at the Donmar Warehouse in London, she knows what a gift the role of Catherine is and looks forward to “working my butt off for the next couple of months here.”
Travis Moore, 37, is a lobbyist and governmental affairs consultant who lives in Tallahassee from February to April of every year, and represents, among 13 clients, an environmentalist group, a statewide association of insurance agents, the Property Taxpayers Association, and the Communities Association Institute out of Alexandria, Virginia. He started acting when he was 7 years old — his schoolteacher parents traveled with a summer drama team, and “my sister and I traveled with them all summer long, so I just got really interested in it.” He graduated in pre-law from Clearwater Christian College — where he also acted in two Shakespeare plays — and worked in Tallahassee for the State House and Senate before becoming a lobbyist in 2000. And now acting is his “hobby” — “Some people golf on weekends, and I enjoy performing.” And he points out that acting is not so entirely different from his day job: “There’s a lot of public speaking in what I do.”
I first saw Jan Ray, 27, act when she was in Hat Trick Theatre’s The Pavilion in Ybor City, and I marveled at the passion with which she played the female lead. How long has she been acting? “All my life. Probably, really, seriously at 5.” She was a theater major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, and played Claire — the role she’s now rehearsing — in a student production. During a sojourn in Chicago, she performed in various children’s theater roles and later toured the United States in a production of State Fair. Her day job is right here at the Largo Cultural Center, where she’s recreation leader and office assistant. Why did she want the role of Claire? “I’m familiar with the show and the script and everything like that, and I just had the itch to get on stage. And it’s close to my house.” She and her husband — a professional actor who now tours with a children’s troupe — both tried to turn pro during that time in Chicago, but a baby came along and “we decided that it wasn’t fair to put a child through living on a very, very limited budget.” Still, nothing will keep her off the boards.
T.J. Gill runs a Madeira Beach bed-and-breakfast, the Snug Harbor Inn, where every room is named after a play he or his wife has appeared in. They’ve decorated their eight rooms in styles suggested by their theater lives: “We have Chapter Two, Same Time Next Year, On Golden Pond, Once Upon a Mattress, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fourposter, Never Too Late, and Inherit the Wind.” (A few of their shows didn’t get hotel rooms named after them, he adds, like Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Deathtrap.) Gill, 59, was working in the hotel business in Iowa when he helped his parents move down to Florida, took a look at the long line of hotels on the Gulf Coast and knew he had to move. He made the journey in 1979, worked in the cable TV industry for 10 years but never stopped acting. He and his wife (whom he met in 1981 when they both were on stage at the St. Petersburg Little Theatre) have done 26 shows together, and he insists that the work has strengthened their marriage: “We’ve killed each other — she’s killed me, I’ve killed her — I’ve been her brother, we’ve had affairs with each other, we’ve had affairs on each other; you wring out a lot of stuff that makes real life more manageable.”
Aside from dinner theaters, he’s never acted professionally. And he doesn’t seem to mind.
Not everyone on an Eight O’Clock Theatre show works for love alone. There are some paid positions, explains board chair Linda Weir: the director, stage manager, choreographer, musical director, designers and set builder receive a stipend (Smith told me he’s paid $1,000 to direct Proof). As for Eight O’Clock’s income, all of it comes from ticket sales ($21 for straight plays, $26 for musicals) and the occasional small donation. Annual production expenses are $120-$130,000 for a five-play season, and another $75,000-$100,000 goes to the City of Largo for the use of its facilities.
Eight O’Clock, which started operations in 1982, was originally funded by the City of Largo, business manager Betsy Byrd tells me, but the city eventually helped it break away and offer its first fully independent season in 2001-2002. Without the city to bail it out in the event of poor attendance, “we have to make money on our ticket sales to survive.” And then there’s the pesky problem of local sensibilities: If Eight O’Clock wants to put on a show with explicit scenes or adult language, it first has to get clearance from the City of Largo. “You know, we put on Urinetown last year, and we had to go before the City and talk them into letting us do it. … They were very concerned about the title and bringing a negative atmosphere to the city.” Eventually the theater was given the go-ahead, and the show sold out and even added a performance; but still there were “some letters to the editor in the paper from older people who thought it was disgusting that we did it.” Weir seconds the point: Community sensibilities, she says, are always on the board’s mind, and it simply won’t propose a play that’s likely to offend members of the audience (no Glengarry Glen Ross). Which brings us right back to the subject of tried-and-true musicals, like last season’s My Fair Lady, which nightly sold out all 333 seats and some extra chairs besides. Eight O’Clock can’t help but be aware that these are the shows that fill the seats. And like it or not, the theater is tied to “the bottom line.”
That doesn’t mean that all the people who run Eight O’Clock are satisfied with such calculations. “Right now our audience base is the older generation that wants to see these musicals that they’ve seen 185 times,” says Weir. “It’s very frustrating.” She’s not resigned to the situation, though; slowly and carefully, she says, Eight O’Clock is experimenting with new directions. “Last season we did our very first Shakespeare — A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and it sold OK. … I have to tell you that we are in a growing mode right now. … We want to do different things.” For example: Proof. “I’m really kind of hoping that the overall story and the caliber of production are going to make it one of word of mouth and start to bring in a different audience. Because the ones that are going to like it are maybe that younger crowd.” But she doesn’t sound too confident. In any case, don’t expect to see August: Osage County at a community theater. Nothing down and dirty. The audience just won’t have it.
September 9. It’s late in the rehearsal period, and director Smith is working against the clock to solve some problems in the production. One of them is technical: The light that shines on the second floor of the 2-story house at the back of the stage is bleeding down to the ground level — making it look as if there’s no ceiling separating the two floors. The entire set has just been moved several feet closer to the audience; its original positioning put the actors so far from the auditorium, Smith worried that spectators would find the actors too distant. Smith, by the way, has lost his goatee and now has a full beard; and all the actors seem to have changed hair color.
Now Smith addresses the few scenes that are still bothering him. An encounter between Moore and Mohney is taking place upstage right when it should be farther downstage and to the left; Gill is lighting his pipe too soon in a scene with his “daughter” Mohney. In another segment, Ray crosses the stage before making a point; Smith says, “I’m sorry to do this to you, Jan, but I want to kill that cross.” Then we get to something like stage combat: In the scene, a despondent Catherine starts to tear a crucial notebook in half, but her sister grabs her and stops her. Smith tries it every which way: with more and less contact, in silence and with exclamations. During one of the umpteen repetitions, Mohney-as-Catherine really does tear the notebook almost in half — and everyone onstage and off breaks up laughing. The struggle still needs a little work, says Smith: “We’ll do it again tomorrow.”
After rehearsal, I ask the actors what’s most difficult about playing their parts. Moore says that his greatest challenge is to run from work to rehearsal and then transform into Hal — a character who’s not very much like him. “It’s getting rid of the day job and being able to find the night job.” Mohney tells me that her greatest challenge is keeping her honesty in so “naturalistic” a part, not forcing it and not being affected by the knowledge that spectators in the back of the house probably won’t be able to see her subtlest expressions. Jan Ray has an unusual problem: Having played the role of Claire at Eckerd College a few years ago, her challenge is not falling back into an earlier mindset. “It’s taking the lines and the memory I have associated with that time around. … versus completely different actors, different interpretations of character, completely different blocking.” As for T.J. Gill, the problem he’s struggled with is convincingly portraying a mathematical genius. “Genius is always difficult to present,” he says. “Madness: not so hard. But when they have a meeting point, that’s what’s the most interesting to me. Finding the balance between how much the genius results in madness, or is it the other way around. … Finding the right balance.” As for the greatest difference between Robert and himself, that’s easy: “The genius.”
My ticket is for the first Sunday afternoon of the run. I can hardly wait.
September 14. It’s a very strong show. There are small problems here and there — the lighting’s so low in the opening scene you can’t see details of the actors’ faces, and on a few occasions I feel an actor could be more restrained and still convey great anger. But these are quibbles — this Proof is mostly a joy to watch, and the scene wherein Catherine discovers that her father has relapsed into madness is so stunning, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it more powerfully.
The most curious thing about this production is the audience: these 150 or so people are almost all elderly and overwhelmingly female. Where are the men? Where are the young people? I’ll leave it to demographers in Largo to explain that one. The more important news is: All four of these actors are superb, the directing is sure-handed, the design strictly first-rate. I started this article thinking “amateur” all the way and I’ve had to turn a 180. This is a better Proof than the one I saw at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, staged by a Canadian touring company. It belongs in the same league as the American Stage and Florida Studio Theatre productions. A moving, illuminating experience.
So now I’m hooked. Is this Proof the rule or the exception? If it’s the rule … well, maybe I have to change my concept of community theater. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lot more good work out there than I’d imagined. After seeing this Proof, I’ve really got to find out.