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Mountain Playhouse

Jennerstown, Penn.

If you're looking for a little nostalgia in your summer-stock experience, try the Mountain Playhouse, Pennsylvania's oldest professional stock theatre, celebrating its 65th year housed in a restored 1805 gristmill.

The 393-seat theatre is climate-controlled and includes a snack bar overlooking a lake, and the Jenner Art Gallery (located in the theatre lobby), featuring the works of area artists.

Each summer, the not-for-profit playhouse produces eight shows ranging from musical theatre to slapstick farcical comedies. Performances run two to three weeks each, with seven or eight shows per week, including weekday and Sunday matinees.

As part of the regular season, Theater Classics for Students, the playhouse's educational arm, produces one show devoted to classical, educational theatre. Past years have brought such masterpieces as Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" for area students as well as the entire community.

"In particular, if actors are interested in comedy, we offer an opportunity to be part of a core group of actors that are incredibly gifted at doing farce," explains Proprietor-Producer Teresa Stoughton Marafino. "They can learn a heck of a lot. You work hard and play hard in a bucolic setting."

Located in Jennerstown, Penn., near the Maryland border, the playhouse draws from a 60-mile radius that includes Pittsburgh, Altoona, and Maryland.

Since 1939, the playhouse has cast members of Actor's Equity Association in its productions. It currently operates under a CORST Z pact. The contract provides for two weeks' rehearsal and, on rare occasions, three. The stage also employs directors from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, as well as musicians from the American Federation of Musicians.

Asked about housing for actors, Marafino quips, "We're situated on my grandparents' farm, but my grandfather didn't want to be a farmer, so he started a theatre and restaurant." Barns and other buildings now house 15 quaint apartments ranging from a room with a bath to an apartment with three bedrooms and kitchen that actors share.

"There's modern plumbing, so I'd call the apartments more unique than rustic," Marafino observes.

Gearing for auditions for the coming summer season, Marafino will travel to New York for the Feb. 4 AEA chorus call at the Equity audition center, and for the Equity principal auditions Feb. 5 and 6. Local auditions for both union and nonunion adult and child actors will be held by appointment the last weekend in February at the Playhouse's Green Gables Restaurant in Jennerstown. That first casting will be for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which will run July 13 to Aug. 1.

For the local auditions, actors can call box office manager Lori Berkey at (814) 629-9201, ext. 290.

The theatre offers some technical apprenticeships. Last year, the playhouse also awarded its first Grindstone Award for Comedy Playwriting, which includes a $3,000 cash prize and will be given biannually. The first winner was Mark Steven Jensen of New Hope, Minn., for his play "The Benevolent Women's Craft Society," chosen over 178 other entries.

For more information, check out the Mountain Playhouse's website at www.mountainplayhouse.com.

—Roger Armbrust

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera

Pittsburgh, Penn.

Despite its name, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's summer theatre focuses on musical theatre. This season, from June 15 to Aug. 22, it will present "The King and I," "1776," "The Music Man," "Hello, Dolly!," "Me and My Girl," and "Dreamgirls," each as discrete productions (not in repertory) with runs of about two weeks. The performers arrive about a week before each run, says Associate Producing Director Lori Berger.

According to Executive Producer Van Kaplan, the theatre itself is a 2,800-seat house located in the Benedum Center. It is state-of-the-art in terms of lighting, sound, and all of the technical requirements of a major theatre serving a large metropolitan area. The audience is the Pittsburgh-area population, and over the years, the CLO has grown into a major regional theatre.

"The King and I" company will arrive as a "package," having been cast and put together by the Theatre of the Stars in Atlanta.

In terms of principal roles for the other shows, a resident company—as opposed to a repertory company—is cast, meaning most performers will appear in more than one show, generally working in one while rehearsing for the next. The Pittsburgh CLO is an Equity house working under the Resident Musical Theatre Association contract.

Auditions for chorus and character roles are held at the theatre in February. Many roles are filled from the chorus. Pictures and resumes are accepted by Lori Berger. In addition, Hughes Moss Casting in New York does much of the theatre's casting. Pictures and resumes can be sent there at 484 West 43rd St., Suite 28R, New York, NY 10036. An application for auditions can be found on the theatre's website at www.pittsburghclo.org

Singers who are 18 years old and older must perform 16 bars of a ballad and of an uptempo musical-theatre song at auditions. Dancers must be prepared to perform a tap, jazz, and ballet combination, and actors over age 35 must perform 16 bars of a musical-theatre song plus a monologue.

Rehearsal times vary, generally lasting seven to 10 days. Van Kaplan says, "They sometimes run as long as 14 days, but not often."

Actors are provided furnished apartments and their transportation to Pittsburgh is paid for.

Internships are available in choreography, company management, costume coordination, development, education and outreach, general administration, hair design, lighting design, musical direction, production management, property coordination, public relations/marketing, sound design, stage direction, stage management, and Web design. Many of the interns come from local colleges and universities, such as Carnegie Mellon. Interns receive a stipend, but are not provided with housing or transportation. Roughly 17 or 18 interns are selected. Their duties vary according to their specialty. Applications can be downloaded from the company's website.

—Esther Tolkoff

'Tecumseh!' at the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre

Chillicothe, Ohio

"Summer stock is the breeding ground for many great actors," says Marion Waggoner, president, producer, and artistic director of "Tecumseh!" in Chillicothe, Ohio. Beautiful natural scenery on an allotted area of 34 acres and a 1,700-seat outdoor amphitheatre make "Tecumseh!" a theatre lover's attraction for many miles. The show itself, produced by the Scioto Society, Inc., is not what you would find at your average summer theatre. The epic life story of the legendary Shawnee leader who fought to defend his sacred homelands in 18th-century Ohio is brought to life by a cast of 60 actors and has been labeled one of the most mesmerizing dramas in the nation.

"Tecumseh!" is a not-for-profit, non-Equity production utilizing an Outdoor Drama contract. The theatre company auditions performers who have been in the show at the end of the season, completing their casting with organized auditions in January, February, and March in New York, Chicago, and Memphis. Crew positions are filled out based on interviews. Selecting cast and crew is completed by mid-April each year, but resumes are received on an ongoing basis. The season runs from June 11-Sept. 4.

The actors, who are mostly undergraduate and graduate students, train to ride horses bareback, fire guns and cannons, and endure a very physical show overall. They have three weeks of rehearsal and 12 of performing, six nights a week, which adds up to 74 performances—more than most of them have had in their entire lives. Salaries range from $170 to $300 per week nonunion scale, and room and board are free. The theatre site is located fairly close to Ohio's capital city of Columbus. Cabins that house two to three actors each and contain a common kitchen area, a free laundry facility, and a restaurant give performers the feeling of living in a true "actors' colony," according to Waggoner.

The show has proven to be a positive summer experience for many return performers. Becoming an ensemble of 60 performers while enduring heat, rain, and bugs is essential to the "Tecumseh!" experience. "If you can do all of that, then you have gained an enormous amount of mental discipline as an actor and as an individual," says Waggoner.

Michael Maguire performed in "Tecumseh!" one summer, and a few months later got his lucky break in Broadway's "Les Misérables" as Enjolras, which won him a Tony Award. Kevin Haney, another alumnus of the summer theatre company, received an Oscar for makeup in 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy," starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.

Over two million people have seen "Tecumseh!" over its 31-year-long run, and there is an overwhelming return rate of 40-50%. For the 2005 season, however, Waggoner plans to spice things up with a Shakespearean selection on a hefty $25,000-30,000 budget, in an attempt to recapture some of the local audience and offer actors more for their resume.

No internships are available at this point.

—Ana Cruceanu

Summerfest at the University of Illinois

Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

"Our formula for the type of shows we do is one mystery, one comedy, and the third is what I call 'the wild card'—whatever catches my fancy," says Producing Director J.B. Harris. "This summer, rather than doing a classic American comedy, we're dong a different kind of American classic, 'The Glass Menagerie.' Our murder mystery is 'Guilty Conscience,' and our wild card is 'Parfumerie.' This was written in Hungary in 1937 and was the basis for the movie 'The Shop Around the Corner,' which later became 'She Loves Me,' and then 'You Got Mail.' The play has never been done in this country."

Summerfest started as an extension of the University of Illinois theatre department, primarily with student actors and faculty directors and designers. Over the past four years, it has tried to move to a more semiprofessional situation. Half the company members are mature non-Equity actors cast in Chicago and other places. The rest of the company is made up of advanced acting students, both local and from other university programs.

"We do three plays in rolling repertory—there aren't many theatres still doing that," points out Harris. "This summer we have a director from New York, one from Chicago, and one from Philadelphia. The designers are professionals from around the country. So it's an opportunity for young actors to work with professional directors, designers, and actors."

The seven-week season opens June 18 and closes Aug. 1. The first two shows rehearse for three weeks and then open on a Friday and a Saturday. The third show opens a week later, and the rotation begins, each show on alternate nights, Tuesday through Sunday.

Summerfest sometimes uses Equity actors, who get a waiver because they also teach in the internship and apprentice programs. The internship program is for high school students, and the apprentice program is for college freshmen. Members of the company teach acting classes for five weeks for the apprentices, which culminate in public performances. There is no fee, but they are each assigned a show and become part of the running crew.

The company performs in a black-box theatre, three-quarter-round stage area, with 215 seats. There is a professional shop on-site for sets and costumes. Housing is provided for guest artists and anyone who is from out of town. This year, Summerfest has sublet houses that have been vacated by students, and which are mostly within walking distance of the theatre center. Directors are put in apartments across the street from the theatre.

"The last three years, we've held auditions in Chicago, and I've even flown to New York to audition specific people that were highly recommended to me," said Harris. "We've run ads in Back Stage and on its website asking for pictures and resumes, and set up appointments for those we found appropriate for the roles we had to offer. Tech staff is hired in the same way."

Harris sees many benefits for actors of every level who come to work at Summerfest. "For student actors, it's the opportunity to rehearse and perform with professionals, and to establish some networking. For an actor with experience, here's a chance to develop two characters simultaneously and to perform them simultaneously, which is an opportunity that actors don't often have. And they do it in an atmosphere that's very supportive, and of high quality."

—Ira J. Bilowit

The Peninsula Players

Fish Creek, Wisc.

Located in Fish Creek, Wisc., in the midst of a cedar forest near Egg Harbor, on the scenic Green Bay shore of Lake Michigan, the Peninsula Players is the nation's oldest surviving professional resident summer theatre, having been in continuous operation since 1935. For the last 40-odd years, it was carefully watched over by producer Jim McKenzie. Following his death in 2002, Chicago-based producer-director Todd Schmidt has taken over as executive producer and general manager, while actor-director Greg Vinkler serves as artistic director.

The Players' business manager, Audra Baakari-Boyle, says the standard size of the company "varies depending on the show. We can go anywhere from 25 to 52 people housed on the property" at any one time. Some performers stay for multiple shows over the season, but new performers are brought in when needed. The Players are always seeking fresh talent, but returning actors often fill a number of roles. The communal atmosphere of the theatre seems to engender loyalty: Bob Thompson, for instance, has been performing with the company since 1938, and is still going strong well into his 80s.

Actors, directors, interns, staff, and tech crew all live together on the theatre grounds. The sprawling complex is highlighted by a rustic, 470-seat proscenium-house theatre pavilion, which is covered by a permanent roof but leaves its sides open to nature (the pavilion can be closed up if inclement weather arises). Other facilities include shops, offices, and a beer garden.

The 2004 summer season will run from June 22-Oct. 10. The lineup has not yet been selected, but a season of five plays is expected, including at least one musical, one drama, and a couple of comedies. Shows rehearse for two to three weeks and perform for two to three more. Performances typically take place every evening after sunset (no matinees), Tuesdays through Sundays.

The Peninsula Players is a nonprofit summer stock company that operates under an Equity CORST Z contract. Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) points are available to non-Equity performers and interns, but the Players do not accept unsolicited pictures and resumes. Auditions are usually held in Chicago, Ill., and Milwaukee, Wisc., between January and April, although some performers are culled directly from the Chicago theatre scene thanks to Schmidt and Vinkler's connections to the industry. (Audition info will be posted in the Chicago section of Backstage.com.)

Approximately eight interns are selected to work with the company every season. Interns are given the opportunity to perform a variety of jobs, attend workshops, and interact with the cast and staff. To request an internship application form, email Audra Baakari-Boyle at audra@peninsulaplayers.com; or write to The Peninsula Players, W4351 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek, Wisc., 54212. "It's like theatre camp for adults," she enthuses.

She closes by noting the Peninsula Players' commitment to stimulating the intellect of its audiences: "Part of our mission is to continue to enthrall the audience by doing at least one drama or one serious production a year." Over the past few seasons, shows have included "Art," "The Cherry Orchard," "Proof," and "A Man for All Seasons." As McKenzie told Back Stage in 2002, before he passed away: "We have to have new stuff, new blood, new excitement." And the Players continue to strive for just that.

—Luke Thomas Crowe

The Muny

St. Louis, Mo.

St. Louis certainly earns bragging rights when it comes to summer theatre programs. In operation for 85 years and entertaining 11,000 people at a time, the Muny is considered America's oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre (the stage itself is half the size of a football field).

The city's Municipal Theatre Association was officially formed in 1919 and, remarkably, they have not missed a season since. According to Laura Peters Reilly, director of marketing, "In 1916, an actress named Margaret Walsh Anglin was hired to direct a production of 'As You Like It' in honor of the 500th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. She toured Forest Park with Parks Commissioner Nelson Cunliff, Mayor Henry Kiel, and other city fathers, and the spot that they chose became the Muny."

Over the years, the Muny has presented and/or produced grand operas, operettas, dance troupes, and concerts. Everyone from W.C. Fields to Bob Hope, from Ethel Merman to Phyllis Diller, from Cary Grant to John Travolta, and from Betty Grable to Betty White has played there.

Nowadays, the Equity not-for-profit house produces Broadway musicals almost exclusively, under a Musical Stock and Unit Attraction contract. This year, in honor of the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the centennial celebration of the 1904 World's Fair, the group will run "Meet Me in St. Louis." The summer fare will also include "Cats," "Annie," "42nd Street," "The Music Man," and two more tuners to be announced.

Peters Reilly reports that patrons from the metropolitan St. Louis area flock to the Muny each season, and performers are equally drawn to the venue. "The chance to play to a large and appreciative audience draws actors back year after year. They view it as their summer home away from home."

Lead performers are often housed in nearby hotels, as are chorus members who aren't locals. Vans are dispatched for actors for rehearsals and performances; private cars and rentals are sometimes an option as well.

The venue has state-of-the-art equipment to offer visiting artists. Peters Reilly adds, "There is no roof or ceiling, so there's lots of 'fly space.' We do have a catwalk, and we're able to construct a grid that allows us to literally fly people when necessary. And we have the country's largest outdoor turntable."

There are many ways to get involved at the Muny. Auditions are held in St. Louis, New York, and L.A. Executive Producer Paul Blake hires all stage managers, musical directors, and conductors. Stagehands are hired through referrals and the local union halls.

"Our shows are done on a grand scale, with huge choruses, a live orchestra, and featuring first-rate directors, choreographers, and musical directors," relates Peters Reilly. "When we did 'Miss Saigon,' we had a real helicopter fly over the audience. When we did 'South Pacific,' we had a vintage B-52 bomber. When we do 'Oklahoma!,' we have a real horse pulling a real surrey with real fringe. It's a very enjoyable experience for both the actor and the audience."

—Elias Stimac

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