All work, good plays in busy theater season Summer shows offer great opportunities for those eager to act

July 16, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Tom Sankey stands before an audience of 150 in the auditorium of Centennial High School in Ellicott City and speaks slowly, deliberately into his microphone. There is silence in the room.

Shhhh, the director is about to speak.

"OK, may I just remind you people one more time: If you don't know your dance steps by now, you're never going to know them," Sankey says earnestly. "If you don't know your steps, sell it with your eyes! I do not want to see anyone looking down at your feet -- I hate that more than anything! It's sooooooo tacky!"

It's summer theater season again and Sankey -- high school math teacher by trade, summer theater director by choice -- is whipping the cast of the Howard County Summer Theatre into shape.

They're only a few days shy of their premiere of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the Broadway musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and Sankey wants all the kinks ironed out in time for that first performance tomorrow night.

Around Baltimore -- and the country -- rehearsals for summer theater are in full swing. Costumes are being fitted, and amateur and professional actors are practicing their lines, songs and final bows before taking to the stage.

A creative outlet

In summer theater, the energy is almost always high and the audiences -- which include family, friends and fellow thespians -- are often extremely loyal.

"Joseph," the story of the biblical hero who is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and later raised to lofty station by the pharaoh of Egypt, features a cast of more than 100, including 50 children, many of whom persuaded their parents to audition.

Summer theater's appeal, says Sankey, is that it satisfies a creative outlet many people may have all year.

Something for everyone

"Sometimes, these productions are the only time they have to sing, dance and be artistic," Sankey adds between musical numbers. "Sometimes they come out to meet people who live in their community, to have a sense of belonging to something. But really, I think it's the whole camaraderie and interaction between cast members that really hooks them.

"Some of our cast members have been with us for years," he says.

Michael Decker, artistic producer for the Maryland Arts Festival at Towson University, says summer theater often offers something for everyone.

Summer theater productions are usually intended to "be a showcase for talent, but we also want to say thank you to the community and give something back."

Around Baltimore, some of the most well-regarded and popular summer theater companies are putting on musicals, plays, puppet shows, stand-up comedy, improvisational skits and choral recitals.

Companies as far afield as the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and the Allenberry Playhouse Boiling Springs, Pa., vie for audiences with the Theatre on the Hill troupe in Westminster and the Maryland Arts Festival.

The Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is featuring two productions this summer: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Kiss Me Kate," a Cole Porter musical. Also in Annapolis, the Colonial Players will present "The Allegheny Snowman" this month.

Summer theater can offer amateur and volunteer actors a chance to show that "they can actually do it -- be in a play or musical," says Daniel McDonald, director of publicity for Cockpit in Court, the summer theater in residence at Essex Community College, in its 26th season.

"Some are afraid to audition for the dinner theater or longer running shows," he adds. "Summer theater is a nice way to get your feet wet and start. It's exciting to people, and we never have trouble getting people to audition."

Theaters compete

It's the third year David Bittner has appeared in a production of the Howard County Summer Theatre, and he's geared up to play Joseph, the lead character, for the seven shows the group will perform in the auditorium of Centennial High, his alma mater.

Summer theater "gives people in every show a chance to do something they wouldn't ordinarily get to do and meet people they wouldn't necessarily meet," says Bittner, 29. "And people come out year after year because they know they'll see a good show."

A friendly competition among summer theaters in the area has cropped up, says McDonald, whose company is performing a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" at the Court Jesters Young People's Theatre at Essex Community College.

There's competition to "audition and land the best actors and singers and to offer a wide variety of choices as far as material is concerned," he says. "Baltimore is not that big a town, and it's a pretty small circuit. Still, there's a real sense of family amongst the performers and the theatergoers."

McDonald says summer theater appears to be popular, though the competition for customers is becoming stiff.

"We were really concerned for a while because there was a wane in the interest for summer theater," says McDonald.

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