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Astoria theater brings back sold-out revue

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In the toy-strewn basement of an Astoria church, a group of actors has transformed a child’s playland into an adult’s theatrical portal.

By day the gymnasium at the Presbyterian Church of Astoria on 33rd Street houses a nursery school, where dozens of children reign over a sprawling floor covered with climbing equipment, pint-sized furniture and endless cartons of toys.

At night, when the children’s voices have dissipated and the playthings sit still, the walls echo instead with the sounds of actors from the Astoria Repertory Company.

The performers have resumed rehearsals for “Opening Doors,” the gala production the company debuted in September that is returning Nov. 30 as a benefit for children affected by the World Trade Center disaster. While some practiced scenes and songs from the revived revue last Thursday night, other members of the company began preparing for a production of “A Christmas Carol,” slated to run in December.

The 30 or so performers juggle part-time jobs and professional gigs, squeezing company rehearsals into densely scheduled days that bring them around the city from one assignment to the next.

No one has time to be part of a theater company, but they all make time for the love of it.

“We’re all doing our own side projects,” said company member Joseph Mathers, a resident of Astoria. “Yet people are still finding ways to come in and make it happen.”

Veteran actor Mark Enis left last Thursday’s meeting early so he could run to another rehearsal.

Emily Morrison ran in late, clutching the gyro she grabbed for dinner before settling into a nursery-school chair for a script reading scheduled for that evening.

With resumés that stretch from Broadway to television and everything in between, they recognize and admire one another’s talents and are excited by the prospect of creating theater together.

But they are less familiar with the process of introducing a neighborhood to its new resident repertory company and tailoring productions to their audiences’ tastes.

“We’re discovering what our relationship will be with the community,” said company member Josh Golden.

Most of the actors hail from Astoria and neighboring communities in western Queens, where low rents compared to Manhattan have made the area a haven for artists.

The Astoria Repertory Company was founded earlier this year by Susan Scannell, a former model and television actress who had left entertainment 20 years ago for a motley career in business and marketing.

A resident of Astoria for the past nine years, Scannell ran a theater program for neighborhood youth that failed because the students were not committed to the project, so she decided to create a repertory company with professional adult actors.

“She’s the visionary,” said Morrison, who will soon embark on a tour with a professional children’s theater company. “She basically came up with the whole concept.”

Auditions in May attracted more than 400 actors, who waited for hours in a line that stretched well outside the church and along the length of 33rd Street.

“She didn’t pick divas,” Morrison said.

There is hardly room for diva attitude in the company, where actors have been forced to shoulder far more responsibilities than simply playing their roles. They painted the walls and improved the stage of the church gymnasium to create a suitable theater space, which they prepare for performances by setting up portable walls around the border of the basketball court to hide any sign of its daytime use.

“You come in and it’s a theater,” said company member Claire Engel, who is playing Mrs. Cratchet and the Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol.”

The company has overcome more obstacles than setting up the space and accommodating people’s schedules in its first six months of existence.

Its debut gala performance in September was postponed by the destruction of the World Trade Center, coinciding instead with the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Still, the actors played to sold-out houses and were forced to turn people away at the door for the production, which featured musical performances and two one-act plays.

When “Opening Doors” is revived next week, it will hardly be a carbon copy of the original. Some actors are replacing others who have been hired for professional gigs or cannot perform that weekend.

But such is standard fare for a repertory company, which consists of a dedicated group of performers who work together on a revolving series of projects.

For ordinary theater productions, the actors “all gather to put together a play, get to know each other well and disperse,” Engel said. “In this case, you don’t disperse. You reshuffle.”

“Opening Doors” will be performed Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 278-5925.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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