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California actors make a home in Astoria

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Imagine if a bunch of coworkers from Astoria decided to pack up their belongings and move to Southern California en masse, where they would open a new branch of their company.

Seems unlikely, but that is exactly what the members of the Ophelia Theatre Group did — in reverse.

Playwright and director Sarah Bennett started the group in her hometown of Lake Elsinore, Calif., back in 2003.

Bennett had written plays while still in high school and after graduation continued to create works for her alma mater. She obviously had found her niche, so she figured why not pursue this full time with her actor friends?

“There were so many local actors that I had gone to high school with,” Bennett said. “I got them all onboard to do theater with me.”

And being from a town that shared its name with Hamlet’s castle, the group’s moniker proved to be a no-brainer.

Today, Bennett and the rest of the Ophelia group calls Astoria home and will open their newest show, “The Fox and Boulder,” Friday, March 13, at the Variety Boys and Girls Club Queens.

OK, so all 15 didn’t leave the West Coast at the same time, but each one came East between 2009 and 2011.

Bennett’s younger brother Micah Macias was one of the first to strike out for Astoria, along with company members Alex Brown, John Hoffman and Brittney Moss.

After that first group had been in New York City for awhile, Bennett decided it was time to pay her brother a visit.

“I had never been here,” Bennett said. “And I thought, ‘What are we doing in Riverside County, Calif.? I went back and said, ‘I’m moving to New York and I’m taking the company with me. And I want everyone who wants to go to come with me.”

As they settled into their new lives — four to an apartment and whatever work they could get to survive — they continued to mount plays wherever they could find a spot.

“We figured it was better to be poor in New York than poor in Lake Elsinore,” said Hoffman, who now serves as the group’s managing director. “It’s still a labor of love. Nobody’s getting paid for their work right now.”

In 2012, Ophelia staged Neil Labute’s “Reasons to be Pretty,” at a Manhattan theater. They followed that with a production of one of Bennett’s original play’s “The Cast Party, A Survival Story,” at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City.

When 2013 rolled around, the group had entered into an agreement with the Variety Boys and Girls Club Queens in Astoria. Ophelia got access to the club’s proscenium stage in return for offering theater classes to the children.

And since the 2013-14 season also marked the 10-year anniversary of Ophelia Theatre Group, the troupe decided to brush up their Shakespeare with a series of plays related to “Hamlet,” including Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” Lee Blessing’s “Fortinbras” and one of the greatest Broadway musical flops of all time, Cliff Jones’ “Rockabye Hamlet.”

Now as the group enters its second decade, it continues to adapt to its new surroundings.

Late last fall, Ophelia started a online fund-raising effort to renovate the Boys and Girls Club’s small, black-box theater space. Hoffman believes that kind of stage is more suited to the type of intimate productions they present.

That’s where they will stage Bennett’s original piece “The Fox and Boulder.”

Set in a tavern deep in the forest of an imaginary world, Bennett’s comedy tells the story of a group of friends who gather and talk about what happens when their dreams don’t come true.

“It is sort of ‘Cheers’ in a tavern in the woods,” she said. “It highlights the things we all tend to long for: love, fortune and power. There are also a lot of the original members in this show. More than any of the other shows we’ve done lately.”

But the Ophelia Theatre Group has grown beyond the original bunch of actors from California who left everything behind and headed East. And even though some of the newer additions to the Ophelia roster come from all over the country, many found their way to New York and Astoria for a lot of the same reasons that first group did.

“The 15 who moved out here together — we’re a family.” Bennett said. “But we love to work with talented people and welcome them with open arms. When you work with us you get invited to play with us.”

If you Go

“The Fox and Boulder”

When: March 13 - March 29, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 6 pm

Where: Ophelia Theater, 21-12 30th Road, Astoria

Cost: $18/Friday and Saturday, Pay what you can/Sunday

Website: www.opheliatheatre.com

Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4541.

Posted 12:00 am, March 12, 2015
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