So You're No Barrymore

You still can have a life in the theatre

I realized in seventh grade that I wasn't cut out for serious theater. At the tensest, darkest moment of the class melodrama, as I swirled my black cape, curled my fake mustache, and said: "They do not call me Murdock the Villain for nothing!" the audience would laugh uproariously. So I switched to comedy. Although people never laughed quite as hard again, I've had a wonderful time as a shameless ham.

Acting isn't just for the Vanessa Redgraves and John Gielguds of the world. For the past four years, I've sung, danced, and acted in the Financial Follies--the New York Financial Writers' Assn. fund-raising show that spoofs the year's events in business. I've been Barry Diller, James Robinson, Ivan F. Boesky, Craig McCaw, Steven Spielberg, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., and Steve Forbes. As McCaw, I sang a cowboy duet with "Bill Gates" to the tune of Back In the Saddle Again: "Back in Seattle again/Out where a friend is a friend/Out where Microsoft is king and the cell phones always ring...."

Amateur theater such as this--well, mostly better than this--is a bigger business than you might guess. The American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) in College Station, Tex., maintains information on some 6,500 community theaters nationwide. The biggest, Nebraska's Omaha Community Playhouse, produces 11 shows a year with amateur performers and also has a professional wing. There are 4,000 volunteers and a $3.5 million budget.

The best advice for would-be thespians is simple: Go for it! Nearly all community theaters are eager for volunteers. And not just on stage. Interesting jobs abound in costumes, makeup, sets, lights, sound, stage management, and publicity, not to mention ushering and selling tickets. Working backstage is a way to prove yourself, as well as to decide if you've picked a compatible group.

Indeed, finding the theater that's right for you may take a few tries. While some have open auditions, others cast only their own members. Dues range from $10 to more than $100 a year. There are big differences in how much time you're expected to commit. And of course the style varies a lot--don't join a group that does Oklahoma! every June if what you really like is Euripides.

DOUBLE LIFE. Community theater ranges in quality from the nearly unwatchable to the occasionally superb. In the latter category is New York City's 61-year-old Village Light Opera Group, whose performers include many workers on Wall Street. At nearly every rehearsal, some principal is missing, possibly waylaid by next week's front-page merger. "The double life is rough on everybody," says resident stage director William Koch, who edits research and investment reports for Salomon Brothers. Yet Koch tolerates 80-hour weeks--50 at Salomon, 30 in the theater. "It's a wonderful ensemble experience," Koch says.

Judge for yourself whether inviting colleagues to see you perform is a good idea. (Hint: Certain bosses disapprove of full-frontal nudity.) Roberta E. Cashwell, director of strategic planning for Long Island Savings Bank in Melville, N.Y., invited people from work to see her this spring in a Tom Stoppard play. "I had to raise my voice and strike someone. People were very surprised to see me do that because I don't usually act that way at work." But she says no one looked askance on Monday.

Amateur though it may be, community theater has the whole gamut of Broadway idiosyncrasies: preening stars, resentful understudies, wide-eyed ingenues, and chorus members who keep wandering off for a cigarette. But the roar of the greasepaint keeps them wandering back. Jerome I. Goldstein is the director, conductor, and spark plug of the Financial Follies. At age 75, he still shows the cast how to shake and shimmy. And Roberta Yafie--a freelance writer and tall, lean belter--has been writing some of the production's best show-tune takeoffs for years.

In amateur theater, as in golf, the rare moments of perfection make it all worthwhile. Last year, Susan Lisovicz, a CNBC reporter, stepped on the Follies stage as Kathie Lee Gifford/Eva Pern, kicked a groveling seamstress and sang: "Don't Sew For Me, Angelina." Maybe you had to be there--but for me, it was almost as funny as playing Murdock the Villain in seventh grade.

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