Danville Express

Cover Story - January 19, 2007

Playing a role

Ensemble group aims to provoke discussion as well as laughs

by Natalie O'Neill

Sue Trigg says some plays are like ice cream.

As the artistic director of Danville's Role Players Ensemble Theatre, she compares comedies that are solely meant to entertain the audience to a tasty dessert. They're delicious and pleasant, but lacking the substance of a full-course meal.

"Audiences deserve to laugh and think," she says. "If you only saw the fun, physical plays it would be like eating ice cream all the time."

At Role Players Ensemble, contributors strive for more than just a feel-good approach to live entertainment, she says.

High-quality theater can be simultaneously intellectually heavy and comically light, say the directors, actors and board members for Role Players Ensemble. Their season of plays is meant to both amuse the audience and provoke thought and discussion.

"After the show, instead of saying, 'That was great, let's go feed the dog,' I want people to have a dialogue about it," says Trigg. She graduated from London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and has been involved in theater in the Bay Area for 24 years.

But competing with modern entertainment like high definition television, DVDs and surround sound movie theaters is a challenge for those who seek to keep this old school form of story telling alive, Ensemble contributors say.

In a world where visual and audio entertainment is becoming vastly more accessible, small theater is set apart from the rest because it is interactive and intimate. It may very well be the most "organic" form of acting today, says Jerry Motta, director of "Incorruptible," the play that opens tonight at the Danville Village Theatre.

"There's nothing like seeing a live performance, one with living breathing people. You get one shot; there are no retakes," Motta says.

This is the beauty of live theater. Almost anything can happen, Motta says. There is room for improvisation, audience participation - and best of all, the element of surprise.

"There isn't all of the glitter that there is on television," says Wendy Cooper, president of the Role Players Ensemble board of directors. "But people relate more to the characters because it's people just like you on stage."

The theater group has been active in Danville since 1983 and chooses three performances a season with a budget of at least $14,000 per play, funded in part by local subscribers. The funding goes to set design, costumes, lighting, directing and production.

This season featured Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," premieres Michael Hollinger's "Incorruptible" tonight, and will present "An Evening at the Grande," an original music revue in the spring.

All shows are put on at the Danville Village Theatre, a 240-seat auditorium located on Front Street, an upscale venue for community theater.

"It's a beautiful stage with vibrant sound; it doesn't disappear into cloth walls," says seasoned actor Randy Anger who will play the role of the Abbot in "Incorruptible."

Role Players Ensemble chose "Incorruptible" as its winter show because it both pokes fun at religion and deals with moral predicaments.

"I like it because it's irreverent and everybody has a bit of background with it," Motta says.

The play is a witty farce that follows a group of monks as they cope with desperation and decision-making in the Dark Ages. The time period is a real benefit because it allows the audience to separate itself from today's religious affiliations, Motta says.

"The monks aren't as pristine as we think. They're dancing with the devil a little," he says.

Each season the artistic director works with the board to come up with a classic play, a contemporary play and a musical.

Next season will feature "Ruthless," a campy musical comedy about a 1950s housewife and her daughter; "Bus Stop," a romantic comedy about two young lovers' struggle to maintain love in a modern world; and "A School Scandal," an 18th century comedy of manners.

You don't need to drive into the city or fly to a topnotch entertainment mecca to see a quality show, says Anger. With Role Players Ensemble, it's right in your own back yard.

"I went down to Hollywood to become a star ... and it rang true that I would miss the hills of Marin. I realized I don't have to be famous to do what I love," says Anger, who has been acting for 30 years.

One of Anger's favorite performances was a Role Players rendition of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," a comedy by Steve Martin that depicts a conversation between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in a French bar. In "Incorruptible" he will take on a character who is struggling with his faith in darkly comedic ways.

Still, even with accessibility of community theater, the biggest problem is getting people to show up.

"We are trying to get more bottoms in those seats," Trigg says.

"People are inundated with schmaltzy television. There is a vital human element in this theater," she adds.

The actors in the current production have met with Director Motta, who is also acting in the play, for rehearsals four times a week in preparation for the performance. The creative process is unique when working with Motta, performers say, because he is very open to the script's interpretation.

He takes a lot of input from the actors and is receptive to suggestions about the physicality and timing - a collaborative and effective approach to directing, Anger says.

"He'll say, 'Yeah let's put that in there!' or 'Nope, that doesn't work.' It makes for a very creative atmosphere," Anger says.

One of the biggest challenges, when putting on comedies - especially smart comedies - is the timing. But when working with Michael Hollinger's writing ("Hot Air," "Tooth and Claw") the dialogue is so good that pace and dramatic buildup are already clear in the script, Motta says.

In "Incorruptible" it is important to keep up the pace without rushing the funny lines, Motta says. In speeding over these lines the humor can be lost; conversely, if the pace is too slow, the audience will lose interest. It's a tricky balance.

"You have to understand the humor in the silences. We try to allow a beat for the audience to think about what just happened," he says.

Many experienced professionals contribute to Role Players Ensemble and the group is lucky to have a highly educated, experienced and artistic board, Trigg says. She points out that this is what separates Danville community theater from other small scale performance groups.

And having quality local theater brings people together, says Town Cultural Arts coordinator Alan Dye.

"It builds unity. You're not just watching; you're interacting," he says.

For this coming season the troupe is holding one audition for the entire set of performances, and performers with all levels of experience are encouraged to try out. By getting more people involved in performances, Role Players Ensemble contributors hope their passion for theater will be contagious.

Next season, as well as the remaining of this season, the theater will continue serving up "full course" performances - the theatrical equivalent to Ben and Jerry's, Brussels sprouts and everything in between.

"Incorruptible" will show at 8 p.m. on Jan. 19-20, 25-27, Feb 1-3, 8-10; and at 2 p.m. Jan. 21, 28 and Feb. 4. For more information, visit www.danvilletheatre.com


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