A new professional theatre company makes its debut Sept. 27-29 in Astoria, Queens, across the East River from Manhattan's theatrical heart.
Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) was organized over the summer in a converted gymnasium provided by The Presbyterian Church of Astoria. The nonprofit troupe has 40 artists, many of them in Actors' Equity, who were chosen in summer auditions that lured more than 300 actors, directors, singers and others. Executive producer Sue Scannell developed the company with the cooperation of the church's pastor, Rev. Donald Olinger, who wanted his underutilized gymnasium to be filled with more artistic programs, in addition to the usual recreation. The first-year plan is to produce and develop plays and musicals, cabaret evenings, new works and readings, playwriting contests and youth and senior outreach, Scannell said.
An eclectic one-hour performance dubbed Opening Doors plays 8 PM Sept. 27-29 at the venue, 31-30 33rd Street between 31st Avenue an Broadway. The company has a showcase arrangement with Actors' Equity Association. Songs and scenes will be presented in Opening Doors, offering a slice of what the company hopes to stage in the future. A meet and-greet will take place after the shows. "It'll be a taste of everything," Scannell said.
The company's first production is expected by November, followed by some kind of multicultural holiday show, she said.
The new Astoria company is special because it has its own regular and exclusive venue, which is rare in New York City, where space is so precious. Scannell is a Lexington, MA, native who came to New York and found work in modeling and soaps. She moved to Los Angeles and did more TV (including six months on "Dynasty") and then joined the corporate world. Her passion for theatre endured, and her sales and business background are now helping her form the new company, she said. She is an Astoria resident.
"We want to create quality theatre in Astoria, we want to do musicals, straight plays, new works and more," Scannell said, adding that about two-thirds of the company members are from Astoria, and most belong the major performance unions, AEA, SAG or AFTRA.
Astoria was named for the Astor family by residents who hoped the rich brood would invest in the neighborhood. It has a diverse population, reasonable rents (for New York City) and is known for its large Greek population.
The debut show features Genevieve Baer, Jimmy Bennett, Charlee Chiv, Mark Enis, JC Gallego, Cassandra Kassell, Megan MacKenzie Lawrence, Nancy Leirer, Emily Morrison, Tomoko Otsuka, Dona Oxford, Vivian Oxford, Jana Rumbaugh, Susan Stewart, Jennifer Sutton, Brian Swasey, Katherine West and David Williams.
Directors of the evenings sections include Jason Brantman, Christopher Dippel, Fiona Santos and Brian Swasey. Tammy Holder and Fiona Santos are musical directors, with choreography by Swasey.
In a real let's-put-on-a-show spirit, residents, businesses and groups (including Materials for the Arts) have donated supplies, paint and lumber toward converting the gym space (which has the classic raised stage of many gym-theatres in the country). Members of the troupe rolled up their sleeves and painted the space to create a diamond in the rough, Scannell said.
"Trinity Players had been here and they stopped performing, and we were aware of the loss to the community," Rev. Olinger told Playbill On-Line. "We wanted to do this. With the demographic changes, with more young professionals and more people in the performing arts moving here, we felt like this was something we could offer to the community."
Although the theatre is currently under the nonprofit umbrella of the church, the church does not dictate programming, Rev. Olinger said. The troupe is seeking its own nonprofit status.
Tickets to Opening Doors are $15 and $12 for students and seniors. Reservations are recommended. Call (212) 278-5925. The closest subway stop is the W train Broadway station in Astoria.
APAC's board of advisors includes Carol Lucha Burns, director of musical theatre in the department of musical theatre at the University of New Hampshire; the actor Fyvush Finkel; pianist composer-musical director Elliot Finkel; xylophonist Ian Finkel and playwright and business management educator John-David Schramm.
Professional theatre companies are certainly not new to Queens, said Mark Rossier, spokesman for Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./NY), a service organization of nonprofit theatre companies in New York City. Some troupes have offices based there and present in rented spaces in Queens or Manhattan, while others, like Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside or Queens Theatre in the Park in Flushing and LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City plan and present their seasons in their own Queens venues. The borough also has its share of amateur and professional troupes not in the A.R.T./NY membership.
Other Queens troupes in A.R.T./NY include Teatro Circulo, which tours, but frequently performs in Queens, Caribbean American Rep and Chinese Theatre Workshop. For a look at nonprofit companies in the A.R.T./NY membership, visit www.offbroadwayonline.com.
— By Kenneth Jones