'Local Produce' at ACT

Friday night the lights will go up on a full Ashland Community Theatre production for the first time in almost two years. The off-again, on-again drama group will open "Local Produce," a collection of eight 10-minute plays by local playwrights, at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, at the Bellview Grange in Ashland.

The plays, directed by Will Churchill, will run at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through the end of the month. They are "Blind Date" by Bob Valine, "The Ezha Bubbe" by Ruth Wire, "Good Morning, Dr. Nelson's Office" by Darlene Ensor, "Of All the Gin Joints" by Catherine Noah, "Over It" by Sarah L. Cornett Hagen and Cynthia Rogan, "The Plane Ride" by Archie Koenig, "Remember Me" by Dave Hill, and "Stockings" by Julia Sommer.

It's the first full-on production — one with costumes, lights, music — from ACT since "Taking Sides," which debuted in October 2007 at the Ashland Elks and was reprised at the Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland in March 2008.

ACT presented eight or nine weekends of play readings during that time at Paschal Winery with local actors. But the lack of full productions of plays and/or a permanent home often seemed to sink the group beneath the entertainment radar.

"There was too long of a hiatus," ACT Board President Jeannine Grizzard says frankly. "Nobody knows we exist."

Grizzard came on board in 2007 after producing plays at the Georgia Mountain Theatre in Atlanta. Michael Meyer, ACT's artistic director since 2004, announced in the fall of 2009 that he was taking a sabbatical; he was involved in the direction of last month's "A Christmas Carol" at Oregon Stage Works, along with OSF's Peter Alzado.

ACT's five-member board took the sabbatical as a resignation, saying in a statement signed by board members and furnished to the Mail Tribune that when ACT is up and running full-bore again, Meyer "will be invited to apply for the position along with other candidates."

Grizzard says she would like above all to find a permanent home for ACT. Board members have looked at at least nine venues and even turned in several packets of preliminary application materials, she says. Due in part to the high cost of bringing property up to code for a performance space, which she estimates at at least $20,000, she says there's a chance that ACT would work out a deal with Ashland schools. Several years ago, the group presented plays at Ashland Middle School with some success.

"The main thing," she says, "is to produce, produce, produce."

She says the board would like to find a home this year so that it could announce at least three plays of an actual season for 2011 and sell season subscriptions. She envisions a theater that would produce a mix of Broadway and other well-known plays with the work of local playwrights.

"We're all interested in the cross-pollination effect of our actors doing great writing and then working with local playwrights," Grizzard says. "Most of these local writers are not retiring from a life in the theater. They haven't gone to drama school. They're coming from other lives.

"I want the local plays to be good so the audience is entertained."

Grizzard says quarterly reading events of 10-minute plays will continue at the grange while ACT searches for a home. The next submission deadline for short, original plays is Feb. 1 (visit ashlandcommunitytheatre.org).

In the meantime, the grange has completed an electrical upgrade that gives its tiny (20 feet wide and 12 feet deep) stage the capacity to run powerful theater lighting.

"Local Produce" is expected to run about 90 minutes plus an intermission.

"Because it's not one story, where an audience becomes absorbed, it's more taxing on attention," Grizzard says. "We wanted to make sure the evening goes right along."

Ten-minute plays tend to be longer than 10 minutes. Churchill says the evening's longest will run about 18.

He says the plays are generally comedic, although a couple aren't strictly comedies. Grizzard says many are among the best of the short plays ACT did at the eight or nine readings the last couple of years, so they're the culmination of a long effort for some local writers.

Churchill, who made Ashland his base after acting and directing for years in Colorado and California, says 10-minute plays, which were popularized at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky., have really caught on in recent years.

He says trying to give the actors multiple roles to make weeks of rehearsals worth their time led to casting issues and availability snafus.

"It's a challenge," he says. "There were times I felt less like a director than an actor wrangler."

Grizzard says if it begins to resuscitate ACT's profile, it'll all be worth it. To that end, she says, ACT is inviting actors and directors who have worked locally to attend on a pay-what-you-can basis anytime after the Friday and Saturday performances.

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