Aug. 11--A dog-eared script sits on my desk, rides in my car, is stuffed in my purse. It goes everywhere with me as I try to nail down all of Aunt Eller's lines before we go in front of an audience next weekend.
"Do you want me to go get that ol' eggbeater and ram it down yer windpipe?" I say under my breath.
"Nothing, just rehearsing my lines," I've told numerous innocent bystanders at work, Starbucks, the grocery store and the dentist's office.
The seven weeks since I auditioned for a community theater production of "Oklahoma" have swept by like a dust devil over a cornfield.
Opening night for Comedy Tonight Productions' staging of "Oklahoma" is Friday, Aug. 16, at the Poinsettia Pavilion in Ventura. It runs through Sunday, Aug. 18.
On Aug. 17, I've got a major role in the show during the matinee.
Nervous? You bet. When I did dinner theater in college, my parents used to send me flowers and Pepto-Bismol.
It's been at least 30 years since I've performed in a stage musical, so when I decided to do a behind-the-scenes story about what goes into the making of a community theater musical, I wanted to do it right, jitters, dropped lines, long rehearsals and all.
Like all of the actors, I had to audition. I had done theater before so I figured I'd get into the chorus, but I was surprised when, a few days later, I got a call from "Oklahoma" co-producer Gabriel Vega.
He and co-producer Tamarah Ashton -- who had been cast in the major role of Aunt Eller -- wanted me to understudy Eller, a tough farm woman in her 50s with a heart of gold and some memorable lines.
Vega allows all understudies to perform for one show. I would do the role of Aunt Eller during the 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Aug. 17. I would get to fire a gun and wear bloomers. With bows.
I was so in.
"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow"
-- Curly McLain
"Oklahoma" is Comedy Tonight Productions' first production as a nonprofit theater, even though it's been around since 1996. Almost all of the other cities in the county have their own amateur theater groups, but Ventura hasn't had one for years.
Vega said he believes it's important to have this form of the arts available to a community because it makes theater accessible to both audiences and amateur performers.
"It's so dreams can come true," said Vega, who has been the director of the troupe since 1996. "The people who make up community theater are people who aren't looking at it as a vocation but as an avocation."
Camarillo accountant Mark Heulitt, who plays rancher Ike Skidmore, sings and dances in cowboy boots, and says that when the lights come up onstage, he can no longer see the audience, and he enters the world of his character.
"This is where I get my fulfillment," Heulitt said. "Being an accountant is not glamorous. And when I become a character, I can do anything."
"This is my sporting activity," Panico said of community theater. "I can't do sports anymore. It's too hard on my body."
Panico's daughter, Elaine Panico, 12; Heulitt's daughter, Vivien, 12; and wife, Erin, 47; are also in the ensemble.
"Most families are going every which way," Mark Heulitt said. "This is something we can do together."
"She loves the friends she meets in the show and she talks about them for months and months afterward," Erin Heulitt said.
Ashton said Vivien's presence in the show is as important to the cast as it is to Vivien because the troupe lets her hold her own when she can, and give her a hand when she needs it, just as it was in the small towns of the Oklahoma Territory in 1906.
"Oh, lots of things happen to folks ..."
-- Aunt Eller, "Oklahoma"
Plastic chairs in the classrooms of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Ventura served as a butter churn, a fence, a bunk, a stump or just a place to collapse when it wasn't your character's turn to be on stage.
St. Paul's offered the troupe the Sunday school classrooms and meeting hall as a rehearsal space, and donations are allowing the rental of Poinsettia Pavilion for the show.
During almost every performance, costumer Becky Hull would set up her sewing machine in one of the classrooms, now and then wheeling a rack of hats, vests, dresses and bloomers into rehearsal. She made me a blue-and-white Aunt Eller dress with an apron, and some fancy party duds, including a fetching fascinator (a flowery gee-gaw worn on the head with absolutely no purpose except to look "purty" for the box social.)
Hull, who just retired from Ventura College, created more than 35 costumes by rummaging through thrift stores and transforming suit jackets into cowboy vests and white capri pants into bloomers. Hull's work is all volunteer.
"I love to sew," she said. "This is my relaxation, actually."
Because it was summer, Ashton and Vega ran an eight-week rather than the customary six-week rehearsal to allow for vacations -- including mine.
But stuff happened. With a 40-member cast, there are 40 different schedules, especially in summer.
"We all have jobs and stuff happens," said co-producer Ashton, a CSU Northridge special-education professor.
There were illnesses, insecticide poisoning, a fire, a flood, a theft and major roles getting cast and recast.
The burning of Atlanta was already being filmed before Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."
Our Scarlett was Jeff Berg, 27, of Simi Valley, who was cast as Will Parker when we were weeks into rehearsals. The actor originally cast for the role had too many other obligations, so Ashton and Vega asked Berg to step in.
"If were not in an emergency situation, I never would have done it," said Berg, who works in technical support by day. "Now I love it. I'm doing better than I thought I'd do."
Dawn Notagiacomo, 27, who works the front desk at a physical medicine clinic in Simi Valley, sings, dances and acts the lead role of Laurey. She's also choreographing the bulk of the show for a variety of dance abilities ranging from professional to my level.
"You have to choreograph to challenge everybody," she said. "You don't want to choreograph to the lowest common denominator."
One day, Notagiacomo and Berg went to a Simi Valley park to rehearse lines and get Berg up to speed. She bought a pizza, ate a couple of slices, then took the rest to the park for Berg.
"The ants loved the pizza and so did I," Berg said.
Berg took the final slice of pizza home and ate it after brushing off the ants, then started to feel queasy.
After a night in the hospital at Notagiacomo's urging, Berg had his stomach pumped and learned the ants that dined on the pizza with him probably traipsed through some sort of insecticide.
Ashton's string of mishaps began in late July when she went to pick up her daughter, who had just graduated from the University of Oklahoma (oh, the irony), and move her and her things back to California.
"I went to the hotel and a fire had broken out on the floor above us," Ashton said. "Sprinklers went off and it was covered with water."
Ashton was moving her things out of the flooded room when she noticed her wallet had disappeared. Then, on the way home, the van broke down "in the middle of nowhere," Ashton said.
Managing the crises meant Ashton was gone 10 rather than five days, leaving Vega to direct the show by himself. He also had to learn and play the role of Ali Hakin, the sly peddler. The actor originally cast as Hakim had to drop out because of work.
As we go into our final week of rehearsals, we will move from the church to the Poinsettia Pavilion and start rehearsing under the lights, in makeup, holding props (including guns) while a nine-piece orchestra plays.
Now what could go wrong?
I'll be live-blogging on the Star's website right up through the last show at www. http://www.vcstar.com/kim_sings.
It's show time
What: "Oklahoma" by Comedy Tonight Productions
When: Friday, Aug. 16, at 8 p.m.; Saturday Aug. 17, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 18, at 3 p.m.
Where: Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Road, Ventura
Tickets: Adults, $18; seniors/students/military, $15; Children under 12, $5
For tickets: Call 949-542-6371 or go to website comedytonightproductions.com/site/tickets
Tickets are also available at the door.
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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