Community players find second home in theater

Staff Writer

 Actors and crew members who volunteer their time in community theater maintain rigorous schedules for months, and many dedicate years learning and perfecting their craft. Here, the cast of “Rent” at East Brunswick’s Playhouse 22 performs a scene on May 16.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Actors and crew members who volunteer their time in community theater maintain rigorous schedules for months, and many dedicate years learning and perfecting their craft. Here, the cast of “Rent” at East Brunswick’s Playhouse 22 performs a scene on May 16. SCOTT FRIEDMAN For some, it’s a life preserver. For others, it’s a steppingstone. For still others, it is the venue that takes them out of themselves when needed, bringing them to a better place.

It is involvement in community theater.

Those who act, direct or perform any number of other duties in locally produced shows work long hours — including weekends and nights — maintaining rigorous schedules for at least three months at a time while trying to maintain their “real” lives.

The salary for all this effort? $0. Yet, numerous people — who by day are psychologists, financial advisors, chiefs of staff, business owners, teachers, students, retired citizens and stay-at-home moms — sign up for these positions with enthusiasm and vigor, and many dedicate years learning and perfecting their craft.

 Cast members of “Rent” at Playhouse 22 in East Brunswick perform a scene on May 16.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Cast members of “Rent” at Playhouse 22 in East Brunswick perform a scene on May 16. SCOTT FRIEDMAN While their personal reasons for being involved vary, a common thread that seems to weave its way through the fabric of these people is a sense of belonging and a connection to the theater, the craft and one another. They also share a sense of being in the right place, which feels like home to many of them.

Some local thespians and crewmembers said participation is an easy decision, considering the rewards and satisfaction.

“It isn’t just about the applause,” said Lauren J. Cooke of Freehold Borough, a 20-year veteran of the local theater scene. “Although, that is a part of the whole process to most actors.”

Cooke has performed in musicals, comedies and dramas at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, The Strand in Lakewood and Spring Lake Theatre, among others.

She admits that playing the “ingénue” is not her thing.

“I like to be the villain,” she said. “I consider myself a character actor, which allows a heightened view of yourself. You are able to mold the character out of words on a page and make them come to life.”

Cooke, who has been cast as the lead character in more than one aggressive role, including the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” and Rizzo in “Grease,” said performing on stage is an “opportunity to become someone else.”

“Being on stage allows me to be someone else for a few hours, in rehearsals and during the play,” she said. “You do things in theater you wouldn’t necessarily do in real life, including behaving inappropriately. … We all present a mask to the world in real life, but on stage, you are a character. You can let go. Any inhibitions you harbor are gone on stage.”

For Cooke, acting is an outlet from her daily life as a stay-at-home mom with two children, ages 4 and 10.

“It’s something I do just for me,” she said.

Community actors establish a type of bond when they perform together, she added.

“The theater is a small world,” she said. Although the relationships aren’t always close or long term, those involved with a show become interdependent while they work, relying on one another to pull off the right stuff on the stage, she said. “We have each other’s back.”

Rupert Ravens of North Brunswick acted professionally from 1982 until 2005, working on Broadway and off-Broadway. He also played “Danny Andrade” in the 1980s soap opera, “Santa Barbara,” where he worked with well-known actresses such as Virginia Mayo and Judith Anderson.

Since retiring from the business nine years ago, he has found a home at Playhouse 22 in East Brunswick, marking a return to the days of his youth, when he worked in community theater.

“Theater shows you a way to feel creative,” Ravens said, adding that he participates “because I have to.”

It isn’t just about the applause, he said.

“It’s about the feelings the audience experiences. Looking at their faces from the stage as you are performing for them is better than any high. Actors are modern-day shamans,’” Ravens said. “If we are totally believable, we are also helping the audience to facilitate their own feelings, and empower them as they cry for you on stage.”

Ravens touted community theater as having no stars.

“We are all equal,” he said.

Another benefit is the opportunity it provides for new playwrights to come to the forefront and aspiring actors to hone their craft.

Ravens said he may return to professional acting, but for now, he has found a home at Playhouse 22.

Colleen DeFelice of Colts Neck is a member of Freehold’s Center Players, for whom she acts, works as part of the stage and set crew, and handles wardrobe designs and props.

And, she said, she loves every minute of it.

DeFelice began acting in 2006 after retiring from her job as a flight attendant in 2003. But, she said, she has been anything but retired.

“I spend more time at the theater than I have spent at any other job I had. It’s like my home,” she said.

Since becoming “hooked” on theater after helping with a show in 2006, DeFelice has acted in numerous shows, with parts as Aunt Gert in “Lost in Yonkers,” Renee in the female version of “The Odd Couple” and Mrs. Van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Now the board president for the Center Players, DeFelice said she researches and purchases props, and stores many of them in the basement of her home. From buttons to glassware and home décor to three closets full of clothing, everything is easily accessible when needed.

“We are a little tiny theater, but we have the most loyal patrons. We know many by name and even know where they like to sit,” she said. “I think we are offering a service to the community in a way, and that makes us feel good about that.”

Mark Lamhut of Freehold Borough runs his family business, Paul-Mark Printing, and still manages to volunteer his time and talent to taking photographs at the Center Playhouse. What started as a favor to print invitations for the opening of the theater has grown into a role of handling the theater’s graphic artistry and photography, and occasionally taking on sound engineering and lighting.

It’s all about giving back to the community, Lamhut said.

Ray Sammak of Manalapan has spent years as a financial advisor for United Teletech Financial in Tinton Falls. He had done some acting in college, but had not been on a stage in decades when a grief counselor suggested he return to the craft following the death of his wife Donna in 2008.

“It felt great to be on stage again,” he said of his return to acting with the Center Players in the summer of 2008. “It felt natural, like I belonged.”

Since his return to acting, Sammak has performed in at least eight plays, including the lead role in “The Passion of Dracula.”

“Center Players has been like a second family to me,” the actor said. “I wish I could do every show.”

Sammak, who has three adult children, said he hopes to act in more plays as time allows.

He said being part of the theater group has also helped him to deal with his emotions by channeling creativity.

“The wheel of life is round,” Sammak said. “And after Donna left me, theater came back into my life, and I am very grateful to Center Players.”