Amateur actors shine in the spotlight of Little Theatre shows
By Jamie Griswold

When Christine Gorelick moved to Winston-Salem in 1987, her life was beginning to take shape. She had completed her master's degree in public administration and was about to begin a job as a budget analyst with the city. But something was missing.

"I was anxious to get back on stage," said Gorelick, who once worked as a professional actress in the Midwest. Looking to return to the stage after a five-year hiatus, she auditioned for and landed a role in a Little Theatre of Winston-Salem production of the musical Annie. She's been with the theater ever since.

"It was different from most community theaters because musicals run for three weekends," said Gorelick, now a stay-at-home mom. "It made the long rehearsal period pay off."

In the past 10 years, Gorelick has starred in 10 Little Theatre productions, including the lead role of Eva Perón in the musical Evita. She also volunteers in the theater's box office and has served on its board of directors for the past six years.

"For being a community theater, it's very professional," Gorelick said. "There's a lot of great local talent, and I like being a part of that.

"I think once you're hooked, you're hooked for life because theater is such a magical experience."

Thousands of Winston-Salem residents have flocked to the Little Theatre to experience that magic over the past 60 years. Some are drawn to the stage, lured by childhood dreams or future aspirations. Others prefer to dwell in the shadows, designing sets or sewing costumes. And still more just like to kick back and enjoy the show.

"We always enjoy going to the theater there," said Ruth Erickson, who has been attending plays at the Little Theatre for the past 20 years. "Some of [the actors] are pretty professional. They do a really good job."

The Little Theatre got its start at Salem Academy in October 1935 when French teacher Dorothy Knox stated a "need of organized dramatics for Winston-Salem with the aim of building a permanent organization to present the best in dramatic art for the citizenry." Soon thereafter, about 60 volunteers began meeting monthly and presented two or three one-act plays each year.

Lacking a permanent home, the members of the Little Theatre performed in unconventional venues, ranging from the West End School building to the second floor over Moxley Piano Company on West Fourth Street. The theater's offices, rehearsal shop and costume spaces moved from member Doris Pardington's living room, to the Trotman house on Fifth Street to a drafty barn on Robinhood Road.

It wasn't until 1957 that the Little Theatre moved to its present location in the Arts Council Theatre on Coliseum Drive. The building, which also houses the Children's Theatre Board and the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, features a 541-seat performance space.

The Little Theatre's season, which runs from September through May, features four plays and one musical. The theater also presents a summer musical, and the education department stages an annual holiday performance of The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever.

Volunteers are involved in all aspects of Little Theatre productions, from building sets and designing costumes to manning the box office and hanging up promotional posters. A typical production involves 200–400 volunteers. And for those who are acting or working on the stage crew, that can mean as many as six rehearsals a week, normally lasting from 7 to 11 each night.

"It's a pretty strong commitment," said Kristina Ebbink, the Little Theatre's director of marketing. "When the actors on stage get their applause, and the people behind the scenes, too, they really deserve it. They're all so good they make it look easy."

Ebbink started volunteering at the theater when she moved to Winston-Salem from San Francisco three years ago. She and her husband helped build sets before she landed her current job, one of the few paid positions that the theater offers.

"I know when I first thought community theater I thought this side of a high school production," Ebbink said. "But we have had people who have seen Evita in New York and London and thought our production was better.

"I can rave [about the theater] until I'm blue in the face, but for somebody to actually come see what we do I think would make them want to get involved. If you want to meet people as a newcomer, this is a great way to do it. You're not going to find a better group of people to work with."

Actors in Little Theatre productions come from all walks of life: Lawyers, doctors, students and waitresses have starred in recent productions. The actors also represent various levels of experience.

"We have some that just love acting. It's like their second career," Ebbink said. "Those actors show up for almost every audition. But we continually have newer actors coming in, too, which is exciting for us."

Ebbink said the audition process is simple.

Aspiring actors are asked to fill out a general information card, with their name and address, and a production card, which asks about their acting experience and what roles they are interested in playing. They have their pictures taken and are given a portion of the script to read before the executive and production directors. Call- backs are made within a few days. Musicals usually have 30–40 cast members and an orchestra, while a drama has a cast of anywhere from 2 actors to 25, most averaging at 7 or 8.

For those interested in learning about acting but not yet ready to venture on-stage, the Little Theatre's education department (ACT) has theater classes taught by local performers, directors and college professors.

"The philosophy of ACT is to emphasize process rather than product; our goal is to learn rather than to perform," said Charles Pringle, director of education for the Little Theatre. "We believe that a strong arts background is an asset in all walks of life."

Four performances remain in the Little Theatre's 63rd season, including Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart, a drama based on the true stories of six women who served in Vietnam, in November; Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind, a courtroom thriller based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," in February; Steven Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (based on the book by Hugh Wheeler), a musical tale of vengeance, madness and murder in London society, in April; and Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo, a comedy about the misadventures of a second-rate acting team, in June.

Doc Clay was a high-school student when he starred in his first Little Theatre production in the mid-1950s. He's starred in more than 20 productions in the past six years, including the role of Tevya in this past summer's performance of Fiddler on the Roof.

Clay, a clinical massage therapist, said he once considered a career in acting. But he said community theater gives him the opportunity to play bigger and better roles.

"I get to play roles that I wouldn't get to play as a professional actor. Dustin Hoffman hasn't gotten to play Tevya," Clay said. "It's just a first-class experience."

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