Friday, August 7, 2009

Smulowitz on theater, community

There's always been this mystique about our little arts community, that the cobblestones of Inn Street are made out of gold, or, at least, that you could actually make an honest living doing the arts here, but the ugly truth is, and always has been, that nobody ever made money doing theater in town — not even during the fabled glory days of the mid-‘90s, when you couldn't throw a stone without hitting someone starting a new company production or staging something somewhere. Not even doing pop-schlock like “Grease” or, good grief, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Not even if you're Anna Smulowitz, the queen of the local scene, staging what she calls “my version of spectacle … one of my ‘Ben Hur’ productions,” one of those big blockbusters, usually a musical, with casts that read like the local phone book. Most shows, even in the best of times, you’d go into it with appropriately lowered expectations, and if you broke even, you’d struck gold.

And, although it seems like we just wrote the story about her 25th anniversary a couple of weeks ago, this is what Smulowitz has been doing for three decades now — going back to when she was that crazy lady banging the drum, literally, for the first Children’s Theater show during the 1979 Yankee Homecoming, through the heady Firehouse years and now, several years after she retired, sort of, from the business to concentrate on her current gig as the Rev. Anna Smulowitz Schutz, chaplain of Renaissance Gardens at Brooksby Village, she’s got another show in the works — a mammoth production of “Oliver,” with a cast of 50. And this is a bit of a warm-up for an October launch at the Firehouse for a production of “Terezin: Children of the Holocaust,” her award-winning play about the Nazi concentration camp. It’s the kick-off for a national tour of the play.

“It’s what I do,” says Smulowitz, an actress, playwright and producer. “It brings people of all ages into the theater. From there, hopefully they will seek out all kinds of theater, because they had such a good experience at my productions.”

It all comes back to community, she says. “I've always approached theater that way. We gather people from the community. They bring in friends and family — and new folks are introduced to the experience.” And the current production, which runs Aug. 20-23 at the Firehouse, digs deep into that community. She’s got “oldsters” like John Sheedy, who goes back the full 30, playing Father Christmas in her 1979 production of “A Christmas Carol.” You’ve got relative newcomers like Victor Atkins and Anne Easter Smith. She’s got a whole new crop of Port actors-in-training coming through Acting Out, the acting school taught by Deirdre Budzyna and Mara Flynn — which is, of course, the teaching space established by Smulowitz years ago. Longtime Newburyport High School music director Evelyn Mann will be leading a small pit band for the production, and Linda Zirin, who has been working with Smulowitz for a dozen years now, will choreograph the production. “You call them up and there they are — in the community,” she says. “You know who to contact and you know they’ll help. That’s what makes it a community.”

And the play itself? You’ve probably heard of it. It’s a three-time Tony Award-winning musical by Lionel Bart based on “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens, the story of an orphan who breaks out of an orphanage and lives on the street, picking pockets and hooking up with a gang. It’s filled with well-known tunes like “Where Is Love,” “Consider Yourself”and “As Long as He Needs Me.” And, of course, “Tomorrow.” Oh, wait, that’s “Annie.” And, if you’ve been around town for any length of time, you know what Smulowitz can do with a musical, so the most important fact to hang onto is that the show runs one weekend only.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: “Oliver” runs one weekend only, Aug. 20-23, at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. Anna Smulowitz directs. Evelyn Mann is musical director. Linda Zirin is choreographer. Tickets are $15-17. Information, reservations: 978/462-7336

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