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The Arts
May 30-June 5, 2007

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'The Woman in Black'

Photo courtesy CTC
Ghost hosters: Kyle Payne (left) and Charlie Shoemaker get good and scared in CTC's 'The Woman in Black.'

Maturing Into Summer

California Theatre Center ups audience age limit for three summer shows

By Marianne Messina

THE ONLY theater company in the South Bay with actors on salary year-round, California Theatre Center, is busily rehearsing its summer program. Though each of the three plays running repertory through June and July will have its own opening week, by the end of June the plays will start running together (sometimes a different play each night), and actors will be scurrying from the upscale Parisian cafes of the 1940s (Madwoman of Chaillot) to the marshy boglands of England (The Woman in Black) to Neil Simon's Manhattan in the 1970s (They're Playing Our Song).

Making the transition from the school year, when CTC tours shows like Heidi, The Raven's Tale and The Time Machine through elementary and high schools, involves longer plays, more mature audiences, subtler themes and "more sophisticated language," according to Kyle Payne— who will be playing the Actor in The Woman in Black. "From a selfish perspective, it's nice to be in a two–person play, because you get to do a lot of stuff," says Payne.

In The Woman in Black, the "stuff" includes a morass of technical details behind the scenes. Jacob B. Smith, sound and technical director for the play, calls it "one of the most technically complex shows that this company has ever taken on."

To get a jump on the preparation, Smith got together with the lighting and scenic designers long before the end of the children's season. "In the script, it's very specific, the use of sound and scenery. So you hear traffic; you're in an office ..." Added to that, director Will Huddleston notes, "We're using the stage in a different way than we normally use it. We're opening up traps, we're using a scrim; we're pulling out a lot of technical stuff here."

Charged with selecting the plays for this unique company, artistic director Gayle Cornelison considers the advantages of a year-round schedule: "We get to know each other and establish a working relationship in a few weeks. Therefore, we don't need to reinvent the wheel with the start of each new production."

Cornelison believes that the school-year program sharpens the company for a play like The Woman in Black, in which storyteller Mr. Kipps (Charlie Shoemaker) plays all the incidental characters in his ghost story. "Because our performers are required to play a wide range of character parts during our school season, and at times many parts in one play, they normally excel in productions such as The Woman in Black."

Kipps remains onstage the whole time as he enacts the various people he once encountered in the strange town of Crythin Gifford and the haunted Eel Marsh House. "I have a basic costume, and then a new coat and hat or an apron ... very small, clean distinct changes," Shoemaker explains. "But there's no time to go change your pants and do your hair differently."

Over the years, Shoemaker has played many two– and three–man plays for CTC, but he admits that playing so many characters one right after another is an acquired art. "I've learned through practice and repetition and failure and success, you know, 'I can do this, here's how you do this.'"

Apart from The Woman in Black, the summer lineup will be nothing if not upbeat. Cornelison, who will have directed more than 200 CTC productions by summer's end, helms the romantic comedy They're Playing Our Song and Jean Giraudoux's warm comedy/fantasy, The Madwoman of Chaillot.

"At this stage of my life I am drawn to positive works that celebrate the human condition," Cornelison says. "So in the world of theater, I want to be with a character like the Madwoman of Chaillot, who can proclaim, 'Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon.'"

The California Theatre Center presents The Woman in Black, They're Playing Our Song and The Madwoman of Chaillot, May 31–July 28, at the Sunnyvale Community Center, 550 E. Remington Dr., Sunnyvale. Tickets are $18–$25. (408.720.0873;

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