Reality show 

Little Theatre production shows fun side of community theatre

If you’re sorry the holiday season is over, the Little Theatre of Savannah has one more gift for you.

Inspecting Carol opens Jan. 10, and director Dennis Elkins says it’s a laugh-out-loud show. “It really is A Christmas Carol meets The Government Inspector meets Noises Off,” he says.

“It’s about this poor troupe at a theater company that is on its last legs,” Elkins says. “They desperately need money.

“When a guy comes in to audition for their production of A Christmas Carol, they mistake him for an informer for the National Endowment for the Arts. When the real one comes along, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

The play was written as a group project by members of the Seattle Repertory Theatre and its artistic director, Daniel Sullivan, in 1991, just one year after the company was given a Tony Award for best regional theater.

“There are 12 people in the cast,” Elkins says. “They range in age from really young to retired folks. The characters they play are all based on stereotypes that can be recognized in community theater, but we’ve tried to make it as realistic as possible so the characters are more real than cartoonish.

“There’s the braggart, the lady’s man, the Mother Earth artistic director — a drama mama from way back,” Elkins says. “Then there’s a grande dame who only does Shakespeare.”

It’s obvious the actors had fun creating the characters and story. “You can tell as you go through it there are things added to it that didn’t just happen overnight,” Elkins says. “The characters are based on people they obviously knew or had worked with.”

Even though the theater company in the play is putting on A Christmas Carol, the play is by no means tied to the holiday season. “This is a show that might work best before Christmas, but everyone has expectations of what Dickens’ A Christmas Carol will be,” Elkins says. “They can see how wrong it all goes.”

Rehearsals for the production fell over the holiday season, causing some scheduling problems. “I will never do this again over the holidays,” Elkins says with a laugh. “Fortunately, I have cast members who are pretty laid back. They haven’t let the holidays affect their work.”

Dandy Barnett plays Zorah Bloch, the Mother Earth-type founding director of the theater troupe. “Zorah is pretty self-centered, a very theatrical woman,” Barnett says. “She’s lost her husband, who was also involved in the theater. Even though she’s self-centered, she’s very protective of the theater company members. She mothers them in many ways.”

Barnett’s own 20-year involvement in community theater has given her plenty to work with. “In terms of character, I’m patterning her after a couple of women I’ve met in other theater companies in other areas,” Barnett says. “These are women who are very passionate about what they do.”

Barnett herself is a seasoned performer. “I’m relatively new to Savannah,” she says. “I moved here a year ago. I was a military brat. I spent most of my adult years in Connecticut, where I was involved with a number of theaters.”

Barnett did some work in television in New York, including voice-overs, and she was an executive with a Fortune 500 company based in Richmond, Va.

“I was looking for a place to go after Richmond,” Barnett says. “I drove to South Florida, thinking the Miami environs would be something I might like, but it was too expensive, too much of everything.

“One night, I stopped in Savannah,” she says. “I happened upon the Ballastone Inn.

“The next morning I walked around and my jaw dropped. I absolutely fell in love,” Barnett says. “I’ve traveled a lot, and I think Savannah is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been in.”

However, Barnett had prerequisites to be met, and one was that the city she moved to had to have an active theater community. “I’m passionate about theater,” she says.

At the time of her first visit, Barnett immediately located two local theaters. In the year that she’s lived here, even more have been founded. “Now we have five very active theater companies in the city,” she says. “I’m just delighted with that.”

Pepi Streiff plays the grande dame of the theater company. “I’m having a great deal of fun with it,” she says. “This play is hilarious, with a lot of sight gags, and the director is brilliant.”

Elkins is a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “He’s knowledgeable and his talent is amazing,” Streiff says. “I’m thrilled to work with someone who is so talented.

“This city is really blessed with talented people,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to work with people who know what they’re doing. We’re having a great deal of fun with this play, and I think the audience will enjoy it, too.”

Streiff is an experienced actress. “I’m a character actress,” she says. “I like to do outlandish, flamboyant women, and this one fits right in.”

For the role, Streiff has perfected an upper-class British accent. “I’m in the midst now of gathering together an appropriate costume,” she says.

As a girl, Streiff appeared in theater productions in New York City. Then “real life” intervened. “I had a long career as a high school mathematics teacher,” she says.

When Streiff retired from teaching, her youngest daughter pushed her to get involved in community theater. “She’d never seen me act,” Streiff says. “She showed up with an audition notice, so I went.”

Streiff was given a role in the production, and has been involved in theater ever since. “The bug just bit me hard,” she says.

Streiff moved to Savannah in 1975 when her husband was recruited by Memorial Health. “We’d been looking to move to a warmer climate,” she says. “When we came to Savannah, I said it was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen, and that was 30 years ago. It’s ever more beautiful now.”

Although the characters in Inspecting Carol are based on stereotypes, Streiff says audiences should keep an open mind. “It’s the craft of acting that brings the characters over further to reality,” she says. “Every character in literature has some sort of stereotype, but also there are unique qualities that bring them to life.”

Streiff has appeared in several local productions, including Six Degrees of Separation, Baby and A Christmas Carol. She is delighted with the growth of community theater in Savannah.

“It’s a wonderful addition to the cultural life of the city,” Streiff says. “I encourage anyone who’s interested in stepping a foot into the pool to come out for an audition.”

For everyone involved, Inspecting Carol is exceeding all expectations. “When I first read the script, I didn’t find it to be as humorous as I expected,” Elkins says. “I thought it was cute, but not that funny.

“But the more we’ve worked on it, the more we’ve found wonderful things in it,” he says. “I’ve really grown quite attached to it. It moves along quickly and it’s just a load of fun. It will be a very delightful evening of entertainment.”

The Little Theatre of Savannah, Inc. will present Inspecting Carol on Jan. 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, and 26 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 13 and 27 at 3 p.m. at the Savannah Actor’s Theatre, 703D Louisville Rd. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors, military and students with valid ID, and $10 for children. Reservations can be made by calling 631-3773 or by e-mail to reservations@littletheatreofsavannah.org. Tickets can be purchased online at www.littletheatreofsavannah.org and they also will be available at the door prior to performances.


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Linda Sickler

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