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Curtain Call: CTP’s Aversa is mixing work and play in local theater

Susan Aversa-Orrego, left, and Pam Ward talk about Collaborative Theatre Project's 2019 season. MT file photo.

When Susan Aversa was in high school in western New York, she had an epiphany: it might be possible to work and have fun at the same time.

“We had an outstanding drama teacher, and I was fortunate to be in shows under his direction,” Aversa said. That’s when she got bit by the theater bug.

She played the Virgin Mary in an annual holiday season Christmas pageant when she was a senior. “After that, I thought I could do anything!” she laughed.

Today, she is the artistic director of Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Project.

The company was established in 2015 and mounted its first full-scale production in 2016 for the holiday season, producing a new musical version of “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersen tale that had enchanted her as a child.

“We wanted to create a resident theater company for the Medford area,” she said. “Ashland, to my joy, has a great many theater companies. We realized that space was at a premium in Ashland, so we reached out to the new owners of the Medford Center.”

The center supported CTP from the beginning and found a performance space for the fledgling group. CTP’s stage is in a black box theater at 555 Medford Center, across from the Cold Stone Creamery.

The company will present a multimedia production of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” for six weeks beginning Nov. 26. It’s based on the Jerome Robinette adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic.

“When CTP first started, we did musicals with live pit bands,” Aversa said. “But at the present, we are working with pre-recorded tracks. There are a great many wonderful musicians in the Rogue Valley and we’re looking forward to a time when we can include more live music in our performances.”

During the pandemic, CTP began programming Radio Days productions where performers worked from classic scripts, adaptations and new scripts for the format. Actors work behind their individual microphones, spaced 6 feet apart.

Pam Ward and Daniel Sessions Stephens create the radio style dramas on a regular basis. A Foley table provides the live sound effects, creating a soundscape for theatergoers.

“Pam started with the Grants Pass Radio Players in 2009 and has an enormous affinity for these shows,” Aversa said. “Daniel is also passionate about the genre. As we’ve grown this form, we’ve found new fans and new ways to expand the program.”

COVID-19 had a profound impact on all live theater. Because of its size and resources, CTP has done very little streaming. Instead, the company concentrated on its radio dramas, even reimagining stage plays for the format. Aversa, an Ashland resident, considers her time with CTP as “a unique and exciting experience.”

“I am particularly proud of our production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ (2018), and I loved ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ (2019) and ‘Tuck Everlasting’ (2018).”

She says CTP audiences have grown over the years.

“More people are coming in through word of mouth,” she said. “Nothing beats having someone you know recommend a production, and we’re grateful for the ongoing enthusiastic support. It’s been incredibly satisfying.”

CTP wants to increase its volunteer pool and encourages interested people to join in. They can contact the company through its website, ctpmedford.org.

“We’re always looking for folks to help build sets and costumes and do the front of house tasks that keep any theater going,” she said.

Aversa’s responsibilities include overseeing the creative aspects of each production, “helping directors to create outstanding performances.”

She often does costumes for shows she’s not directing and creates many of the graphic elements. She writes grants and takes care of the business end of the company.

Steven Dominguez is an integral part of the company. He created the ACT Out Bilingual Children’s Program during the pandemic.

“We’re looking forward to watching that grow. He and co-creator Leslie Dymond are phenomenal to work with,” she said.

She also credits tech team members Elliot Anderson, Mads Hamilton and Charles Baldwin for their contribution to the success of CTP, along with board members Laura Sutton, Thom Hepford, CJ Reid, and Mike Kunkel, and box office manager Colleen Pedersen.

Along with CTP, Aversa also runs the family business.

“We started Yogurt Hut in 2009,” she said. “While we lost three locations due to the effects of the pandemic, we’ve still got our North Medford location going strong.”

Aversa was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in western New York in a family of creatives.

“We all learned to play various musical instruments,” she said, “and were blessed with two incredibly creative grandmothers who taught us sewing and needlework.”

Her first meaningful theater experiences were in high school.

“I remember thinking if I could just simply live in a theater, I would be willing to do anything. And since we started our own theater, I have done just that — from sewing costumes and learning new skills to cleaning the restrooms.”

During college, she had a work/study grant to supplement her living expenses. Since she had sewing skills, she worked in the costume shop.

When Aversa was a senior, the faculty designer resigned for health reasons. They hired her to teach the costume classes and design the mainstage productions.

“So, in my final year I was both a paid faculty member and a lowly undergraduate,” she said.

That practical experience led to her job as a theater instructor at Niagara Community College immediately after graduation. Having done productions and budgets gave her real world experience the other candidates didn’t have.

Aversa looks forward to getting back to full-capacity houses and larger-scale events, but believes it will be a gradual reopening process.

“We’ve become more comfortable with the idea of everything coming to us,” she said. “Moving beyond that comfort zone will take a bit of doing.”

Live theater is a joint experience shared by play makers and audiences.

“It’s something so incredibly personal and profound when it’s done well. It’s worth the patience it may take to regain it,” Aversa said.

“But when it’s ours again, and the world lights up more fully, it will be glorious.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.