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ACT is homeless, but hopeful

Rumors of Ashland Community Theater's demise have been greatly exaggerated, its artistic director says. The theater's identity crisis can be chalked up to its never having had a permanent home.

ACT presented plays at Ashland Middle School as recently as summer 2006, but it can be hard for people to find these days.

"We are active," Artistic Director Michael Meyer says.

ACT presented Ronald Harwood's "Taking Sides," a play about conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler's relationship with the Nazi regime, on October and November weekends at the Ashland Elks Lodge, to small audiences.

"It was quite good," says Ashland actor Brandy Carson, who saw it late in its run. "It got me excited. I wouldn't count ACT out."

Meyer says ACT likely will revive the play soon in a production at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Jewish temple in Ashland.

He says being an itinerant theater has its upside — new spaces all the time and low overhead, to name a couple — but he'd eventually like a real home. Whether and how ACT will get there is unclear.

The theater has at least four play readings a year. They've recently been held at Paschal Winery in Jacksonville. ACT is considering mounting a production of "Biloxi Blues" at the old Ashland Armory. And it's looking for a large barn in which to do "Charlotte's Web."

"I think it's a strength," Meyer says of moving around. "We can do theater anywhere. The room off the Elks' ritual room had a great arch for a play set in Berlin at the end of World War II."

ACT is not envisioning other plays at the Elks.

"But a lot of places have great settings," he says. "Paschal Winery sells a ton of wine when we go out there, and people love it."

Paschal seats 50 or 60 people and often comes close to selling out for ACT, he says.

ACT has been featuring, in readings, the work of local writers such as Phil Loveless and Ruth Wire of Ashland and Darlene Ensor of Jacksonville. Loveless and Wire also host playwrighting workshops.

Loveless, who moved to Ashland from the Bay Area about five years ago, is now on ACT's board. A retired real estate man, he sees his role as helping the theater people get organized.

"I think you'll find this year will be more active," he says.

He says to look for two or three full-length productions in addition to the readings. One should be chosen next month for a spring show.

Meyer admits to have stressed out in the past about a permanent home, but he keeps turning up surprising opportunities for plays. He may have found a place where ACT could do Act 1 of "Harvey" in one room and Act 2 in another. He'd like to find a restaurant to host a production of "Master Harold and the Boys."

One problem with being a homeless theater is that you tend to fly under the radar, limiting audiences.

"I know some people were confused about how to get to the Elks," Meyer says.

ACT started in 1991. Jack Vaughn was artistic director. Meyer came on ACT's board in the late '90s and became artistic director after Doug Mitchell left about four years ago. He's rewriting ACT's mission statement.

"My idea is to put the community back into community theater," Meyer says. "We were doing two- or three-person shows. When Ruth came and brought other writers with her, I realized there's a lot of talent there I'd like to get more involved."

The theater's new board is more oriented to raising money, he says. Play readings have been the fundraising mainstay. Meyer says board members are brainstorming new fundraising ideas. Loveless is seeking underwriting support from area businesses, and he's talking to a grant writer.

"I think it's viable," Loveless says. "We want local actors, writers, directors. I think it's a little different from what everybody else is doing."

ACT's plays tend to be popular and accessible. Meyer's strong suit is comedy. "Taking Sides" is the edgiest thing ACT has done in memory.

He would like to do "Tuesdays with Morrie," which has now been released in play form. Another idea is an evening of full productions of six or eight of the 10-minute plays that have become so popular.

Meyer says no matter where it operates, he'd like ACT to be open, true community-theater-style, to everybody who wants to do theater.

"We've proven we can do quality theater, and we'll try to involve the public more," he says. "There are a lot of talented people in the valley."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Ashland Community Theater Artistic Director Michael Meyer stands in front of the Ashland Elks building where ACT recently presented a play. Meyer says he wants to “put the community back into community theater.” - Jim Craven