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The Play’s The Thing: Theater-church partnerships strong, but don’t always work

It’s that time of year again, filled with panic, stress and gridlock, otherwise known as the holiday season, formerly Christmas. I choose to opt out of the gift-giving, just as I avoid owning a cell phone, although I hasten to add that my first wife attends to all the social graces and expectations.

Debbie Starker is the proprietor of Deb’s Web, a weekly online newsletter about the comings and goings of Long Island theater, but Queens gets some coverage, too.

Amazingly enough, this invaluable source of local theater information has now been around for 10 years. I say amazing since Deb does this every week, without fail and without pay, while acting in, directing and attending lots of shows, and for most of the time being fully employed.

Recently Deb commented on the ubiquitous electronic devices that now seem to be taking over. In particular, she was annoyed by the use of these things by audience members — checking messages, texting and whatever — while a performance was going on. Get a life, people!

Bad behavior is rampant and civility has vanished — watch our legislators — so it’s up to those of us with good manners to do something about it. During my curtain speeches for The Outrageous Fortune Company — yes, we’re still searching for a new year-round venue — I used to say that violators of the digital prohibitions would be dragged from their seats and beaten. Maybe I was kidding, but it seemed to work.

Another online site is hosted by Roger Gonzlez at LocalTheatreNY. Roger has four children and apparently has to earn a living, so he’s not as attentive to his site as Deb is to hers. But Roger is now into video interviews and mini-documentaries about theater subjects. For a technologically impaired guy like me, this is fascinating stuff, and something that you theater types will want to be part of.

One of Roger’s recent interviews was with the board of the Parkside Players on the occasion of its 30th anniversary show. Steven Callahan, one of its members, mentioned some of the challenges a theater group faces performing at a church. In this case the church is the Grace Lutheran on Union Turnpike in Forest Hills. It’s been a strong relationship over the years, mainly due to the support of its recently retired pastor Douglas Haak. But many contemporary plays are off limits, since rough language, sexual situations and controversial subjects may not be welcomed by the congregation.

And that’s a shame, since most of the theater companies in Queens are housed in churches or synagogues. Sometimes it’s a precarious relationship — just ask Bill & Sharon Wolf of the late Colonial Players, or Kevin & Judy Vincent of Theatre Time Productions, which recently lost its longtime home at Whitestone’s First Presbyterian Church. (However, Theatre Time is coming back in March with “12 Angry Men” at its new venue, Grace Episcopal Church in Whitestone.)

Perhaps the constraints of being at a religious institution are the main reason why our locals choose the same old material again and again, no matter how many times the play or musical has been produced. If you want to see “Arsenic and Old Lace” on stage once more, please raise your hand. And if you don’t know the identity of the bad guy in “The Mousetrap,” where have you been?

So I continue to urge you producers to do the new and the modern — there are lots of good titles to choose from. And just maybe that vanishing audience will reappear to enjoy something out-of-the-ordinary and more relevant to their lives. Meanwhile, happy birthday to granddaughter Addison, who celebrates her first one Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. ’Tis the season to be jolly, and Addison thinks they have a holiday just for her.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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