A Theater Of, By, and For The People

Studio Playhouse production of “L’il Abner,” coming in June to LTV Studios.
Anita Sorel, center, was in charge of auditions for the Studio Playhouse production of “L’il Abner,” coming in June to LTV Studios.
Anita Sorel, center, was in charge of auditions for the Studio Playhouse production of “L’il Abner,” coming in June to LTV Studios. Morgan McGivern

    If Anita Sorel has her way, the lines of people waiting to perform on the stage at the Studio Playhouse at LTV Studios in Wainscott will be as long as the lines to sit in the audience.
    “I want every waitress and every plumber and every fireman to perform,” she said in a recent interview.
    A community theater in East Hampton has been a dream of Ms. Sorel’s for years, and has finally become a reality.
    “I used to say that it’s a shame that we’re so close to the city with so many artistic people that there isn’t more theater here year round.”
    Ms. Sorel is originally from Los Angeles. When she was 4 years old, her mother took her to the Ice Capades, an experience that led her to an epiphany. Sitting in the audience, watching the theatrical ice dancing, she suddenly turned to her mother and said, “I want to do that.”
    And “that” became her ambition and quest in life.
    When Ms. Sorel was 13 years old, she had her first experience in professional theater, performing during a summer season at Laguna Beach, Calif. Her first speaking part was in “The Seven Year Itch.”
    “I was the French girl, I don’t know that she had a name, and I had three lines.”
    Ms. Sorel doesn’t speak French, so she learned the lines phonetically.
    “Then I played Giavonna in ‘Time of the Cuckoo.’ I had four lines, all in Italian.” Her next part was in “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” She had no lines at all.
    “I didn’t get to speak English the whole summer.”
    After graduating from the University of Utah, a school she chose because of its well-rounded theater and dance programs, she became a theatrical gypsy searching for her niche.
    She returned to Los Angeles, and found that Hollywood was not for her. Then, she tried teaching for several years at the University of Kansas, but the theatrical fire was still burning in her heart, and so she came to New York, where she found success.
    She landed a leading role in the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow,” playing Meg Roberts for three years, as well as touring with the National Shakespeare Company. But even with success as an actor, there still seemed to be something missing.
    Then, one day, she heard about a job opening in East Hampton to start a theater department at the Ross School.
    “In 1999, Mrs. Ross was beginning to create the high school and hired 43 or so of us to form the staff and create the curriculum. It was a marvelous adventure,” she remembered. “I was the theater department — a one man show. I not only directed three shows a year, but also created a fully integrated curriculum.”
    The first show the students put on was “Amadeus,” which was performed at Guild Hall.
    She spent seven years at Ross, teaching the students and building the program. But when an opportunity arose in 2006 to work in a theater program in Nairobi, Kenya, she decided to leave, feeling that she had accomplished her goal, and, as always, seeking a new challenge.
    It was while in Nairobi, teaching at the International School of Kenya, that she began to visualize her next challenge — forming a community theater company in East Hampton.
    And so, two years ago, she returned to East Hampton to do just that. “My goal is to have a theater that every resident knows, a theater where they can come and perform, they can sew costumes, they can help build scenery.”
    She knows it won’t be easy. “A lot of small theater groups try out here and they can’t sustain.”
     She began to work with LTV toward that goal. “What we decided is to make the theater an outreach program. The thrust is for a community theater here with a youth program, and a program for seniors where they won’t have to pay.”
    Last year was the first season. In addition to “Destry Rides Again,” a musical, “we did four original plays by local playwrights. We mounted them and had a great run. Each time we do a show, hopefully our reputation will grow. But I am very impatient,” she said with a smile. “I want it now! Our philosophy this year is, we want to get the word out.”
    On April 3 and 4, auditions were held at the studio for the first production of the year, the musical “Li’l Abner,” based on the mid-20th-century Al Capp comic strip. Lee Michel is the musical director, and the orchestra includes Mark York, a Broadway pianist.
    “ ‘Li’l Abner’ goes up in June.” After it closes, the theater will be dark for the month of July, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be busy.
    “We’ll be working, planning, building. Our season starts in August with ‘Amy’s View’ [by David Hare], then I want to do a play called ‘How the Other Half Loves’ [by Alan Ayckbourn]. It’s for six people. The third production is an evening of original works by local playwrights.”
    Ms. Sorel was ecstatic over the level of talent she saw during the auditions, but noted there are still a couple of key parts to cast.
    “When we first started,” she recalled, “we had an open forum for the town. We invited anybody who wanted to start a new theater. In walks a man in a fireman’s windbreaker. I went and hugged him. He was the lead in our first play.”
    And it’s not just actors she is seeking. “We need people to be involved. I have wonderful people who help when they can, so I’m able to direct, I’m handling getting the royalties, I’m designing the sets, I’m making the costumes, I’ve been doing it, but it would be so marvelous to have someone say, ‘I’d like to make some costumes,’ to have someone say, ‘I’m a director, I’d love to come in and direct.’ ”
    And, she added, “We need money. We’re a nonprofit. The monies we’ve used to mount a show go back to LTV and the profits we’ve made on each show have raised money for LTV. We’re a fund-raiser for LTV. To grow, we need outside contributions. That’s why I’m putting a campaign on Kickstarter.”
    Kickstarter is a Web site that helps raise money for the arts by setting a financial goal in a specified time limit, allowing anyone with an American bank account to donate, wherever they are, contingent upon the online goal being reached. Those who want to pitch in can do so by going to the theater’s own Web site at Studio-Playhouse.com.
    Donations can also be made to Studio Theatre, P.O. Box 799, Wainscott 11975.
    A friend of hers asked Ms. Sorel recently why, with her professional background, she wanted to build a community theater in East Hampton.
    “I know from all my experience that theater can change people. You take the plumber, you take the shy librarian, you take the mother who’s home all day. She gets involved with theater, she has a new family. I know what theater can do for you. Scratch the surface of a great actor and you’ll find that many are very, very shy. That’s what theater does for us.”
    “My goal is to have a true community theater where the quality of the productions is extremely professional. I’d love to see a time when the Hamptons had so many running theaters that people could come out for the weekend and see two or three shows and we’d be known as a theater town.”