2009-08-28 / Columnists

Rock Solid A Quintessential Community Not-For-Profit Group

Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

Artistic Director John Gilleece (seated on the right, in front row) and the company of "My Fair Lady," produced in 2005. Artistic Director John Gilleece (seated on the right, in front row) and the company of "My Fair Lady," produced in 2005. Rockaway Theatre Company —

A theater company is, first and foremost, a group of talented performers - in days of old, the traveling band of players, ready to take on any role, in any venue, for any audience, on a moment's notice. In 1997, such a group got together in Rockaway to "put on a show." They called it the Rockaway Theatre Company, and they originally performed at the Park Place Seaport on Beach 116 Street. The founding members included John Gilleece (Artistic Director to this day), Peggy Page, Joseph Canizio and James Cantirino.

But a great theater company needs a home to truly thrive. Would many of us know of William Shakespeare today if not for the Globe Theatre? So, shortly after its founding, the RTC entered into an agreement with Gateway National Recreation Area to renovate the decrepit old Post Theater in Fort Tilden. It was a daunting task, given that the building had no bathrooms, dressing rooms, heat or air conditioning! But build it they did, and the community volunteers came to help - adding two new bathrooms and a central heating and air conditioning system. Volunteers repaired and cleaned all 284 seats in the theater, as well.

The audiences have followed, and so has financial support. Local businesses, city agencies (NYC Departments of Cultural Affairs and Youth and Community Development), and politicians have stepped up to help and contribute funds, notably N.Y.S Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, State Senator Malcolm Smith, and Joseph Addabbo, Jr., (formerly Rockaway's city councilman).

Every dollar raised has been devoted to financing the group's productions and programs and painstaking improvements to the Post Theater. Amazingly, RTC has no salaried employees — each person who plays a role, from the Artistic Director to a member of the board of directors, is a volunteer. The present board includes (in addition to Gilleece, Page and Canizio): Susan Jasper, Tony Homsey, Catherine McEntee, Jodee Timpone, Peggy Vivino and Michael Wotypka. Each board member also directs, appears on stage, or is responsible for sets or costumes. This is a model not-for-profit group, giving back 100 percent to the community each season.

And give back they do! For over ten years, local audiences have laughed and cried with the company of actors. We have been repeatedly thrilled by the astounding quality and range of dramatic, musical and comedic talents assembled at the Post Theater each season. The labor of love going on in that space for the past decade is virtually unrivaled in Rockaway — side by side with the Rockaway Artists Alliance and The Rockaway Little League, RTC's volunteers have helped to create the peninsula's cultural and recreational "Main Street."

The play now on stage (through August 30), "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," demonstrates one of the company's great strengths — the small ensemble. And the ensemble is a group of sassy gals with Southern accents — a sub-genre in which RTC excels! Their production of "Steel Magnolias" in 2007, set in Louisiana, was one of my personal favorites. I was also pleased to see my 16-year-old son, who is usually the "heavy metal" type, sitting on the edge of his seat, attentively absorbing every bit of dialogue in this season's production of "Proof."

The RTC sets its sights high each season. In addition to the small ensemble comedies and dramas, they produce a major musical and cabaret each year. I thought RTC would never be able to surpass the magic they created on stage with "Fiddler on the Roof" in 2003 and "The King and I" in 2004, but they did it in fine fashion the following year with their elegant, moving and picture-perfect, "My Fair Lady." The sets, the costumes, the music, and something unexpected — the humor in each show — shines through every time.

Call the RTC's reservation hotline now if you'd like to see the current production of "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," which closes with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, August 30. The number is 718-374- 6400. To read more about RTC and all of the many individuals, groups and businesses who have helped to build the company, renovate its stage, and create their performances, visit www.rockawaytheatrecompany.org. When you visit the website, you can also find out about making your own enduring contribution to Rockaway's theatrical heritage by sponsoring a seat in the Post Theater for a mere $100. Or, enjoy viewing great moments from past shows in the photo gallery.

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