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Musical Theater Starting Here, Starting Now
By Betsy Bannerman
Have you ever wished Noe Valley had a community theater, the kind where you could see shows like Hello, Dolly! and Guys and Dolls?
Well, there's a band of theater lovers that has been trying to fulfill that wish for the past year. The Bethany Theatre Project, so named because the plays are performed in the sanctuary of Bethany Church on Sanchez Street, was founded by Castro area resident John Lehrack. Lehrack has experience directing musicals, and is also director of arts and celebration at Bethany United Methodist Church. He is musical director and heads up the nine-member board for the Bethany Theatre Project.
"This had been a pet project of mine for a while, bringing community theater to the city. Believe it or not, there's nothing like this in San Francisco -- there's no other company doing community theater, where you don't have to be professional actors," says Lehrack.
Another theater fan and one of Lehrack's chief collaborators is Lisa Lennox, an actor and director whom Lehrack met while working at Peninsula Youth Theatre in Palo Alto. (Lennox lives in the Sunset.)
Last fall, Lehrack and Lennox launched Bethany's first season with a musical comedy called Nuncrackers, about an inept group of nuns trying to put on a Christmas concert. Lennox directed and was in the cast. "We got to wear habits -- it was fun!" she recalls.
Next came the musical Godspell, a 1971 rock opera about the life of Jesus. "This was perfect to do in a church, and the cast was amazing," Lehrack notes.
Then in July, Lennox directed the non-musical Oleanna, David Mamet's thought-provoking play "about how people perceive each other's actions through their own 'screens.'"
This month (Oct. 1820 and 2527), the Bethany Theatre Project will be returning to musical theater with Starting Here, Starting Now, a musical revue about the joys and sorrows of falling in love. Darren Hochstedler and Shane Ray will direct, and the show's stars will include singer-actors Benjamin Atal, Melissa Menzie, Lisa Nelson, and Knuti Vanhoven. "Shane, who will perform as well as direct, has toured nationally, and Darren has won awards in Hawaii. The entire cast is really good," says Lehrack.
After Starting Here, Lehrack plans to stage A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical comedy that should burst the buttons of Bethany audiences. Auditions for that show -- approximately 20 roles will be available -- will begin in December. Forum will be directed by Dexter Fidler, with musical direction by Lehrack and choreography by Dean Loumbas, who also choreographed Godspell.
So far, says Lehrack, "the quality of all the shows has been terrific."
Lehrack, 37, is a trained concert pianist, choral director, and voice teacher who holds a master's degree in music from the University of Hawaii. He moved to San Francisco seven years ago.
Lehrack says he has "loved theater" since he was a child and always felt drawn to community theater, the kind that welcomes all comers, not just paid actors and crew. The Bethany Theatre Project is non-equity and welcomes volunteers, he says, those who can sell tickets or help with props, wardrobe, sets, and publicity. Others may participate by stage-managing, playing in the band, or doing small parts. Auditions are open to all.
That doesn't mean, however, that the plays are amateurish. "We don't want people to come and say, 'Oh, isn't that cute?'" says Lehrack. "We want to put on the best performances we can, so we work the actors hard but try to make it fun at the same time."
Lehrack says for him, directing musicals is "a lot more fun than sitting down and playing a Chopin étude, although I like that, too. You work on a play for two months, you're really proud of the results, and then you get to start over again, meet new people, and learn different music."
Lennox, 28, shares Lehrack's love of theater, having graduated from Michigan State with a B.A. in acting and directing. She moved to San Francisco in 1997 and has since directed for several theater companies besides Bethany.
"I love telling the whole story," she says. "It's so much bigger than just being a single actor. I love working with the actors, the set designer, lighting, costumes, makeup, creating this whole picture." She is on the theater's administrative board as well, and is working to get grants to make the group more self-sufficient.
The expenses of producing a play at Bethany, she explains, include royalties owed to the playwright and composer, stipends paid to the director and choreographer, rental of lighting equipment, and the purchase of costumes, props, and sets. Some of the money is made back through ticket sales, selling advertising space in the programs, and fundraising. The church supports the theatrical enterprise by helping with publicity and allowing the group rent-free rehearsal space.
Lehrack and Lennox say they are very pleased to have Bethany Church as their stage. The acoustics are good, and the size is adequate, seating about 250. Challenges include the huge pipe organ in the sanctuary, the pews not facing the stage directly, and the small size of the stage ("We can't do Hello, Dolly! yet," Lehrack laughs).
The lack of parking around Clipper and Sanchez streets is another slight drawback -- but not for Noe Valley residents, Lehrack points out.
"Here you have a chance to just walk out your door and come down and see great musical theater," he says.
In a few years, the company hopes to occupy a rebuilt church and community center where Market, 16th, and Noe streets come together (see last month's Voice story, "Bethany to Leave Noe Valley for the Castro"). Coincidentally, that location was home many years ago to the Eureka Theater.
And Lehrack hopes the nonprofit theater company will at long last break even. "I have not paid myself yet, as musical director, and that is also a goal!"