Sharing the spotlight

Two years ago, the Spotlight on Theatre Convention was a mere nine-hour support session for Orlando performers whose professional futures were anything but certain. This year's edition -- a three-day marathon held last Friday through Sunday at the Orlando Expo Centre -- was, as the saying goes, bigger and better. And though the goal of making our area "a world-class theatre community" (as stated by our hosts the Central Florida Theatre Alliance) hasn't yet been attained, the convention was a pleasing display of the enthusiasm and initiative needed to take us there.

Picture a humbler, more focused version of one of the trade fairs you may have attended in the past (a health-and-fitness expo, say, or a particularly benign gun show) and you'll have an idea of what the venue's Ivanhoe Room looked like last weekend. Booths retained by several of the Alliance's 78 member troupes drummed up interest in the coming theatrical season, their schedules made even more enticing by the proffering of tasty treats and other thoughtful amenities. The Cerulean Group transformed its cramped space into an irresistible crash pad, with warm blue fixtures and animal-print fabrics inviting us to set a spell while we munched cupcakes and partook of parlor games. Yahtzee, anyone?

Products-and-services firms peddled their wares to working thespians, trumpeting their accomplishments in the field of head-shot photography; directors and producers could shop for new lighting equipment and special effects. One especially obtrusive marvel was a tubular weapon that shoots streamers and confetti from its barrel. By Saturday, so many impromptu demonstrations had been offered that the room looked like Guy Lombardo's final resting place.

Trying tryouts

Round-the-clock auditions were held on the Expo Centre's second floor, allowing job-seeking actors to present their best material to an entire room of casting reps. The process must have been even more nerve-wracking for the child performers who had their turn early Saturday morning, but at least they benefited from one palliative measure: Guards posted at the elevators barred their parents from accompanying them.

In neighboring conference rooms, seminars and workshops kept the conventioneers abreast of artistic disciplines and key career issues. I threw my lot in with Gene Columbus, manager of entertainment staffing for Walt Disney Entertainment, who led a session in "professional" behavior for show-biz types. My mistake. Like most Disney products, the lecture was slickly performed, self-referential and full of feel-good bromides. I learned that I should believe in myself, compliment three people every day and know that I was given one mouth and two ears for a reason. (Because it's easier to wear a mouse hat that way?)

There was more to feel good about in Friday night's Central Florida Theatre Showcase, a compendium of short scenes staged by eight local companies. Without the aid of costume or makeup, The Oops Guys' "Fiely Matias" slayed the crowd with his flawless impression of a sluttish torch singer. Kate Hunter Brown and Frank McClain, stars of the Mark Two Dinner Theater's "The King and I," gamboled about the tiny stage to re-create the musical's "Shall We Dance?" number. The older audience members clapped along with a rhythmic fervor that must have had their bedroom lights at home flashing on and off, on and off.

Hooray for the farm team

The show closed with a fine vignette from Mad Cow Theatre Company's production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which still doesn't have a home for its October run. One troupe that has found permanent digs -- playwright/director Tod Kimbro's Impacte! Productions -- won the convention's Best Booth award Saturday afternoon, inspiring sarcastic grumbling from the Ceruleans. (They'll share the Impacte! group's space in east Winter Park when it opens in September.)

Perhaps the judges were swayed by Kimbro and company's charitable overtures. The coffee mugs sold at their booth raised funds for next April's 11th annual Orlando International Fringe Festival, the 10-day performing-arts omnibus that is the focus of many Alliance members' yearly efforts. Two weeks earlier, letters had been sent to everyone on the CFTA's mailing list, calling for help in rescuing the Fringe from financial uncertainty.

Over at her own convention booth, Brook Hanemann -- the Fringe Festival's new producer and artistic director -- soothed my fears of potential disaster.

"The Fringe has always operated in the red," she said, adding that the event's current overdraft (less than $15,000) isn't the worst in its history. But some board members, she admitted, are concerned about the financial woes experienced by other Orlando arts groups and are calling for the recruitment of a financial adviser.

"One single philanthropist could completely heal this festival," Hanemann predicted. Let's hope that messiah has one mouth and two ears -- and a mean way with a confetti gun.


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