Community theater in the big city

| 04 Nov 2016 | 03:57

It’s community theater, but with a big-city twist.

“It’s such a different thing in New York City,” says Jeff Leatherwood, who plays boyish Bobby in the St. Bart’s Players production of “Company,” opening Nov. 10. “We’re six blocks from Broadway and there are so many options for people.”

And yet the St. Bart’s Players, born in 1927, are still around to call themselves New York City’s longest-running not-for-profit community theater company. More than 100 members pay annual dues of $75 ($25 for those under age 25) to participate directly in something they love: creating theater. Many members are also congregants at St. Bartholomew’s Church, which provides significant administrative and logistical help, along with a home base for productions.

Leatherwood, 36, had been a professional actor, but now he works in communications for the Ford Foundation. “Company” marks his first show in six years and his inaugural stint with St. Bart’s. So he’s seen up close how community theater compares with the professional variety.

“It’s different because to me – the word community says it. Everybody is pitching in and doing everything to help. It’s ‘let’s build a set in the barn and put on a show,’” he says. Where the pros and the community theaters feel familiar, he says, is in who’s involved.

“The people. The people who do theater, on stage and behind the scenes,” he says. “I think that the people who do it are very much the same. They’ve very in tune, compassionate, friendly and welcoming.”

He says the 1970s-set show with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is “a hugely ambitious undertaking” for any community theater. As is his role of not-quite-grown-up Bobby, who’s wrestling with maturity. High-profile talents including Raul Esparza, Boyd Gaines and, in a concert version, Neil Patrick Harris have tackled the part. Of Bobby, Leatherwood says, “This is a person who is not trying to cause harm to anybody, but it trying to figure out his place in life and what he really wants out of life.

He has help in the ensemble piece, in which each performer gets a center-stage moment. Lauren Shakra, a 32-year-old East Sider who’s a new mom, is enjoying a very different on-stage existence as April, the ditzy flight attendant who’s one of Bobby’s girlfriends. “There’s a lot you can do with that part,” Shakra says.

She got involved with St. Bart’s Players during the 2013 production of “The Crucible.” The group needed communications help, her area of expertise, and she wound up on the board of directors.

“I grew up doing theater in New Hampshire and then I got to New York and I took a different career path,” she says. “And you know I missed the sense of community that the world of theater gives you. And I missed theater in general.”

She’s found it again, after a decade-long absence, and is enjoying meeting cast members of all ages and seeing them perform in cabaret and holiday shows, in addition to the theatrical productions, like 2014’s “Side by Side by Sondheim.”

Now there’s “Company,” featuring the same composer’s work. “We knew that we had the talent out there, even though we don’t pick shows with people in mind,” Shakra says. Then she adds what could be a community theater credo: “We’re all working really hard and we’re all having a blast.”

“Company” runs at St. Bartholomew’s Church from Nov. 10 to 18. For details,visit