The Glyndon Area Players are preparing to open the group’s 14th production, Oklahoma!, at Sacred Heart School in Glyndon Maryland tonight August 12 with a cast of about 40, ranging in age from 8 to 65 years. As Assistant Director for the show, I’ve seen the inner workings up close. Everything about this company is big—the sets, the performances, the audience size, the hours of work put into each show, and especially the hearts. Through building major sets all day every Saturday and running rehearsals, sometimes until midnight, I found myself wondering how on earth things at G.A.P. grew to be ‘as high as an elephant’s eye’ (see the show to get the reference). I’ve gathered thoughts and snippets from the close-knit cast and crew about what Glyndon Area Players means to them, how it all came to be, and why the group is frequently referred to as the ‘G.A.P. Family.’
Founder, president, and this year’s director, Homero Bayarena, started this theater company ‘on a dream,’ by taking his idea for a community group to Monsignor Lloyd Aiken at Sacred Heart Parish. The parish has been incredibly supportive ever since, allowing the school gym to transform into an authentic theater every summer, and in return the company takes great care to uphold a respect for the space they share, even including it in the G.A.P. contract each cast member signs. Every April well-organized auditions are held. A process that can take almost an entire day for each actor, requiring all to sing ,cold-read from a script, and if necessary, dance. For this year, just about everyone who came through was asked to perform his or her song twice. Once as they prepared it, and a second time applying the Oklahoma accent, which is prominent in the dialogue as written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. G.A.P. has become a well known secret among area actors, so the casting has become rather selective. Once the show is cast, the work, fun, and bonding begins.
My initial exposure to this company came in 2004 when I took my family to see Annie. We were immediately impressed with the quality of the production and how much fun the cast seemed to be having. The following year we were back in our seats for Seussical, and one of my daughters commented that she wished that she could ‘do that,’ pointing to the colorful spectacle of singing and dancing on stage. With that, we decided that the perfect family hobby had just been born. When we met, my husband was in a local rock band and I was a performer for Walt Disney World, so Community Theater was a great way for us to introduce our daughters to the thrill of performing. Since then some or all of us have made it into the cast for Cinderella, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Beauty and the Beast, Fiddler on the Roof and The Wizard of Oz.
When Homero announced he was in need of an assistant director for Oklahoma!, I volunteered to take part in the production end for a change. Our laughter flowed about as much as the creativity. For instance, hearing Homero direct the show’s villain, Jud, to give a “What you talkin’ bout Willis” look to convey his inner torture and confusion, had me giggling. Another highlight was the cast doing an impromptu Latin dance warm-up (at Homero’s instruction) before the last rehearsal.
Hugh Carson, who is playing Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!, auditioned for G.A.P. with his family on a whim in 2000. “Little did I know that a mere two and a half months later I would be center stage singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Up until that moment I had never entertained the idea of ever appearing on stage. I didn’t even sing in the shower. But as terrified as I was, it was also exhilarating.” He has since been in about 30 shows with various companies, but G.A.P. remains a favorite. “One of the most appealing things about performing with G.A.P. is having the opportunity to perform with full orchestras in front of hundreds of people. It’s not unusual to fill the auditorium with upwards of 300-400 people per performance. Acting in front of crowds like that is always challenging and stimulating.” Hugh’s wife Deb also acts in, directs, and (with Oklahoma!) choreographs for G.A.P.
In the role of Ali Hakim, Hugh enjoys providing much of the show’s comic relief. “I was cast in an amusing role that is quite a stretch for me. Playing Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler has been a lot of fun. Not only is he the most comedic character in the show, I also have the chance to try out a new accent. I’ve done everything from British to Southern to South Philly, but Middle Eastern has been a challenge. I finally decided that I would simply try to imitate Apu, the convenience store owner on The Simpsons. Sure, I sound ridiculous, but it seems to work.” Similarly, Donald Ertel (my husband) has chosen Foghorn Leghorn as his inspiration for his role of Ike Skidmore. Stan Behnken (Carnes) and Quentin Patrick (Will) round out the male leads with some great comedy as well.
Hugh and Donald have spent many weekends preparing the show behind the scenes as well. Hugh says that the efforts pay off. “Everybody in the cast seems to come together, roll up their sleeves and work hard for the success of the show, both on stage and behind the scenes. It’s not unusual for people to devote eight or more hours of their Saturdays working on sets with building, painting, hanging curtains, etc. But after all is said and done, when you look up at the stage and can say, “I built those stairs” or “I painted that backdrop,” you feel a unique ownership and satisfaction that you won’t always find with other theater groups.”
Ali Borkowicz stars as Laurey, the beautiful farm girl who falls for Curly (Kevin D’Alesandro), the sweet but smart-alecky cowboy. Ali has been acting with G.A.P. for 11 years. “My first experience with G.A.P. was in the 2000 production of The Sound of Music. I played the part of Marta. I was only 10 years old!” This year, after a strong audition and a full day of callbacks, she landed the lead. “I went into auditions hoping for the part of Ado Annie because I always seem to land the goofball role. It was such an honor to receive the part of Laurey. It’s amazing to see how the cast bonds as a family during the intense period of time that we’re together. The directors have guided me through this process of performing in a lead role. They have helped me to have confidence in myself and to express myself artistically.”
Molly Janiga was Dorothy in last year’s The Wizard of Oz. In Oklahoma! she plays the feisty Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no. “I play her very ditzy and with also a touch of innocence and cluelessness. In other interpretations that I’ve seen of Ado Annie, I don’t think anyone plays her quite as outwardly ridiculous as I do. The thing that Homero made very clear to me was that he wanted Ado Annie to be ‘over the top’, so I’m going all out!” Molly has been in every G.A.P. show since she was 11 years old and G.A.P. has since become more than just an outlet for her formidable talent. “I’m always so excited to go up to Sacred Heart during show time because I’m not just going up there to be in a show, I’m going to be with friends and people I love.”
After performing as Beast in Beauty and the Beast in 2008, and Perchik in 2009’s Fiddler on the Roof, Eric Besbris returns to G.A.P. to play Jud, the aggressive and tortured farm hand who has his sights set on Laurey. “It’s the first time that I’ve had a chance to play a truly “bad” character. Some have said that it is so against type for me to play bad or mean. And I do feel I have had to work hard to try to lose ‘Eric’ on stage. The challenge has been to layer Jud so that he is not just a one-dimensional character. It’s easy to play pure mean, but why is Jud that way? Is he just misunderstood? Should anyone feel a little sorry for him? I think the decisions that he makes are sometimes out of impulse and are often the wrong choices but he just doesn’t know how to fit in and he grows tired and frustrated with his social standing and with being alone.” I’ve seen Oklahoma! several times and after watching Eric develop his masterful characterization of this unlikable man, this is the first time I can say I feel for Jud.
Eric doesn’t mind surrendering his summer to G.A.P. “The people, from the board and president down to the smallest of children are very welcoming, friendly and truly enjoy what they are doing. Parents and families are involved in every aspect of the production. That family atmosphere is why people throughout the year refer to friends they’ve met at G.A.P. as their ‘G.A.P. family.’ It truly is a theatre family and home. New people are always welcomed in to the group with open arms, but there is a large number of returning cast and crew each year and this is very well nurtured by G.A.P. Other community theatres have repeat actors and crew as well, but none I have experienced in many years have created such a fun, friendly, welcoming family atmosphere. G.A.P. has its pulse on exactly what community theatre is and should be. The quality of the production is still very important at the same time, so there are very few compromises to quality of production while at the same time nurturing the community theatre aspect. For me personally, it has become a summer theatre home. This cast is absolutely great to work with! Kathy (Aunt Eller), Kevin (Curly) and Ali (Laurey) are especially great scene partners. This is one of the friendliest, most hard working, and most fun casts I’ve ever been a part of!”
Kathy Blake, a newcomer to the company this year, starring as Laurey’s spirited Aunt Eller, calls working with G.A.P. a ‘magical experience’. “I love the family atmosphere and how incredibly welcoming everyone has been. I was nervous about auditioning with a new group, but [the people at G.A.P.] made me feel a part from my first audition! Bonding with the cowboys and my ‘hired hand’ over a few drinks promotes good chemistry on stage! It has just been amazing to watch the bonding that has occurred and how the show has come together! I am truly honored to be a part of G.A.P. and to be able to work with such a wonderful cast, crew and staff!”
Two of the faces found behind the curtains, pulling it all together are Karen Janiga Stage Manager) and Kari O’Donnell (Production Manager). Karen was first talked into stage managing in 2004 by G.A.P. friend who failed to tell her “that when the show starts the director turns it over to the Stage Manager…talk about having a heart attack! I have no background in theater. I played 3 sports in high school, two in college, and I coach. (She admits with a laugh that she still calls intermission “halftime”).” Janiga attributes a lot of G.A.P.’s success to its founder. “Homero’s vision and creativity are what make G.A.P. shows so much better than what any other theatre company can do. His patience and vision really lift the group up to a whole new level – one that is imbued with integrity and focus on the show, never on showcasing individuals.” Karen also notes that there is plenty of fun to be had in the midst of the hard work and integrity. “I remember laughing so hard with Kari as Homero was telling us we needed to get a “panty hoe” (his version of the singular of panty hose) to pull over [a Wizard of Oz character’s] face. He just kept saying panty hoe – we were laughing so hard we were crying!”
Kari, who calls G.A.P. a ‘summer addiction’ has the pleasure of watching her daughter, Megan O’Donnell play Gertie, Curley’s potential date for the town’s box social. They are G.A.P. veterans. “Megan auditioned with G.A.P. for 2005’s Seussical. For this year’s show, I’ve had several roles, ranging from children’s coordinator to costume assistant to assisting with production manager duties. Homero and Teresa are there to answer any questions about any part of the tasks I need to do, and they make a great directorial team!” Kari, who can be found doing everything from making costumes to coordinating rehearsal schedules with the parish office, echoes the many of the same sentiments the cast shares about bonding. “I’ve made so many great friends in G.A.P., they’re all like family now! The cast this year is smaller than any recent cast, and they are really wonderful. Everyone gets along well with seemingly no sense of age differences, from the older cast members, to the young adults to teens to young children – they are all a pleasure to spend time with”
The sets for Glyndon Area Players tend to rival those found in the professional realm. Technical Director Michael Parks, who is in his ninth year with the company, works closely with Bayarena and sketches of his concepts to create grand scale pieces. This year, Mike and his crew built Aunt Eller’s house that doubles as a barn when turned, and have incorporated two antique full-size pieces of farm equipment into the action. But these sets don’t go up easily; I asked him how much time goes into such elaborate construction. “After nine years of involvement both on-stage (two productions) set construction (seven productions) and Technical Director (four productions) the hours seem to all run together. If I were to estimate the time involved [yearly] in my role as Technical Director it would probably be in the 200-300 hour range from January through August.” He shared some favorites from past shows. “The sets I remember most were Annie (for the 20’ curving Grand staircase), Seussical (for Horton’s Elevated nest) and Beauty and the Beast (for the multi level Library and Rose rooms). I also remember the Godzilla tree from Annie (a 12’ high fully decorated mobile Christmas tree) that constantly threatened to topple over into the audience.”
Although we spent much of the summer side by side, it was tricky to catch up with Homero Bayarena himself for thoughts on this article. In addition to being the president of Glyndon Area Players founder, president, and this year’s director, Homero travels extensively as a speaker for Franklin Covey. He also instructs fitness classes at least three times a week. Regarding the standard of talent and hard work he inspires in people he says, “Oftentimes people [in community theater] are let off easy. Some people are satisfied with ‘ok’ …I’m not good with ok.”
Bayarena’s career has ingrained in him a positive attitude and creative methods of challenging each cast members’ potential. His approach includes getting to know the actors personally and discovering “what is important to them. I then use that to reach them and help them become part of my vision for the show.” He feels that a show like Oklahoma! could easily be interpreted as outdated, but his vision is to bring relevance to the story of a group of people settling in a new state by highlighting the theme of “family values and diversity, and seeing each other as humans and individuals, not just labels. This ideal is still very much pertinent to us as a community.” Homero’s son, Emilio, appears in the show as Fred, a young farmer, and his wife, Elaine, coordinates the luncheon and dinner theater aspect featured before two performances, as well as acting as the director’s right hand man. They are already gearing up for next year’s Hairspray.
The cast and crew all seem to share the enthusiasm and fondness for this classic show, and the large-scale company making it happen. When asked what makes G.A.P. different from other groups, Karen Janiga sums it up beautifully. “Love. It sounds corny, but really it boils down to a bunch a people who care deeply about each other, and about G.A.P. and what it stands for, and doing what they love – just for the joy of being together, having fun, and putting on a great show. Love.”