Non-profit theatre reopens, invites community to get in on the act.
Driving through the Oak Park neighborhood of San Diego many people probably passed the colorful little building on the corner of 54th and College Grove without noticing it until it up and disappeared last July. Well, unbeknownst to casual passers-by, that humble location was home to the Community Actor’s Theatre that’s been around since 1982. But never fear theatergoers, it’s been almost a year and now C.A.T. has an almost completely rebuilt building to call home. At the hub of the whole operation is C.A.T. director Jennie Hamilton, one of the original founders of the group.
“We knew we wanted a new building but we didn’t really start planning for it until maybe like two years prior to actually starting the project,” Hamilton said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
Hamilton said that even though she always liked performing she never realized it would be such a big part of her life. She attended San Diego State with the goal of being a teacher but minored in theatre arts.
“I’ve always liked acting,” Hamilton said. “I’ve acted all of my life really ever since I was a little girl. I would always be in all the Sunday school programs and church programs and in school I was in every play we had, just about.”
So she finished school and went on to teach in the San Diego school district for more than 27 years having recently retired. But even though she maintained her goal of being an educator she said she never forgot the performer inside her. After SDSU she became involved in acting at San Diego Community College’s Educational-Cultural Complex.
“I started at ECC because I went to audition for a play and I found out they were teaching classes there also so then I joined one of the classes and the culminating activity was a play,” Hamilton said. “Then there were a couple of us and we started brainstorming and we said ‘why not form our own group so we can do plays when we want to do them and where we want to do them’ so that’s how we really got started.”
She said they knew right off the bat they wanted to apply for non-profit status and the original board president W.B. Hicks began the labor-intensive process. He got discouraged and was considering giving up but Hamilton, vice-president of C.A.T. at the time, figured they’d already put so much effort into it that they might as well keep trying.
“So I went through the same thing, back and forth with the paperwork and all of that and then finally we were approved because of my patience – I wouldn’t give up,” Hamilton said. “It was like a never ending process for a while but finally we got everything that we needed to be official. We just kept on it until we got it. We were very happy.”
In the meantime Hamilton said they continued performing. Since they didn’t have a place of their own at the time, they’d travel to various schools, churches, senior centers, etc., putting on plays and such. Eventually they saved up enough money to rent a storefront on Imperial Ave. that they converted into a theatre. After five years Hamilton said they had outgrown that location and were looking for something more permanent.
Cozy Set-up: Stage set at the rebuilt theatre.
“We found this place which was the old ironworks building,” Hamilton said. “It was so rundown, so dilapidated. The whole place was just like a big, big mess and everybody thought I was crazy for even wanting the building but I could see what it could be. (It) was what I felt I really wanted in a theatre so that’s what I was looking at, what I envisioned.”
So C.A.T. moved in to the location on 54th in August of 1998 and they’ve been performing there ever since. Hamilton said the remodel goal was something that was being honed over the last few years. Through fundraising, along with taking out a loan, they were able to build an almost entirely new theatre. There’s only one original wall left but aside from the foundation everything else is brand new.
As far as choosing which plays they perform, they produce a lot of original plays that are submitted as well as choosing from play catalogues. Hamilton said the basic process involves bringing a play to the board and discussing it to make sure that the director is pleased with it. She said there isn’t any real criteria for what kinds of shows they to put on and that it’s a mix of everything from dramas to comedies and musicals. She said the playwrights of the original plays aren’t typically too involved in the process. She said a couple of them have wanted to know who was directing and how it was going but other than that most just submit their plays and C.A.T. handles the rest.
They also continue to travel all over the county, and Hamilton said they even have a youth traveling troupe. Hamilton said that even though she’s loved performing for most of her life she doesn’t really act anymore. Mostly she helps run the theatre and facilitates the youth and adult acting workshops that C.A.T. hosts every Saturday. She said they’ve had the workshops since back in the days of the Imperial Ave. location and she enjoys teaching acting to students of all ages.
“I just love seeing the actors on stage performing and enjoying what they’re doing and knowing that they enjoy it and want to be here and be a part of the theatre,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said since they are a non-profit group she’s very grateful to all the people who volunteer their time to help in any way they can. She said it’s all across the board as far as what the volunteers do for the theatre.
“We used to have to recruit people but now people they just come to us,” Hamilton said. “They can help with fundraising, (build) sets, lighting, props, costumes … they help wherever we need them … we really appreciate it.”
Future plans for C.A.T. include getting the theatre finished up and getting all the rooms situated and organized. Hamilton said she also wants to get out there and advertise more to let people know they’ve reopened. She said she sees herself spending most of her time and energy on the theatre now that she’s retired and it’s up and running again.
“It’s one of my passions – I just love acting,” Hamilton said. “I just love creating something that other people enjoy seeing and sharing and being a part of. And to have something in the community that (they) can enjoy and come to and also be a part of and to know that (they) appreciate just having a theatre in the community, that means a lot to me.