Putting the Community in Community Theater

Light spills into the room and onto the dusty carpet through four frosted panes of glass set in a door across from the stage. Except for a couple banks of lights, now switched off, and a few tables, the room is empty.

In the middle of the room, Calvert Whitehurst — you can call him Cal — paces out the rough outline of his character’s stage direction for an upcoming production called Next Fall. It’s a love story about two men, one of whom is confined to a hospital bed.

“There will be people sitting right there,” he says, pointing to the ground. “And I have to pretend that they’re not there and that there’s a sort of bank of medical devices.”

Cal is a member of Port City Playhouse, a small, all-volunteer community theater that operates out of a mixed-use space in the Church at Convergence in suburban Alexandria, Va.

“It’s not like we can go out and rent a bunch of hospital monitoring equipment,” he says. “So people have to say, ‘Oh, I see what he’s doing. He’s checking out the little TV screen that has the numbers on it, and he at least can hear the beep-beep-beep of the echocardiogram.’”

Cal has served on the Port City board, with a few interruptions, for about 11 years, and he shows no signs of stopping. When he’s not on stage in a production himself, he’s climbing ladders or helping work a light board.

“You can always find actors, always find directors, you can usually find a good sound and light person, but rarely do you find the people to volunteer,” he says.

And volunteers are the lifeblood of any community theater, says Cal. Stages need repainting, lights need to be moved, someone has to help actors with costume changes. And because they put on shows in a shared space, everything needs to be cleaned up afterward. It requires a certain level of commitment that, now 64 years old, Cal only rediscovered later in life.

“Instead of buying a Maserati or taking a mistress, I decided that my midlife crisis would be: ‘I really enjoyed theater when I took it in college, why don’t I take that up again?’”

His first experience as a lead actor was with Port City in 2001, in a production of Because He Can, the story of a couple whose lives were ruined by a computer hacker. He played the part of the husband, a respectable businessman.

It was an experience that still resonates with him, not just because it was his first lead, but because it was the first time he was reviewed by a local writer for The Washington Post.

“I came winkling down stairs like a little child on Christmas morning to read the paper where [the reviewer] had said about my performance: ‘Loud, blunt, amateurish over-acting,’” says Cal. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of harsh!’”

That characterization of his early acting is still a sore spot for Cal — as is evident from the readiness with which he can recall the stinging words — but it’s a sentiment which Cal’s friends and colleagues readily rebuke.

Robert Epstein, with whom Cal studied acting for about three years, speaks glowingly about Cal’s “finesse” as an actor and his unflinchingly positive outlook on life.

“Cal was one of my favorite students, who always approached the class with his great sense of humor, including his sly wit, and a real sense of professional perfection,” Epstein says.

Mary Ayala-Bush, who has both acted alongside Cal as well as directed him in a recent production of Six Degrees of Separation, echoed that sentiment.

“He is not unlike the senior statesman of the ensemble and brings a fun but genteel manner to the productions he is a part of,” she says.

Being a part of this mutually-supporting community of artists is as much of a draw as the prospect of being on stage. It can make even theater’s most droll work something worth doing.

“At first, volunteering is an obligation, but then it becomes a pleasure after a while, because you know these people, and really come to enjoy them,” he says.

Ambling slowly towards the door, Cal pauses to look back at the stage as he digs in his pockets for his gloves and then winds his scarf around his neck.

He says he sometimes worries that a smaller and smaller percentage of the population shares his enthusiasm for the arts. There’s a sense that with so much competition in terms of entertainment, with all the screens occupying peoples’ attention, that theater productions — and the communities they sustain — are being left behind.

He continues to look at the stage in a pose of quiet contemplation, before his face lights up again and he turns toward the door.

“Well, if nothing else, community theater will always be in 3D!”

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