Some innovative new community theater programs are taking root in a place you might not think to look.
Malls typically bring to mind department stores, kiosks, and food courts filled with shoppers. They’re not usually a hot spot for theater troupes to entertain audiences with cutting-edge, contemporary plays and popular classics.
So, it’s refreshing to see Penguin Point Productions making creative use of prime retail space at the Oviedo Mall and enriching the community via the arts. Penguin Point, which opened at the mall last January, is a one-stop shop for community theater, costume rentals, performing arts classes, and theater camps. Passersby often do a double take when they see the sprawling setup, which fills three storefronts.
“I think they’re surprised there’s a theater in the mall,” laughs James Brendlinger, Penguin Point’s founder and owner. “I think it’s ideal. I love it.”
Three very different theater groups are in residence there, including The Young Company, an educational acting troupe for students and younger adults. James, who runs The Young Company, has a wealth of experience in educational theater. The Winter Springs resident was Lake Howell High School’s theater director for 21 years, where he produced more than 160 plays and musicals.
For The Young Company, he selects a mix of classic and modern shows to educate and challenge the actors, including plays by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Oscar Wilde.
The other two groups that perform at Penguin Point’s black box theater are The Ensemble Company, a repertory troupe of professional actors, and Still Got It Players South, a troupe for actors who are age 50 or older.
“There’s something for every experience level and every age level here,” James says. “Our goal from the beginning was to build community at Oviedo Mall, and these are three ways we’re seeing that come to fruition.”
Matthew MacDermid, founder and producing artistic director of The Ensemble Company, adores musical theater. But it’s the plays that really get his creative juices flowing.
“The opportunities I’ve had to direct plays have been the best experiences of my life – even better than the musicals have been,” the Sanford resident says.
Matthew has a degree in musical theater from Flagler College and more than 25 years of experience as a professional actor, director, and stage manager. With The Ensemble Company, he presents a mix of familiar, classic fare and bold, newer works.
In its debut season, the company has already produced Other Desert Cities and The Niceties, both contemporary dramas, and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a buzzed-about, experimental play. In November, the troupe will present the popular play The Lion in Winter, which was made into a 1968 movie starring Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, and Anthony Hopkins. And in December, the company will present The Santaland Diaries and Season’s Greetings, a pair of caustically comedic short plays by David Sedaris that are for mature elves only.
“Next season, I want to build on what we’ve started and do things that are even more challenging,” Matthew says.
Debbie Lannen, artistic director of Still Got It Players South, was inspired to start the troupe because of a cold, hard truth: Actors simply can’t portray the ingenue or dashing young hero forever. Her group gives adults who are 50 or older ample opportunity to showcase their skills in shows featuring mature characters.
“I’m of that age, and as much as we might want to, we can’t play Dorothy [from The Wizard of Oz] anymore,” says Debbie, who lives in Orlando. “We’ve outgrown her.”
Debbie majored in theater at Wayne State University and has extensive directing and playwriting experience. Still Got It Players South performed for about a year-and-a-half in Orlando before partnering with Penguin Point. This season the troupe has performed several comedies, including two short plays written by Debbie, herself.
In January, the company will present the popular play, Love Letters, written by A.R. Gurney. The moving, two-person show has been performed many times on and off-Broadway, featuring a who’s-who list of famous actors.
Although Still Got It Players South is designed for older actors, Debbie notes that she’s fairly lax on the age requirement.
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“I don’t check birth certificates,” she cracks, “so if you’re 49 and don’t mind being considered 50, go right ahead and audition.”