By Merle Exit
After the Park Place Seaport Theatre in Rockaway Beach closed in September 1997, the recently formed Rockaway Theatre Co. was left without a place to perform.
But rather than pack it in, the theater’s board of directors contacted the administrators of Ft. Tilden to see if the actors could use the stage which once hosted USO entertainment for the troops.
The building, which did not have running water, working bathrooms, heat or air conditioning, suddenly became the fledgling company’s new home.
“Most community theater groups do not have their own space,” Susan Corning of Rockaway Theatre Co. said. “Each time a show is performing you have to be concerned about taking down the sets.”
Now, 17 years and several renovations later, the theater is gearing up for its next production of what many critics considered one of the greatest American musicals of all time, “Gypsy.”
Based on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the show includes such classic songs as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You” and “Together (Wherever We Go).”
“When I was a senior at the University of Texas, I played the part of (Gypsy) Louise and loved it,” said Corning, who is directing “Gypsy.”
Corning, who began her relationship with RTC as an audience member, was impressed with the rustic 200-seat venue as well as the caliber of actors on stage.
Having studied acting at college, Corning decided to audition for a RTC production of “Steel Magnolias.” She landed the lead part.
More appearances on RTC’s stage led her backstage, where she worked as an assistant director before stepping into the role of director.
Memorabilia from her prior directing and acting involvement at RTC were lost as Corning was one of many victims of a flooded basement, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Ft. Tilden also suffered some damage, but RTC managed to get the theater back up and running with a delayed 2012 season closer of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in March 2013, despite juggling repair work with rehearsing off-site.
“Gypsy” came with its own set of challenges, Corning said.
“What posed as a bit of an issue was the opening number with 15 young children. Most of them are expected to be on stage for about four minutes and not return until two hours later for a curtain call,” Corning said. “Six of them take on the role as newsies with other children portraying Baby June and Baby Louise. I think we’ll have it all worked out, though.”
Perhaps it has to do with RTC’s Young People’s Theatre Workshop, which runs for five months culminating with a Broadway-quality musical production that is performed on the main stage. In addition to these classes offered to children ages 8 to 18, various workshops in both the performing arts and behind the scenes are available.
“Many of the students wind up with roles in our major productions,” Corning said. “The kids in the first scene are aware of how important an opening scene is and are and willing to have their four minutes of fame.”
The cast is made up of many RTC regulars, and includes former Forest Hills High School guidance counselor Luisa Boyaggi as Mama Rose, David Risley as Herbie, Kim Simek as Louise and Leigh Dillon, a sophomore at Fort Hamilton High School, as Baby June.
“Many of the actors are teachers and all have full-time jobs with a few that are using community theatre as a hopeful stepping stone to Broadway or other phases of the arts,” Corning said.
If You Go
When: Weekends July 18 to Aug. 3
Where: Rockaway Theatre Co., The Post Theatre, Building T4, Ft. Tilden, Rockaway
Cost: $20/adults, $15/seniors and children
Contact: (718) 374-6400