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By DEBORA SHAULIS



Published: Thu, November 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By DEBORA SHAULIS

ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

hey're too busy.

They're uninterested.

They're too macho.

Why are men such a precious commodity in community theater these days?

"I just know we've got a really short list," says Kate Huff of Youngstown, who's directing Trumbull New Theatre's upcoming production of "To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday."

"It's more of an annoyance than anything else," says Dr. Frank Castronovo of Youngstown State University's theater department.

There's never been a better time for would-be actors to step into the spotlight.

Nothing new: The paucity of male thespians is neither a new problem nor unique to this area. As Castronovo points out, there are more women on this planet than men. Outside of the nation's top drama schools, there are many more women than men studying drama, he said.

The irony is, "literature for stage and screen is biased to men," Castronovo added.

The "little theater movement" that began after World War I led to the establishment of community groups everywhere, including in Joe Scarvell's hometown of Farrell, Pa. They were "training grounds for an awful lot of people," said Scarvell, now of Hubbard, a retired secondary school teacher who still teaches drama classes at YSU and Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pa. He has also directed shows at Youngstown Playhouse and Kent State University Trumbull Campus.

That swell of actors dwindled in the decades that followed, as the oldest ones quit or died, Scarvell said.

The local imbalance has become more noticeable lately.

Sandy Vansuch, artistic director of Oakland Center for the Arts in Youngstown, had to cancel her production of "Twelve Angry Men" because she couldn't find enough men to appear in it.

Castronovo acknowledges that it's "low tide" at YSU. Of the 60 declared theater majors, there are three times as many women as men. That ratio is "extreme," Castronovo said, but it's never been equal in his years at YSU.

Lucked out: Huff says she lucked out this time. The lead male role in "Gillian" remained unfilled after she held auditions in mid-October. Then she found a note at the Niles theater's box office from a man who had just moved here and wanted to get involved. His age and his previous acting experience made him ideal. Otherwise, Huff also may have had to cancel the play.

Even the actors themselves aren't sure why more guys aren't on stage.

Nic Chiarella of Warren, a Lakeview High School graduate, was introduced to the acting world when he was a freshman at Lakeview High School in Cortland. His girlfriend was trying out for a school play. There weren't many guys at auditions, so she encouraged him. "It was just a random thing," he said.

It's not random anymore. Chiarella is now a freshman at YSU, living on campus and studying theater and English. He may pick up photography courses as well. His goal is to be an artist. Asked if he meant visual or performance art, "Both. Everything. Writing, too," he said.

Making debut: Chiarella is making his YSU main stage debut tonight in "A Fitting Confusion" as Bassinet, a character who's "in his own world," he said.

People whom Chiarella associated with in high school were also involved in the arts. Except for some teachers, he received little feedback about his performances, he said.

Some directors believe time may be a factor.

"Finding people who have time to do community stuff of any kind is hard," Vansuch said. "The era of the volunteer seems to be waning."

More people are working, and some work multiple jobs. Some actors got involved when they were single men; now they are married with children, Huff and Vansuch said.

Students have class assignments to complete, Castronovo said.

Attitudes also come into play. In blue-collar communities, there are still men and women who are the first in their families to attend college, Castronovo said. Parents want children to find good jobs after graduation. There are no guarantees in acting, where only about 10 percent of the work force is steadily employed. "It's a very fickle occupation," he said.

Huff knows some male actors who have taken flack from peers for participating in theater.

"Around here you get that idea, that macho guys don't do theater. I get that a lot," said Huff, who was raised near Dayton and went to college in Philadelphia before she moved here.

"You didn't go to the [Youngstown] Playhouse when you worked at the steel mill," said Hugh Fagan, who was 27 and laid off from Youngstown Sheet & amp; Tube when he tried out for his first play in 1957. "You'd hunt, fish, hang out at the pool hall."

Professionals: Fagan, now 70, remembers the actors he met as a young man. They were mostly professional people -- doctors, lawyers, accountants, he said. The actresses were married to professional men, he said.

Fagan's love affair with the stage continues today. He'll play Marley in the Playhouse's production of "A Christmas Carol" and he's going to direct a Youth Theatre production of "The Little Mermaid."

"If I didn't do it, I'd be dead," Fagan said of acting. "I'm serious. It's too much fun."

The lack of men creates extra leg work for directors, who can't turn to casting agents for help because they don't exist in community theater.

It also affects what audiences see on local stages. Directors refrain from precasting shows, but "When you're picking a season you have to have a sense of who's around," Vansuch said.

Same faces: Audiences don't want to see the same faces in production after production, and neither does Huff. There are many new faces in "Gillian," she added.

Sometimes directors must consider actors who may be younger than desired for certain roles, Huff said. Often, makeup tricks keep the age disparity from being too distracting to audiences.

Age appropriateness matters to Fagan. "You can't keep doing legitimate shows on that stage with the youngsters in them," he said. He doesn't diminish their contributions: "We have good kids ... some so talented it's unbelievable."

Still, "You can't do 'The King and I' with a 20-year-old kid and a 15-year-old girl," he added.

Directors also look for roles that aren't gender-specific, Castronovo said.

Marifrances Conrad is portraying The Artful Dodger in TNT's current production of "Oliver." An actress also played Number One Son last year in "The King and I," Huff said.

Maybe the area needs more acting classes to spark men's interest, Huff suggested.

More to it: Acting can lead to more than starring roles in feature films. The entertainment industry has thousands of possibilities in technical work, trade shows and more, Castronovo said. YSU's theater degree program requires all students to know the basics of acting, even if they'll never appear in another show.

People don't have to have professional aspirations or be of a certain age to participate in community theater, Vansuch said. "It's never too late to learn. It's never too late to have that kind of fun -- and it is fun."




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