“Originally, [the company] started as part of a church, [and] like a lot of community theaters, began in a church basement,” said Seth Ghitelman, who said he’s been chairman of the organization’s board “for six or seven seasons.”
In this case, it was the Church of the Ascension on Sligo Avenue in Silver Spring. The group was made up of church members and known as the Ascension Players, according to a history of the organization.
Later, the group incorporated as a nonprofit, ecumenical expansion sponsored by the church, opened up plays for participants from the community, and changed the name to the Silver Spring Community Players.
“It was all right for a couple of years,” Ghitelman said, “until they determined they wanted to do ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and all of the sudden the church was no longer as thrilled about their artistic choices.”
So the group started looking for its own space. The late Chester Keller, owner and manager of the shopping center, gave them a good deal on rent in the unused basement level, most of which had housed a bowling alley and a karate studio (now the rehearsal hall).
After a lot of volunteer construction work and a name change to Silver Spring Stage, Inc., the first production, three one-act plays, opened on March 6, 1970.
Ghitelman began working with the theater group in 2001. His background is in theater and arts administration, but he said he always wanted to be involved as an actor and a director. He got the chance to direct a one-act play, which is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to direct for the main stage.
“I’d worked with other community theaters and they tend to do a very conservative kind of—their artistic bent is not as open it is here,” he said. “That wasn’t really what I wanted to do.”
The stage set-up is also an advantage, he said, with seating on two sides of the performance.
“We like to do theater that really touches you and is emotionally involving to you,” Ghitelman said. “Part of being that close to the actors and feeling that you’re in the same room is really important.”
The all-volunteer group includes young actors on the verge of becoming professionals, people who wanted to be actors but for who it never quite worked out, student lighting and set designers looking for résumé-building opportunities, and people who simply like to be involved in the theater.
Recently, the organization had some market research done to better understand the audience.
“We discovered the shows that people really liked, what they came to expect from us, were more of the cutting-edge shows, more of the modern shows,” Ghitelman said.
So while the seasons had offered a mix of standards and modern shows, Ghitelman said, “We made a change and said ‘You know what, we’re going to focus on what people expect out of us.’”
Sometimes the shows sell well, and sometimes not, he said, but he thinks they’ve found their niche in a highly competitive market.
“We do contemporary works, we do them at prices that you would not—downtown, you’d have to pay a lot, so we like to think of ourselves as downtown theater at suburban prices,” Ghitelman said.
“If people know they’re going to come here and the quality of the show is going to be high, even if they don’t like the play, they will say, ‘Well, I wasn’t cheated,’” he added.
For the 50th season, they’ve chosen to perform one play from each decade they’ve been open, plays that were considered cutting-edge for the times.
“That kind of fits with our current mission as well as really celebrate what’s gone on here in the past,” Ghitelman said.
In addition, there are two “bookend” plays on the schedule and an annual holiday show.
Next week, Silver Spring Stage is holding auditions for the holiday show, which will be Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
The director is looking for at least 17 children, ages kindergarten and up, as well as eight adults for the cast. Auditions will be held Saturday, September 23 from 1-5 p.m. and Sunday, September 24 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. at the theater.
Sidney Bruhl played by J.McAndrew Breen. Photo by Harvey Levine courtesy Silver Spring Stage.