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Curtain-Raiser 

NAThalia Stage Ensemble debuts with 'Six Windows, One House.'

Steve Anderson insists that he's "very fond of the humanness" in theater pieces--not the sort of declaration you'd expect from a guy who runs a troupe named for an ancient Greek muse and a swimming pool.

The NAThalia Stage Ensemble, the 14-member resident theater company at Muse, is wading decisively into the human condition with its premiere production January 8-16. Yes, wading, not diving, for the show is a series of 10- to 25-minute playlets Anderson has grouped under the title Six Windows, One House. Yet Anderson promises that whatever a one-act play necessarily lacks in depth it makes up for in clarity. A concise one-act play can help us see straight to the bottom of murky human affairs.

"NAThalia" owes the capitalized part of its name to the term "natatorium;" Anderson and the other people who run Muse intend to convert the old swimming pool in the building, a former YMCA, into a theater (see "The Tenth Muse," December 27, 2001). This will take a couple of years, so meanwhile the group is performing elsewhere in the building and focusing on the second part of its name: Thalia was the Greek muse of comedy and pastoral poetry.

The NAThalia Stage Ensemble functions quite differently from any other local theater group. A company typically brings together a mostly new cast and crew for each production, everyone going their separate ways once the show closes. NAThalia, in contrast, is anchored in a class Anderson teaches at Muse every Saturday afternoon. The company's founding members enrolled a year ago, and began working not on Six Windows, One House but on more general acting skills: movement, relaxation, focus and improvisation to develop the actors' confidence in their own impulsiveness.

Anderson admits that some experienced local actors balked at having to take a weekly class in order to belong to the company; the practice is far more common among dancers than actors. But those who did literally pay their dues and join NAThalia aren't necessarily beginners. Guy Castonguay, for example, has appeared in several TV movies and stage productions. American Conservatory Theatre-trained Maryann K.F. Green wrangles drama students at Rincon/University High School. Harris Kendall has a recurring role on Days of Our Lives and, though still young, is a veteran of other soap operas and commercials.

Among the company's other members are such local stage regulars as Linda Andresano, Jack Halstead, William Killian and the obsessively lower-case charly van den berg.

Anderson says that his goal is eventually to eliminate company dues and reverse the money flow, actually paying people for their work. That probably won't happen for a while; Anderson realizes he's not doing NAThalia any box-office favors by opening with an evening of little-known one-act plays. "It probably wasn't the best choice in terms of audience development," he acknowledges. "You usually want to launch a company with something recognizable, something that everybody in town is automatically going to want to see. But my main point was for everybody in the company to work on this first show. Had some of the people not fit into this one, they would have gone more than a year without getting on stage here."

Anderson intends to correct his marketing mistake--if, indeed, it's an error to avoid something that's been done again and again--with NAThalia's April-May production. The script hasn't yet been chosen, but Anderson is dropping names like Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Hellman and Odets--"something pretty well-known and actor-driven that will get as many people in the company working as we can."

Anderson and his company members are also assembling a four-production season for 2003-04, and promising the public some behind-the-scenes peeks as well. "I'd like for audience members to be able to come into a class with some lighting thrown on it, put two bucks in a jar and watch people doing scene work for two hours and really get to know the actors," Anderson says. "If we can start making really personal connections with the audience, then we can get to the point where people will trust us if we try to do some very challenging plays. We'd like to do things that don't just entertain people, but that get them thinking--they leave the theater and say, 'That wasn't the easiest thing to get through, but it was well done, and I'm a better person for it.'"

Meanwhile, NAThalia will ease into its relationship with the audience with the half-dozen approachable plays in Six Windows, One House. Whether serious or comic or both, all deal with problematic human connections. The bill of fare: Does This Woman Have a Name? by Theresa Rebeck, Bread by Andy Backer, Rain by Garry Williams, Random Ax by Tucsonan Jesse Greenberg, The Man Who Couldn't Dance by Jason Katims and The Dying Gaul by Craig Lucas.

These plays cover everything from a dysfunctional farm family to urban phone sex, but they have one thing in common, and it's the same thing Anderson explores in his weekly acting classes: human vulnerability, and how we can turn it to our advantage.

"We're always searching," says Anderson. "We're always after answers to the questions that life keeps giving us. And that search is what we want to see onstage when the lights come up."

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