Stage struck

Barbara Horrigan joined a community theater in 1933. She's never left.

The stage was set. It was the night of the final dress rehearsal of Arthur Miller's play "The Price."

Actors and crew members at Arlington Friends of Drama, one of America's oldest community theaters, scrambled to put on costumes, rehearse their lines, and cake rouge on their faces with thick, foamy sponges.

Barbara Horrigan, the play's makeup artist, had two hours to transform a 30-year-old actor into the 90-something antique dealer – and only pocket change with which to do it.

Her solution? A papiér-mâche-like wrinkling technique of Kleenex and gummy adhesive. She carefully plastered the thin layers of tissue over the actor's hands, neck, and face and left him to dry.

But she forgot one important step.

Standing on stage in front of a packed audience, the actor put his hands – covered in gooey Kleenex – in his pockets, and couldn't get them back out again.

"They got stuck!" Horrigan exclaims. "I forgot to powder him down!"

Happily, the audience didn't seem to notice. "We had a good laugh," she says.

Horrigan has spent 70 years at Arlington Friends, where home-grown talent and good company abound. Over the decades, she's designed 38 sets, turning the 20-foot stage into a towering jungle and transforming men into lions.

She's spent plenty of time in the spotlight herself, and as she reminisces, she changes accents like socks – here an Irish brogue, there a Southern drawl.

In the decades she's devoted to Arlington Friends, she's watched this close-knit group evolve from an elite "ladies' " social club started in 1923 to a vibrant, diverse theater that is more than 600 members strong.

"The longtime members referred to it as a club ... one person even called it a lonely hearts club," says Leah Cohen, author of "The Stuff of Dreams," about Arlington Friends. "For the six weeks leading up to a show, [members] are giving their lives over to theater ... but the secondary purpose is providing a nurturing, family structure."

Tucked into a historic, tree-lined street, this group is similar to the 7,000 community theaters across America that unite neighborhoods on stage through a love of prose, music, and Shakespearean drama. There's a backyard ambiance that runs alongside a Broadway passion.

And, like many community theaters around the country, it continues to thrive, despite competition from busier lifestyles and a broader range of leisure activities, says Julie Angelo of the American Association of Community Theater. At Arlington's last open audition, "Into the Woods," a record 170 people tried out for 18 slots.

"[People] may have a dull job, and this allows them to use their imagination," says Horrigan, a self-described "ham."

At Arlington, she says, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and aspiring actors from all over New England devote up to 40 hours at night and on weekends during the weeks leading up to a show. Some even take vacations from their jobs. And most pay for the privilege: $55 a year.

"I once worked 16 hours a day" painting vines and cutting cloth flowers for the set of "South Pacific" in the 1950s, she recalls.

Horrigan, who combines a sharp wit with a gentle smile, doesn't put in those kinds of hours anymore. But she has no plans to exit the stage – right or left. In December, she acted in her 31st role, "The Cripple of Innishmaan," a black comedy.

"It was great: I didn't have to move. I was in bed the whole time," she says, sitting in the theater's downstairs greenroom.

Before a show, members gather here in the evenings to sew costumes and chat on the floral Victorian sofa. Many members have grown up painting sets, baking cookies for casts, and acting in plays. That camaraderie spills over into real life, as well. During times of divorce or illness, members will step in, offering to run errands or baby-sit.

There's even the occasional stint at matchmaking. Dorothy Santos, who's been with Arlington since 1952, met her husband on a blind date arranged by theater friends. Later, another member helped her husband find a job.

Directing Horrigan was always fun, says Ms. Santos. "I was able to trust her as an actress.... She's taught me to be more diplomatic. She's always been good at making subtle recommendations."

Horrigan first took the stage at age 5, when she helped a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. She joined the Arlington Friends at age 18, at the encouragement of her principal's wife, who had seen her act in the school play.

That was in 1933. In her first role, Horrigan played a Southern belle in "Up Pops the Devil" and spoke in a drawl that "stuck with me for years."

"The education I've gotten in New England theater is priceless. Your mind is constantly being challenged," she says. For instance, although her grandma taught her to knit when she was 3, she's refined her sewing skills here making costumes for plays like "Taming of the Shrew."

As she flips through scrapbooks of black-and-white photos that capture her seven decades on stage, Horrigan points out those who have turned pro over the years: Betsy Norden, who sang for the Met in the 1970s, and Russell Morash, who now produces the TV show "This Old House."

But Horrigan says she never felt the lure of Broadway. Professional theater doesn't appear to have the same warmth and connectivity, she says. "You [act] for the money, not the pleasure," she says. "They've done it so many times, it seems rote.... In community theater, there is an invisible communication between actors and audience."

As she leafs through the scrapbooks, she points to a picture of her taken in the 1950s, as Cousin Cora in "Life With Father." "I looked gorgeous!" she belts out in the upper-class British accent she adopted for the role. Horrigan wore her great-grandmother's gold satin and plush velvet dress from the 1800s. "My husband loved me in that role," she recalls with a grin.

Borrowed or homemade finery and actors who supply their own makeup are the rule in community theater, where members make do with a budget of just a couple of thousand dollars per play.

"If there's an expensive prop you need, you get creative," Horrigan says.

But while money may be tight, there's plenty of unscripted humor. For example, during the middle of her performance in "Portrait in Black" in the 1950s, Horrigan says her face suddenly turned fuchsia.

"Did you forget your lines?" the lead man whispered. She hadn't, but during a fast costume change she had forgotten to button her black dress.

"Thankfully, my undergarments matched the dress, and I was sitting down. The audience didn't notice," she says.

But there came a time when she did indeed forget her lines.

"I lost my concentration and blew it ... every night. In all my years, I'd never missed a line," she says of her stint in "The Natural Look."

Fearing another lapse, she stayed backstage for nine years.

When Arlington was formed in 1923, it was an elite women's club that performed one-act plays only for members and their spouses. There were waiting lists and strict membership requirements. "Back then, we never said we were going to the theater – we said we were going to the club," Horrigan says.

Plays were vetted by the founders, "little old ladies who sat in the front row of every play," Horrigan says. They ran mostly Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. "They were frustrated actresses who wanted to bring theater to Arlington."

The club opened up to men a few years later "because women got tired of playing men's roles," she says.

Arlington has since become more open and diverse. "We run plays that would have shocked" the ladies, Horrigan says with a laugh. "You can't grow without some risk."

But one drawback about greater openness for many theaters is that it's led to a growing number of gypsies, or members who hop from group to group. There are always plenty of volunteers to stand in the spotlight, but fewer who are interested in working it.

In addition, Horrigan sees fewer families spending their weekends together at the theater. There seem to be more single parents, she says, but also busier schedules.

For Horrigan, the Friends were always a family affair. Her grandmother, mother, and sisters would all work together on the plays. "When we were all here, there was no generation gap," she recalls. "The atmosphere was different from home."

Over the years, other members have come to seem like family to her as well. Those strong ties proved vital when her husband died in 1991, she says. "What's kept me going all these years is my theater friends," she says.

She and her husband, James, met in the 1930s at church camp in Maine, where they both put on summer plays. He helped out backstage at Arlington, but they never got a chance to act together. His job, she says, was too demanding.

Horrigan never had children or a full-time career, so she devoted her days to the stage, juggling her roles and makeup brushes with church and family. Her niece, Deirdre Adams, came to share her love of the theater.

Ms. Adams's first memory was standing under the spotlight, age 5, during a small scene in "The Rivals," while Horrigan watched her from the audience.

"Barbara was always in the theater – my biggest memories are of her backstage managing," says Adams, a grandmother who helps run a theater program at a junior high school in New Hampshire. "She is truly a theater person."

The other Arlington members appear to agree. In the front row of the 200-seat theater, where the ladies used to hold court, is a seat with a brass plaque. On it is engraved Horrigan's name.

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