WALLA WALLA -- The lobby of the Power House Theatre was a virtual green room Saturday as local actors prepared for one of the community's biggest auditions.
As one sharply dressed young man checked in at an entryway table, a curly-haired woman who'd changed from boots to heels upon arrival paced the carpet and quietly rehearsed her lines, while another duo anxiously chatted in a far corner. Many of them were familiar faces from performances at the local colleges and at The Little Theatre of Walla Walla.
"Why am I so nervous?" longtime stage performer Patty Leeper said aloud to no one in particular. "It's just, you don't get a chance to perform Shakespeare here."
The tension, as they say, was palpable.
One by one about 25 actors were accompanied to the stage behind closed doors to perform Shakespearean monologues and soliloquies of their choosing for Shakespeare Walla Walla Artistic Director Stephanie Shine.
The coming month will reveal whether they will join other actors from across the country to serve as cast for the upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet." Those not cast in the production may be considered for other parts, including this summer's "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare."
"You have to be a little nervous," said actor Topher Murphy, who planned to perform a monologue from Quince in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Murphy started the morning with a reminder to himself to go easy on the coffee. Nothing too heavy for breakfast. To a neighbor who wished him luck on his way out, he quipped that the correct phrase was "break a leg."
As with many local actors, Murphy found himself available this summer when the Walla Walla Community College Foundation canceled the annual musical at Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater due to budget setbacks. The actor has participated in all but two of the summer productions.
A successful audition would not only give him an opportunity to perform, it represents a leap to something even bigger in the local theater community.
"It's a professional theater company," he said. "It's kind of like a new beginning."
Since the opening last May, theater operators have said they want the venue and shows to not only become a major tourist draw for art-lovers but also to be a showcase of local talent.
This is the next step in that process, they say. Actress Tiffany Sinclair said she was elated to learn about the auditions.
"It's already been a godsend that professional theater has been brought to Walla Walla," she said. "What we have here is a very good opportunity."
Nevertheless, she said, the task is daunting. Talented performers who've been in production after production have rarely had a chance to perform Shakespeare. Especially in Walla Walla. And even more so alongside professionals.
"A lot of (the challenge) is the language," said Sinclair who studied theater in New York City before moving to Walla Walla in 2003. "Words we identify now had a different meaning then. Dropping a word can destroy the meaning of the line."
Thus, a tragedy can easily turn into a disaster, she explained.
Skill with language was, in fact, one quality for which Shine was looking. The artistic director said she also had her eye on personalities as she visited with potential cast members.
"I want to know our theater community," she said.
Shine said her ultimate goal is to have a world-class company, which means finding the best people possible for the shows. During a break from auditions Saturday she said she had seen "some lovely talent and some bubbly personalities with a lot of enthusiasm."
She applauded the bold choices she saw on the stage. Shine said there are about 16 spots available in the company. They will be determined over the next month or so. She didn't have an estimate of how many could be filled by local residents, but said she has "great hopes" of working with local actors on upcoming productions. That is, after all, part of the overall vision for the one-time power company building turned Shakespearean destination.
"It was always my plan that we would be of the community, for the community," Shine said. "I'm so happy this day has arrived."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.