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The perfect stage for love to flourish

Posted by Marcia Dick  September 9, 2011 10:04 AM

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Matthew F. Ringel

Theatre@First regular Nick Zendzian proposes (for real) to Amy Lee Bennett at a 2008 curtain call.

In "As You Like It," staged in Davis Square through Sunday (Sept, 11) by the Somerville community theater group Theatre@First, Jacques declares famously that all the world's a stage, and that men have seven ages spanning birth, youth, courtship, maturity, and decline.

It turns out that Theatre@First is doing an unexpectedly good job at the third age: courtship. In the last few years, at least 12 members have married each other, by artistic director Elizabeth Hunter's count. And with six babies born in 2011 alone, the company is seriously considering professional childcare for productions.

Call it love at Theatre@First sight.

baby.jpgTheir stories would make Will Shakespeare kvell. Mike Babish, 34, met Kerri Babish née Centrella in the very first T@F production, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," in 2004. Kerri had a boyfriend, but working on T@F productions helped keep her and Mike close until strong heart finally won fair lady. Their daughter Gloria (left) turns 1 today (Sept. 9).

Shaunna Francis, 33, met Matt Kimmel, 38, in 2005 at Mike Babish's movie night teeming with T@Fers. She signed up to audition for Kimmel's production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." When she flubbed the tryout, she thought the cute guy would be forever beyond her grasp … not knowing the cute guy had the same fear. They were married in 2009.

Jen Giordano, 33, was new to theater when she was cast with Cheryl Bellows, 26, of Cambridge in "The Rimers of Eldritch" in 2008. "I so clearly remember Jen walking into auditions," Bellows said in an e-mail. "I was definitely intrigued." A month into rehearsals, she asked Giordano out for a cup of coffee. They got married this Memorial Day.

In 2007, Alyssa Osiecki, 31, and Andy Hicks, 32, of Arlington were cast as teenage best friends in a one-act called "The Kiss." It was one fast introduction. "We did kiss on stage before we kissed in real life," Osiecki said in an e-mail. "Nobody believes me when I tell them how awkward that is." They announced their engagement at an "As You Like It" rehearsal this week.

And no one earns more points for drama than Nick and Amy Lee Bennett-Zendzian of Somerville, who met working on a summer festival in 2006. At the 2008 summer festival, Nick proposed on stage during the curtain call. The cast and crew were in on the surprise; the sound board operator even changed the music to the couple's favorite song.

What is it about T@F that's made it Somerville's best hidden dating service?

All interviewed agreed that with its stress, excitement, close quarters, and vulnerability, theater provides the perfect stage for love to flourish.

Putting on a show "creates an atmosphere ideal for intense bonding: seeing people regularly at rehearsals, long nights before opening, crowded and intimate backstage spaces, cast parties," Amy Bennett-Zendzian said in an e-mail.

"You're building something together," said Francis, who's been involved in theater since childhood. "It's more emotional than other hobbies."

The official dating seems to start right as a production ends, Hunter said. "People are like 'Hey! I'm not going to see you four times a week unless I do something about it!'"

Whether they wait or not, everyone knows. "As an observer, my experience has been that if people have become involved there's no point in hiding it," said Tom Champion, former "Voice of Somerville" and a T@F mainstay since 2008.

While Hollywood may be associated with on-set flings and nasty divorces, it's different in a local group where everyone sticks around. At T@F, "I've only seen couples come together," Champion said.

"Our sort of unofficial motto is 'More theater, less drama,'" Hunter said. In fact, Francis dated Babish years ago — after meeting through community theater in Hudson — and ended up good friends.

It's not at all unique to T@F, Nick Bennett-Zendzian said in an e-mail: "I've worked with seven different community theater groups around the Boston area over the last five years, and all of them have stories like this."

Still, T@F's regulars thought the company might offer a particularly friendly and supportive environment.

"There are community theater organizations that are cliquish and very hierarchical, and don't have the degree of collegiality that T@F provides," Champion said.

"People who become a part of this company aren't just looking to do a show, they're looking for community," Osiecki said.

Bellows falls into that category herself. "Neither Jen nor I went to T@F specifically looking to meet a romantic partner. We went because we wanted to be a part of something," she said.

The romantic successes signify, to Hunter, that the company is meeting its goal of being "a theater that creates community," she said. "A real community is a place where people can find romantic connection, have children."

So, singles, should you consider auditioning for the next production?

Definitely, Francis said: "If you want to meet people this is the way to do it. Plus it's just fun."

Nick Bennett-Zendzian also recommends theater to friends looking for partners. However, none has followed his lead. "I think it has to do with the fact that they're not theater people to begin with," he said. "You have to love theater first and foremost to be able to keep up with how crazy it can get. Otherwise you probably won't have a good time."

Champion agreed: "You have to be a theater geek and not everyone is."

That said, the definition of "theater person" goes far beyond "diva."

"We could really use more accountants!" Hunter said. "We have a lot of work and a lot of fun for people with a lot of interests and talents." The company needs those people, she said, "to keep it running ... and to give the leading ladies someone to date."

Theatre@First will hold auditions for a staged reading later this fall. Auditions for the spring production of "Pride and Prejudice" are November 28–29.

Danielle Dreilinger writes the Somerville Scene column. E-mail her at somervillescene@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter.



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