Photo: Pacific Repertory Theatre artistic director Stephen Moorer has led his company through 20 years of tragedy and comedy. This year the company reprises shows from its past, including Molly Sweeney (Julie Hughett pictured) and Oliver! (with Mark Jacobs and Vinny Cardinale).

Photographer: Randy Tunnell

Inside

the Golden Bough Theatre in Carmel, home of Pacific Repertory Theatre, the Little Shop of Horrors set is being dismantled. Two men lug the evil dentist''s turquoise chair outside. A sign with a bloody tooth dangles off a chair in the 300-seat house. Lumber is in piles across the stage.

Company founder and artistic director Stephen Moorer strides gracefully around the mess in the building that Pac Rep, as it''s come to be called, just finished paying off. It''s the same building Moorer used to sneak into to play with stored props and costumes when he was still a drama student at Carmel High. He celebrated his ownership of the Golden Bough in proper fashion.

"We had a mortgage-burning party," he laughs, throwing up his hands. "We had tech guys in welding masks blow it up onstage."

This is a big year for the company. Besides being one of a handful of regional theater companies to own its own home (which also houses the 90-seat Circle Theatre downstairs), Pac Rep is turning 20, going professional, and having an anniversary gala on April 27.

Of these, going pro is the greatest indicator of the company''s evolving character, so to speak. The decision to become a professional theater meant joining Actor''s Equity Union. That means Pac Rep can now give the higher-paying, status-enhancing equity contracts to its actors, giving them a jump start in their careers as professionals. But more important for the company as a whole is the fact that union membership bestows on Pac Rep a kind of professional blessing. And that means the company can attract professional actors who otherwise wouldn''t even consider walking onto its stage.

The impetus to go pro came last year when Moorer received a phone call from Maury Ginsberg, an actor who had been appearing in an Indiana production of Chekhov''s drama The Cherry Orchard.

"I was sitting at my desk when Ginsberg called and asked, ''Would you be interested in Olympia Dukakis in The Cherry Orchard?'' Moorer recalls. "I thought for about one millisecond and said yes."

That started the pro ball rolling, but it also confirmed the company''s dedication to offering theater that challenges the audience.

"When most people think of box-office they don''t think of Chekhov," Moorer says. "Luckily I don''t think in terms of box-office."

"We''d do really well if all we did was Neil Simon and Rodgers and Hammerstein-civic light stuff," he says. "But we fill the need for Shakespeare and tragedies and the stuff nobody touches because it''s a harder sell."

Actor Michael Jacobs, who has been with the company since 1987-five years after its start as GroveMont Community Theatre-was the first to join the union, and this year is reprising his 1997 role of Fagin in Oliver! "Michael was more than ready-he''s a true pro," says Moorer.

Then there are those who decided not to turn equity, out of fear they would price themselves out of the market. One is the gifted actor who most recently played Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. "Tim Hart, who is as talented as any equity actor, told me he didn''t want to compete for the only two slots in each show," says Moorer. (It will take time for Pac Rep to become a full equity outfit, so for the time being it is required only to have two equity actors per production.)

Obviously going pro is not a choice without consequence. But Moorer emphasizes that the financial burden for the company is the main struggle, not loss of creative vision or opportunities for local actors.

"We don''t want to be an economic barrier to theater," Moorer says. But having to import professional actors into Carmel for weeks at a time and pay union salaries gets expensive, and will necessitate some increase in ticket costs-such as the $10 surcharge for Cherry Orchard.

And as PacRep matures and a higher percentage of actors is required in each production, it will be financially unfeasible to have a 40- or 50-person show, like West Side Story, and casts will shrink.

Still, Moorer insists that there are plenty of roles available for non-union actors. Company members tend to stick around, as evidenced by the high number of actors who are recreating their original roles this year. Little Shop was the first in a season of reprises from the company''s past 20 years.

In going back to roles, it was impossible for actors not to bring life changes to the parts.

"Everybody grows out of life experiences," says Moorer, who will be recreating his 1988 role of John Merrick in Elephant Man. "The staging, timing, character and mechanics of directing are all affected by our memories," he says.

The theme of the 20th anniversary season, "Looking Back...Moving Forward," seems appropriate. "I recently got an email from director/actor Joseph Chaikin," says Moorer, widening his eyes. "Joseph Chaikin! He said he was interested in doing Medea with us and wants Patti LuPone to play the role."

Still, for all the excitement on the horizon, Moorer insists that the company will remain true to its mission.

"We are a regional theater and have to be responsive to the entire area," he says, "not just a few."

"Two Decades of Laughter and Tears-Celebrating Pacific Repertory''s 20th Anniversary" will take place Saturday, April 27 at the Ferrante room of the Monterey Marriot Hotel. Tickets are $150 and include dinner, an auction, and performances by the Forever Plaids and other characters. 622-0100.

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