To Christopher Dollas, losing the space of the Georgetown Theatre Workshop is like cutting off his left arm. Fellow actor Lou Dispenza fears it will no hit him until it's over.
When "Poison Pen Letters to Practically Everyone" opens tonight, it may be the next to the last production staged at the former Grange Hall on Pleasant Street in Georgetown. The historic building is on the market; and once it is sold, it could be the end of an era for one of the region's oldest theater workshops.
Dispenza still remembers seeing the space for the first time in 1974, a cavernous room on the second floor with a stage and rent for a steal. The members of the Georgetown Theatre Workshop could not believe their luck.
Over the next 38 years, the workshop would stage 91 different plays, inexperienced actors would grow seasoned, strangers would become family; there would be standing ovations, flubbed lines, even a proposal.
"I had hoped to make it to 40 years," Dispenza said. "It's like a long relationship, like losing somebody."
On a recent Wednesday morning, Dispenza, who spent 42 years as a teacher in the Newburyport Public Schools, took a seat at a table near the stage where a pile of fur coats from a previous play remained. The walls were covered with framed posters, the oldest with cutout pictures of the featured actors and the title scribbled by hand, the more recent glossy and professionally printed.
There was his favorite play, "I Hate Hamlet," in 1993 that featured himself as John Barrymore in tights, wielding a sword. At the end, the audience rose to their feet. There was "Death Trap" in 1982 that Dispenza recalled hypnotized the crowd with a fight scene so intense that everyone fell totally silent.
There was "The Sensuous Senator" in 2007 that drew a record 300 people during five nights, well above the goal of 200 people per play. There was "Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick," which played out in 100-degree heat during two days in August in 1975. The group has tried to avoid the summer months ever since, Dispenza said with a chuckle.
Every play is captured on 60 tapes that Dispenza keeps at his Georgetown home. One treasured sequence shows Dispenza acting opposite his late wife, Carol, in the 2009 production of "Love Letters." Together they made the workshop their life, producing, writing and acting, he said.
"Lou is the anchor," said Ann Jaroncyk, who joined the group five years ago with parts at the Actors Studio and the Firehouse Center for the Arts, both in Newburyport, on her resume. "He loves theater, he loves, loves, loves it."
In 1974, Dispenza, 41, was new to acting. He said he used to travel to Boston to see all kinds of plays and thought Kirk Douglas was especially impressive. With a fundraiser at the Congregational Church in Georgetown came the first opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream to perform. After a couple of productions, the group decided at a cast party to find a permanent space.
Dollas, also a retired Newburyport teacher and a self-taught actor, landed the role as Skeet Skinner in the group's first play, "Bertha, the Beautiful Typewriter Girl," at the new venue.
"I had the first line, I still remember it," Dollas said. "It was my claim to fame."
Dollas went on to direct 23 plays, act in 53 and produce five.
"Chris Dollas wrote a play I thought was very good," said Dr. Philip Rosene, a retired anesthesiologist of 35 years at Anna Jaques Hospital, and, alongside his wife, Betty, one of the group's most loyal followers. "I thought that if he just reworked it a little bit, it could go to Broadway or at least off-Broadway."
"I don't want it to end," Rosene added. "It has been such a delightful thing to see these actors develop."
Over the years, close to 150 different people have entered the stage. Students have made their acting debuts, children have grown up in front of the audience, and a few "prima donnas" have made quick exits. Dollas' son, Gregg Dollas, made it a real family affair when he proposed on stage to his fiancee in 2001.
Some founding members such as Sue and Glenn Clohecy of Georgetown have stuck around. Others, who joined later, such as Gael Nappa of Bradford and Andy Griffith of Newburyport have become mainstays.
"I can't explain it, but you know when something is very special," Jaroncyk said. "Being in all aspects of theater makes me very happy and that's what this group has allowed me to do. For people who have been part of this for 30 to 35 years, this is very, very hard."
The 4,000-square-foot building, which also houses a preschool on the first floor, went on the market for $350,000 in the fall of last year. Sandra DeVellis, who co-owns the building with Helen Murgida, said she held on for years until it she, retired and on a fixed income, could not afford to keep it. They lease the space to the theater workshop for only $100 a month. In July, the lease is up.
DeVellis said she would ideally like to find a buyer who would let the group stay, but realistically Dispenza said he knows the Georgetown Theatre Workshop may face the same fate as those in Amesbury, Lawrence and Haverhill. The group will somehow stay together, Jaroncyk said, although no one knows yet in what format.
In the meantime, Dispenza's mind is on "Poison Pen Letters to Practically Everyone," a black comedy he wrote and directed in 2010 and which is now back by popular demand. The play features a series of letters written to historic celebrities and characters as varied as Cleopatra and James Bond. Each vignette is performed by one of six actors, including Dispenza's daughter, Lorrie Dispenza, who joined 30 years ago.
Then, in May, he will direct "Delval Divas" about six ladies in a white-collar prison, before it is likely time to pack up and move out.
Dispenza cited Hamlet: "Why do actors act? Because we can do such things."
"It sounds like an ego trip," Dispenza said. "I'd say it makes you feel good when you've done a good job. Where else would you get applause?"
IF YOU GO
What: The Georgetown Theatre Workshop's production of "Poison Pen Letters to Practically Everyone."
When: Feb. 24-25, March 1-3. All shows start at 8 p.m.
Where: The Georgetown Theatre Workshop, 22 Pleasant St., Georgetown
How: Tickets are $10. Half price for seniors and students on Feb. 24 and March 1. For more information or reservations, please call Sue Clohecy, 978-352-6367.