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Unity Theater has spirit of season

NORTH BEND - Tucked in a nook between Singletrack Cycles and Nature's Marketplace on North Bend Way rests a concave entryway that leads upstairs to the Masonic Lodge 198 in North Bend and the Unity Theater.

On the other side of the front door, resting upon the ground at the foot of the narrow stairway, is a welcome mat that reads "Bah Humbug" lined in red and green stitching.

'Tis the season.

Currently in its second year of operation, Unity Theater is located in a spacious room that has been converted into a makeshift theater that seats about 110, complete with lighting and sound equipment, curtains and an elevated stage.

Most people don't know where the theater is, said director Gary Schwartz, a North Bend resident.

"The first thing to do is to get people to be aware of the theater," he said. "Once they come and see the show, they say, 'I have to come back.' "

For the second year, the Unity Theater is presenting "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. This version of the all-ages show was adapted for the stage by Paul Sills and is directed by Schwartz.

Opening night was Dec. 2. The show runs through Dec. 17.

"The [opening night] show went great," Schwartz said, noting that the first weekend performances played to almost a full house, despite the snowy weekend weather. "The snow added to the Christmas feeling ... the show went on without a hitch."

The show features 20 local performers in the classic story of poor, but good-hearted employee Bob Cratchit, his ill, but spirited son Tiny Tim and Cratchit's miserly employer named Scrooge, who refuses to let Cratchit take Christmas Day off.

Scrooge learns the true meaning of Christmas when he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future on Christmas Eve. They attempt to show him the results of the compassionless path he has chosen in life and offer him a chance to mend his ways.

Schwartz said the tale is the most adapted nonbiblical Christmas story for stage.

This version incorporates the original text from Dickens' book and presents the play in a "storybook format."

Schwartz explained that the format allows characters to narrate their actions to the audience in addition to acting in a traditional way, providing an exposition to orient the audiences that is then followed by the character's dialogue.

They tell the story both literally and through performance, Schwartz said.

A few months ago, Schwartz held auditions locally in order to cast the show. Many actors who were in the play last year returned and were again cast (North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing, who had a role last year, was too busy this year to participate). Rehearsals began in October.

The show features authentic costumes, but uses English accents sparingly for the British-based story.

The Unity Theater premiered its last show, "The Odd Couple," this fall.

It will premiere the one-man show about a lounge singer, "The Tuxedo Man," the weekend of Jan. 9. Additionally, Schwartz hosts North Bend's Very Own Variety Show and The Spolin Players Improv Troupe every third and fourth Saturday of the month. People are invited to audition for the variety show at any time. Call or visit the Web site for more details.

A 22-year professional actor from Los Angeles, Schwartz and his wife Tina moved to North Bend a little more than two years ago after they fell in love with the area on a 10th anniversary visit to the Salish Lodge.

"My dream was always to own a theater and acting school and live in a beautiful place," he said.

Schwartz worked mainly as a voice-over actor, but also co-starred with Ben Vereen on Hallmark's Emmy-award winning 1980s children's show "Zoobilee Zoo" as Bravo Fox, where he also was a show writer. He co-starred in the 1981 film "Quest for Fire" with Ron Pearlman and contributed original comedy with his former partner Caleb Chung (the inventor of the Furby toy) for the mid-1990s television show "America's Funniest People."

Schwartz uses and teaches Theater Improv Games developed by his mentor, Viola Spolin, known as the "Mother of Improvisation."

He noted that improv is not just for the stage. It is also good training for life skills and that anyone can do it.

Along with being the Unity Theater's founder, artistic director and an actor (he plays Scrooge in the holiday production), Schwartz heads up the Northwest Games Center as a part of Intuitive Learning Systems Inc., a not-for-profit theater arts organization devoted to developing the spontaneous creative spirit of play. In addition, he serves on the Northwest board of the Screen Actors Guild. He still performs professionally, most recently doing voice-over work for Swedish Medical Center.

Schwartz said he is unsure if he will use "A Christmas Carol" for next year's holiday production, but that he is open to making it a tradition; maybe selecting a different version each time.

The 90-minute show (with intermission) runs Dec. 9, 10 and 17 at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $10 for seniors and children younger than 12; $15 for adults.

Call (425) 831-5667 or visit www.unitytheater.org for information.

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