When the acting bug bites, theater enthusiasts often relinquish their careers to pursue their new-found calling.

But members of the Columbia Community Players, the oldest theater group in Howard County, shrug off the rigors of combining full-time work with a grueling six-week rehearsal schedule.

Without promise of salary or even a playhouse to call their own, they prepare nightly for their upcoming weekend production of the intense courtroom drama, "Nuts," at the Drama Learning Center in Jessup.

"It's just something you want to do," says Herman Kemper, 45, of Lisbon. Kemper, who juggles several professions, including those of contractor and playwright, has performed in 17 community theater roles since 1984.

Kemper and his wife, Marilyn, an interior decorator, play the parents of a prostitute who seeks to prove her sanity while on trial for murder.

"We got the acting bug from watching our sons in productions at Glenelg High School," Marilyn Kemper says. "Then we went to a show in New York and said, 'That's it! We're going forit.'"

"With other people around you, it helps pull you in," adds Herman Kemper.

The daytime professions of some of the company's actors mesh with their theatrical personas.

"I tried cases like this, so I thought it would be fun to play the psychiatrist," says Andy Raum, a government attorney who hears domestic relations cases.

Raum, in his third year with the company, says he learned his

sense of timing while working as a trial lawyer.

If they performed in anything other than community theater, Raum and the 64 other members of the company might receive a salary. Here, they must pay a $10 membership fee and work on an annual budget of $35,000.

Still, "the process of creating -- the challenge on this level when you don't have anything to work with but people -- is thrilling," says Gary Goodson, 37, of Highland, the show's director.

Goodson, who works as a cashier, not only constructed the set but also took over the role of prosecutor when the original actor left.

For Pat Turney Foreman, who hasthe lead in "Nuts," the company gives her a chance to enhance her skills. Foreman, 30, has performed professionally at Ford's Theater in Washington and Actor's Playhouse in New York.

"I love to act. And here, I get to stretch my acting abilities," says Foreman, a company newcomer who labors by day as a home fit

ness trainer and homemaker. "Actually, you get more rehearsal time here than in professional theater."

It shows. The production teems with mesmerizing performances -- compelling dialogue sprinkled with an easy wit, appropriately paced pauses, intense glances and voices that smack of professional training.

Although the Columbia Community Players hope to own theirown theater, they now rent space from Slayton House in the Village of Wilde Lake.

But because Slayton House is undergoing extensive renovations, the players will perform "Nuts" Friday and Saturday evening at the Drama Learning Center. They will return to Slayton House in the fall.

Rental fees there will rise from $2,000 to $4,200 because of the $750,000 in renovations, says Janet Olsen, 53, the group's vice president in charge of production.

Slayton House is "the only available place where you could do a show in Howard County," says Laurence Bory, 70, the community players' president. "It's the only one with a stage and auditorium."

Although seating at the revamped community center will be reduced from 180 to 140, it will be tiered, providing better viewing for the audience. The stage will be expanded tothree times its size and a large area for set construction and rehearsals will be added.

In order to meet the higher costs, the players will have to raise ticket prices and "do one heck of a lot of publicity," says Olsen.

Tickets are currently $5.50. Admission for seniors and students is $5.

"We're going to have to get out and push,"Olsen says. "We can no longer be comfortable with the idea that if we fill up the seats, fine. If we don't, we don't."

Olsen, who saysa theater was among the first things she looked for when settling inColumbia five years ago, tries to remain optimistic. "It's the show that attracts the people, not the theater," she says.

Upcoming productions include "Dracula" in October, "Bus Stop" in February, and "Gingerbread Lady" next April.

Bory, who joined the company 12 yearsago and has directed 10 of the company's plays, is slated to direct "Dracula."

It's in his blood. Or, as Herman Kemper put it, he doesit to keep from going nuts.

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