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An Irish Touch

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The theme of Irish literature is filling the hearts and minds of a few Community College of Philadelphia students and professors as they step out of the classroom and onto the stage.

Some are aspiring actors and actresses still learning and experimenting with the craft, while others see it as a possible gateway to other ventures.

"I have always loved theater and I enjoy transforming into different characters," says Camille Dempsey-Miller, a sophomore at CCP. "I love exploring this art and try to make the best of myself performing each time."

Miller is one of many CCP students assisting with a new theater production taking place at The Irish Heritage Theater, a brand new nonprofit company dedicated to presenting and preserving the rich legacy of Irish Theater. Students and professors see the theater as a way to enrich themselves further in the art of acting by learning and working along with professionals of the field.

Miller is no newbie to the set. She has been acting for the past six years and participated in CCP's last production, Orestes, last November. At the Irish Theater, she will be assisting with building and painting the sets. "Theater production is hard work," she admits. "But it is fun and worth the challenge."

The company's first production, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, revolves around a young man, Gareth O'Donnell, who is fed up with his life in Ballybeg, Ireland. He has his aggravated love for Kathy Doogan, who married a more successful man than he, and a strained relationship that he has with his father.

But when O'Donnell accepts an invitation to Philadelphia, he contemplates his decision. Does he really care about the people and friends he is leaving behind?

Among stars in the play is Community College of Philadelphia professor Kirsten Quinn, who boasts a long history of theatrical experience. "I got into acting when I was in college at La Salle University," Quinn says. "One of my teachers, Helena White, urged me to audition for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once I did the show, I was hooked."

Like Miller, Quinn loved the idea of transformation, of becoming a character and breathing life into a play. It was very exciting for her to go through the rehearsal and performance process, and learn the craft.

Quinn then went on to get her M.F.A. in acting at the University of Pittsburgh in 1999, and has been acting professionally ever since, while branching out into teaching as well.

"I was teaching two sections of Introduction to Performance, and I realized that teaching was just as much a passion for me as acting," Quinn continued. "When I returned to Philadelphia, I immediately applied to CCP, and started out teaching writing."

She now works at CCP teaching writing, acting, interpersonal communication, public speaking, and a host of other subjects. With the new opportunity given to her with the opening of the Irish Heritage Theater, Quinn hopes to get some of her students involved.

"The transition from acting to teaching was a smooth one, because they both involve elements of performance, spontaneity and preparation," Quinn says. "There is an immediacy to both that is incredibly rewarding. And I hope that in the process, I impart some of my love for both teaching and acting as well."

She found one loyal follower in Aiyanna Owens, a Liberal Arts Humanities Option major at the college. Owens volunteered herself for the theater's promotion team, where she visits local shops and businesses to hang posters promoting the upcoming production.

Her involvement stems from a long-dormant interest in the theater. "I participated in a play about the birth of Christ when I was about 10 or 11, " Owens said. "I was The Virgin Mary. Since then, I have only written plays and stories."

Many of Owens's stories center on the neighborhood she grew up in and the things that she would sometimes see. After a favorite English professor sparked her interest in Quinn's theater project, Owens signed up to give a hand, but soon saw her involvement as something more.

"Seeing so much of the Avenue of the Arts that I hadn't seen in years, I'm more interested in this event for the cultural aspect of it all," she says.

Theater may or may not be in the students' professional futures. Miller is hoping to enroll in more stagecraft as part of the dual admissions program at Temple University, while Owens has her sights set on training as a dialysis technician. Either way, the love of theatrical production has become an integral part of their college experience.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! premiered on May 4 at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. The show has a planned 14 performances and will be shown in studio five of the theater.