After nearly 20 years of performances, Ashland Community Theatre is reinventing itself as Ashland Contemporary Theatre.

After nearly 20 years of performances, Ashland Community Theatre is reinventing itself as Ashland Contemporary Theatre.

"Throughout 2009 we've been honing our mission," said Jeannine Grizzard, ACT's producing artistic director. "We want to showcase the best writing of the late 20th and the 21st century. The criteria is really stellar writing. We had to mount a play that reflects our mission."

In that spirit, the theater will open Hugh Whitemore's "Breaking The Code" on June 11. It's the story of Alan Turing, an English mathematician working to decipher a Nazi code while also grappling with the challenge of being homosexual in 1940s England.

"It's an ideas play with a strong moral issues component," Grizzard said. "It goes right to the heart of the nature of good and evil. What I want the audience to leave the play with is an awed sense of 'wow' about Touring's ability to navigate and push the boundaries of mathematics and leave with a horrified 'ow' that his being was crushed by the moral codes of his time."

"Breaking the Code" is the opening volley of 'ACT is back,' " she said.

The organization was founded as Ashland Community Theatre in 1991, and members are looking forward to celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2011.

Craig Lucas directed the theater's first show, "Prelude to a Kiss," which opened in 1992 at the Historic Ashland Armory.

Finding a space to rehearse and put on plays — a home — has been an ongoing challenge for the theater, which has performed wherever it could find a space over the years — schools, churches and synagogues, open office space, the Elks Club — even a cafeteria.

"You'd have mac and cheese in the air," Grizzard said.

"And the acoustics were really bad," board member Ruth Wire added.

Grizzard moved to Ashland in 2006 from Georgia, where she spent 13 years building a theater company. She became board president of ACT in 2009, and took on the responsibilities of producing artistic director in March of this year after the 2009 resignation of former artistic director Michael Meir. At the same time, Grant Shepherd became the board president.

With strong community support and an active board, the theater did well in the 1990s, but the lack of a permanent venue and the loss of many board members contributed to a decline in the early 2000s, Grizzard said.

The organization struggled to maintain continuity, and in the past few years has been focusing on local playwrights and performances through the Quarter Moon and Local Produce theater events.

Quarter Moon is a quarterly series of play readings from contemporary theater.

"That's been the kind of thing that's kept the continuity of the theater together," Grizzard said.

Local Produce, aided by a $2,500 grant from the city of Ashland, is a series of 10-minute plays by local writers.

"It ran three weekends, and each weekend the attendance went up," Grizzard said.

The theater plans to continue both the Quarter Moon and Local Produce events, while at the same time working on more productions along the lines of "Breaking the Code."

"Nothing about our community dedication has changed," Grizzard said.

ACT will follow "Breaking the Code" with a production of "Illyria: a Musical Twelfth Night," which opens in conjunction of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Twelfth Night" this summer.

"Every single tune in 'Illyria' is a foot-stomping song," Grizzard said.

Board member and playwright Ruth Wire is optimistic about the new direction of ACT.

"I saw it at its lowest ebb," Wire said. "Now it's doing better than ever. We seem to have a good mix on the board where everyone has a job and is good at that job."

"Illyria" will be put on at the new CultureWorks venue on Oak Street, highlighting again ACT's need for a regular venue.

Without a stage to call home, Grizzard said, it's easy for patrons to overlook ACT and it's difficult to build momentum for season ticket sales.

The ACT board spent much of 2009 investigating the possibility of a permanent place. They discovered it would cost about $25,000 to go through the city planning process and convert an existing building for theater. The organization has about $3,000 in its building fund, and continues to hold monthly fundraising events to reach the goal.

"Until ACT has a permanent venue, we can't sell subscriptions," Grizzard said. "You have to create interest afresh with every show and we don't want to have to do that."

So, Grizzard and board members continue their quest for a permanent home. Strong first steps have been solidified at the Bellview Grange, where the group has built an extension of the existing stage. But the venue is still used on a monthly rental basis.

"Ashland is dying for an affordable stage to rent," Grizzard said.

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at mmurphy@dailytidings.com.