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With tapas before the show or dessert after, theater party wins a standing 'O'

Throwing a party is a lot like directing a play. There's a bit of casting that goes into the guest list. The timing is crucial, and knowing how to leave them wanting more is a blockbuster-worthy talent.

Food and drink are important elements, too. Think of the menu like dialogue; it helps move things along. Too much can spoil the mood, and not enough brings scathing reviews.

The theater-party connection is a natural fit. The pre- or post-theater get-together has been a long-standing tradition: Think Sardi's or Elaine's in New York. This purpose-filled party provides an opportunity for convivial chit-chat before the curtain or a deconstructing of the production after. Unless you really want to make it an event, you're likely only to do one or the other.

With the theater season kicking up at small and large venues all around the Tampa Bay area, it's time to think about staging a party for your drama-loving friends. And who better to guide us through the planning than someone who's got one foot on the stage and the other firmly embedded in the hospitality industry?

I sat down recently with playwright and actor Joseph Alan Johnson after a rehearsal of his very witty and very adult See You Next Tuesday, which debuts Oct. 4 at the L Train Theatre Lounge in St. Petersburg, to get some tips on how to throw a "micro party" as he calls it. In his 10 years in the bay area, Johnson has been in about 30 productions, and many more during his years in New York and Los Angeles. By night, he's prowling the stage, and by day, he's a waiter at Cassis American Brasserie in downtown St. Petersburg.

Catering and waiting tables have financed his love of theater and also taught him a lot about entertaining.

"Your job is to think of everything," he says about hosting a party. "Have every base covered, be prepared." Spoken like a true string-pulling director, which he is for See You Next Tuesday, a comedy about backstage machinations between two seen-better-productions actors. Johnson plays one of those characters, too.

Johnson is a veteran at-home entertainer. He throws a monthly dinner party — the sit-down dinner for eight is his favorite arrangement — but also loves a rousing cocktail party. He inspired the menu ideas with this story and provided the drink recommendations. His mother, Charlotte Johnson, who lives in South Pasadena, has served the popular Sausage Balls at many parties and her son carries on the tradition. I provide the recipe here with a slight tweak and mustard dipping sauce.

Johnson has plenty of party advice — set up the drinks but pour for guests so they don't overindulge — and here are his top tips for putting on a theater party worthy of a standing ovation. Many of them can be adapted to upcoming holiday gatherings.

Know your audience

Are they big partiers? Maybe an after-party would be a better idea. Are they the matinee crowd? Consider a pre-theater brunch. Think about who you are inviting and how they interact. If you have friends who are habitually late, perhaps the pre-party isn't the one to invite them to. You'll need to depend on your guests to get out of the house in time to be seated when the curtain goes up.

It's all about timing

What you serve will be dictated in part by how much time you have. He suggests that the pre-theater party last about an hour. If curtain is at 8 p.m. and the theater is 30 minutes away, you should start the party at 6 p.m. Also, will you be driving together or separately? If people are traveling separately, make sure they have enough time to get to the theater, park and be seated. If need be, hand out directions.

Be prepared

Food and drink should be ready when guests arrive. This isn't the type of party that will unfold over the course of an evening. It's sort of like a 10-minute play — it needs to grab their attention when the lights go up (or they walk through the door).

The logistics

This is an informal gathering, and people will likely be eating standing up or perched on chairs. Plan on finger foods or offerings that can be eaten with toothpicks. Have plenty of napkins, too. Stay away from foods like spaghetti, pulled-pork sandwiches and soups that can easily end up down the front of someone's special outfit.

The menu

As you put together the menu, make sure you've got a mix of sweet and savory offerings. A cheese platter at an after-theater dessert party will suffice for guests who don't love sugary treats. It's nice to have foods that satisfy a number of dietary predilections, too. Veggies, fresh fruits and nuts are good for both those watching calories and vegetarians. Decide whether this will be a meal or just a snack. You should consider something more substantial, though not so heavy as to induce sleep, before the theater and something lighter afterward.

Appreciate the offer to help

If friends want to bring something, suggest wine. This is a tightly controlled party, so you don't want to leave the offerings up to chance. Do not feel obligated to open the wine, which should be considered a gift for the host.

Know your limits

Just like your guests, you're a busy person. Do not attempt to make everything from scratch if that's beyond your ability. Use a recipe for one or two show-stopping items and then fill in the rest with prepared foods or dishes put together simply like fruit kebabs or vegetables trays. Store-bought cookies are not a crime.

Watch the booze

The last thing you want is for people to overindulge and get behind the wheel of a car. Even if they aren't driving, too much alcohol can foster bad behavior. You don't want to be responsible for people acting silly in the theater. There's also the issue of bathroom breaks. If you're providing a special cocktail, plan on one per person. At the most, two glasses of wine. Pour them small. Always have non-alcoholic beverages, too.

Themes are good

It can be quite fun to pair the food and drink with the play or musical. For instance, New Orleans fare with A Street Car Named Desire or kids' favorites with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The theater is a creative endeavor, and a themed party allows the host to show what he's got, too. A Christmas cookie party would be lovely before or after The Nutcracker or another holiday show .

What's your motivation?

Going to the theater is a special occasion, Johnson says, and getting together before the event is the "spark to get the play started." Your job as host is to put people in a festive mood as they head to the venue or provide a spot for post-theater talk. Since there's no talking during the show — or there shouldn't be — a party allows for friends to "reconnect and relax."

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

.If you go

See You Next Tuesday

When: Joseph Alan Johnson's play is at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays Oct. 4-21 with a 3 p.m. matinee on the last day of the run.

Where: L Train Theatre Lounge, 900 Central Ave., Suite 25B, St. Petersburg

Cost: Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling (727) 823-2685 and then paid for in cash at the door.

The play is recommended for adult audiences only.

menu options

for your theater party

curtain up party

Make friends with skewers and toothpicks for this party. Your guests will use them to move the food to their mouths and to dunk food into dips. Provide a spot for discards.

Sausage Balls With Mustard Dipping Sauce

(recipe inside)

Kettle chips with dollop of goat cheese

and hot-pepper jelly

Cold, peeled shrimp

with prepared pesto for dipping

Assortment of nuts

SWEET

Banana and Strawberry Kebabs With Creamy Grand Marnier Dip (recipe inside)

DRINK

Close du Bois chardonnay or Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc for white wine lovers and Hob Nob pinot noir and Hyatt merlot

for red drinkers

pre-theater tapas for 12

Arrange items on two platters and place

toothpicks in nearby shot glasses or small bowls. Make sure to provide utensils to pick up food and transfer to individual plates and a place to discard olive pits and used toothpicks.

Scoop sorbet into small bowls or stemmed glasses and pierce with cookie.

½ pound Manchego cheese,

cut into wedges

½ pound goat cheese in log shape

¼ pound salami, thinly sliced

¼ pound prosciutto or Serrano ham,

thinly sliced

1 cup almonds, Marcona if you can find,

otherwise whole

1 cup dried fruit, such as apricots

2 cups mixed olives

Bread sticks or crackers

SWEET

Lemon sorbet with Pepperidge Farm

raspberry Chantilly cookie

DRINK

Party Sangria (recipe inside)

encore dessert party for 6

This after-theater sweets party has a

French accent, so you'll set out an assortment of cheeses, often eaten after meals in France. The cookies — which start with frozen puff pastry — and parfaits are made in advance. All you have to do when you get home is set out the food and pop the cork on the champagne.

Cheese platter:

Wedges of blue cheese and Brie, plus a hard cheese such as Gruyere. Offer crackers and arrange small clumps of grapes on platter.

Salted-Chocolate Palmiers (recipe inside)

Pear-Ginger Parfaits (recipe inside)

DRINK

If you don't want to spring for Moet

or Veuve Cliquot, Mumm Cuvee Napa

is very tasty at around $20 a bottle.

>>MODERATE

Pear-Ginger Parfaits

4 Bosc pears, peeled, cored and cut into -inch pieces

Juice of 2 lemons

2 cinnamon sticks

4 whole cloves

6 tablespoons candied ginger, minced, plus more for garnish

½ cup apple juice

2 cups heavy cream

8 ounces mascarpone

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 tablespoons maple syrup

In a small saucepan, combine pears, lemon juice, cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger and apple juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 4 minutes until pears are crisp-tender. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

Remove cinnamon sticks and cloves before assembling the parfait.

In a large bowl, whip cream to soft peaks. In a separate bowl, mix mascarpone with vanilla extract and maple syrup and fold into cream.

Divide half the pears among 4 glasses and top with half the mascarpone mixture. Repeat layers with remaining pears and cream. Garnish with chopped candied ginger.

Serves 8.

Source: Martha Stewart

>>EASY

Party Sangria

1 bottle of red wine (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, rioja, zinfandel, shiraz)

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1 orange, cut into wedges

1 lime, cut into wedges

1 small can of diced pineapples (with juice)

2 tablespoons sugar

Splash of orange juice (or lemonade)

2 shots of gin or triple sec (optional)

4 cups ginger ale

1 cup of raspberries or strawberries (may use thawed or frozen)

Pour wine into a large pitcher and squeeze the juice from the lemon, orange and lime wedges into the wine. Toss in the fruit wedges (leaving out seeds) and pineapple, then add sugar, orange juice and gin or triple sec. Chill overnight.

Add ginger ale, berries and ice just before serving. If you'd like to serve right away, use chilled red wine and serve over lots of ice.

Makes at least 6 drinks.

Source: allrecipes.com

>>MODERATE

Salted-Chocolate Palmiers

For the palmiers:

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

2 sheets store-bought frozen puff pastry, thawed and cut in half

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted

For the salted chocolate:

4 ounces German chocolate baking bars, melted

Sea salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, toss sugar and cinnamon to combine. Work with one sheet of puff pastry at a time. Brush sheet with melted butter and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Roll both long sides of each pastry toward the center of the sheet, creating two coils. Cut into ¼-inch-thick slices and place 2 inches apart on one of the prepared sheets. (If pastry has gotten too warm and is difficult to cut, refrigerate for about 30 minutes.) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Repeat with second sheet of puffed pastry.

While palmiers are cooling, melt chocolate in microwave at 30-second intervals on high. Stir after each 30 seconds. (Chocolate should be melted in about 90 seconds.) Dip cooled palmiers into chocolate and place on wax paper that has been spritzed with non-stick spray. Before chocolate hardens, sprinkle with a little bit of sea salt. (Sea salt flakes are best but granules are fine.)

Let chocolate set completely before serving, about 1 hour. You can refrigerate, too, but let come to room temperature before serving.

Makes 3 to 4 dozen.

Source: Adapted from Tiny Food Party! by Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park (Quirk, 2012)

>>EASY

Banana and Strawberry Kebabs

With Creamy Grand Marnier Dip

10 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)

1 cup sour cream

½ cup confectioners' sugar

½ cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

For the skewers:

4 firm but ripe bananas

3 cups strawberries, hulled

20 bamboo skewers

Blend cream cheese and sour cream in a large bowl until well combined. Add confectioners' sugar, whipping cream and Grand Marnier and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Thread fruit on skewers. Provide utensils so guests can scoop dip onto plates.

Source: Adapted from Yummly.com

>>EASY

Sausage Balls With Mustard Dipping Sauce

1 pound pork sausage

2 cups biscuit baking mix, such as Bisquick

1 pound grated cheddar cheese (see note)

2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

For the dipping sauce:

6 tablespoons good-quality Dijon-style mustard

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

6 tablespoons sour cream

Chopped parsley and/or finely chopped red bell pepper, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine sausage, biscuit baking mix, cheese and scallions. Form into walnut-sized balls and place on baking sheets.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown and sausage is cooked through.

While balls are baking, make dipping sauce by combining all ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Makes about 50 sausage balls and 1 cup of sauce.

Note: Grate cheese yourself rather than using bags of pre-shredded cheese. The bagged versions tend to be drier because more of the cheese has been exposed to air. The moisture from freshly grated cheese helps incorporate the baking mix.

Source: Adapted from recipes from several Internet sites

With tapas before the show or dessert after, theater party wins a standing 'O' 09/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 4:30am]

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