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Putting on a show is a full-time job

Five weeks into rehearsals for a new musical, Earl Porter finds himself scrambling to learn lines.

He's the director. And the choreographer. And the set designer. And now, he's learning 54 pages of lines in less than 10 days.

Porter's effort is business as usual.

Twenty-three years in the business of making musicals, comedies and dramas come to life on the stage have provided Porter an opportunity to learn his craft from a number of different vantage points.

The play he's working on, a musical he wrote called Broadway Showstoppers, is about a good twin and bad twin fighting over control of a musical theater. On Feb. 13, it will become the second play he has directed for the Carrollwood Players community theater group.

"Yeah, it will be hard," shrugs Porter, 39. "Just because I wrote it doesn't mean I memorized it. But the rest of the cast is depending on me, so I'll do it."

"He's multifaceted. I've never been with a director who's as stretched," said Joyce Jordan, an actor in the play. "He trains, teaches and directs us as well as being a friend."

"A lot of us have the theater bug," said Nancy Stern, treasurer for the Carrollwood Players. "It's something that gets into your blood. With Earl's, it courses a little deeper than others."

Carole Corppinger says Earl Porter is talented, like so many who find their way to the stage. "There's a thousand more like him, but they're in L.A. and New York," said the president of the Florida Association of Community Theater.

He is also unique, she says, in that he writes his own scripts.

For many of Earl Porter's counterparts, community theater is a part-time arrangement _ work during the day and the arts in the evening and weekends.

Porter has made community theater a full-time job.

An Indianapolis native, he moved to Tampa in 1962 with his family. He grew up around Forest Hills.

A need to be creative started when he developed rheumatic fever. Margaret Porter bought her bedridden son a drawing set to entertain him. By the time he reached Tampa, he was combining his artistic talents with theater. He began acting and designing the sets for his drama club's plays at Chamberlain High School.

Porter paid his way at the University of South Florida by designing sets for theater companies, but dropped out of school after his father died in 1974.

He never dropped out of theater. He turned to community theater and other forms of local professional theater full-time.

He lives in a house in Forest Hills with his mother and five cats. He sips coffee and chain-smokes Salems. His mother, who is retired, makes cookies and coffee, watches the rehearsals and acts like a booster to anyone who drops by to visit.

These days, Porter spends much of his time searching flea markets and shopping plazas for props or circulating fliers about the shows he works on. Broadway Showstoppers takes three hours of rehearsal daily with cast members _ in his home.

The money isn't great, Porter says: Between $1,200 and $1,500 for work in community theater, maybe twice that for regular gigs. Sometimes, it just means breaking even, he says.

"I feel challenged working with a budget and doing the best I can with what I have," Porter said. "Community theater is what keeps theater alive."

Small budgets don't worry Carrollwood Players board member Randy King. She says she knows Porter's work. "Knowing Earl and the kind of work he turns out, we'll have a good show," she says.

Porter admits that many talented actors, actresses and directors have gone on to the Great White Way or Hollywood to make a name or just good money.

He admits that he probably won't follow them.

"I'm happy with my surroundings and I have no desire to go anywhere else," Porter said. "Anyway, things are too competitive (in New York). I'm good at what I do but there are a lot of talented people out there."

"The enjoyment of making other people happy is the reward I get," he says. "Not any amount of money you could give me equals that feeling."