Penny Louise Moore’s first theater role was the jack-in-the-box in a production of Rumpelstiltskin. She was in the first grade, and her stage was on a flatbed hay wagon that would be driven from one part of Adairville to another, since her tiny Kentucky town had no theater. For that matter, the local high school did not offer theater classes and, later, as a university theater major, Moore had to take all her drama courses as a freshman before budget cuts wiped them out. Today she’s the producing director of the Actors Group, a small Lankershim Boulevard theater in a space once occupied by the Kindness of Strangers coffeehouse. Her company, which she founded in 2000, is the truest labor of love, which she supports with her Sheraton Universal Hotel bartender job and gigs as an entertainment industry personal assistant.
Her production of Romulus Linney’s A Lesson Before Dying put the theater on the map a few months ago, winning rave reviews for its depiction of racial injustice in a postwar Louisiana town.
“My passion is not necessarily in political plays,” she says with a slight country twang, “but in human stories. Plays that make people think.”
Moore understands the lives of people who came up the hard way (her mother and father were, respectively, a janitor and welder) and, in 2004, as part of an outreach program, she invited three groups of teenage girls from a foster home for troubled children to watch Mastergate, M*A*S*H TV writer Larry Gelbart’s Iran-Contra hearing spoof. The kids arrived sullen and resentful — they were only there because their parents had not wanted them home that weekend. Still, the girls left excited and hopeful, and high school students who played pages in the comedy got so politicized that they later brought a TV to the theater to watch the presidential debates.
Outside her theater, Moore also tries to make a dent where it counts, having traveled to New Orleans five times since Hurricane Katrina, volunteering to help devastated residents as well as engaging in animal rescue work. (About the only time Moore’s smile evaporates is when she describes the way some people in the Big Easy still don’t have electricity or running water.) She’s currently talking to Gelbart about producing his new Katrina farce, Floodgate, a play that should accomplish the seemingly impossible — returning smiles to theatergoers’ faces and making them think.