They will be laughing every Friday during May when The Gin Game, a play by D. L. Coburn, is staged. Trailed as a bitter-sweet comedy, it centres on a buffoonish and sarcastic clash between two quarrelsome guests at a rest home during a card game. A metaphor for life, it is called.

They are the audiences that regularly squash themselves into the handkerchief-sized Arte del Teatro in Via Urbana near the Cavour metro, to be thrilled by performances put on by The (not only) English Theatre of Rome. The company is now about to enter its seventh year, under the sometimes choleric guidance of an energy-ball, Gaby Ford, the theatres American founder and producer.

Trained at the originally underground Suny Purchase theatre in New York, now a department of New York University, in Italy she first played ugly old maid parts in European films. I was the woman who could never get laid, she specified helpfully. Then in April 1996 she founded her own theatre group, initially through what might have been megalomania, because opportunities in Rome for actresses like herself were few.

Not that she began with full-blown plays. Among her first productions were 10-15 minute plays, 23 of them, with titles such as The Hardy Boys and The Mystery of Where Babies Come From by Christopher Durang, and The Road to Ruin by Bill Bozzone. Then she graduated into 25-30 minute comedies, many of them staged at Teatro Colosseo behind the Colosseum.

Putting on short plays was the only way I had of attracting good young actors and actresses with the money available, Ford explained. That has always been her strong point. If at the start audiences (including this writer) drifted along to her theatre mainly because they wanted to see something in English, expecting enjoyable amateur shows, they were quickly put in their place by the sheer professionalism of it all, and soon learnt they could rely on being held rapt.

It is four years since Ford herself directed. Now the ideas come from outside directors, who approach her as the embodiment of Ford Entertainment, a cultural association. Her directors have included Germans, Britons, Italians, South Africans and Australians, and the plays they propose must meet at least one of five criteria: they have to be premieres either world-wide or in Italy, they have to be classics or the work of female playwrights, and they have to include roles in two or three languages, or be shorter works to be performed consecutively in two (or three) tongues a new departure. Ford evaluates feasibility, including the chance of covering costs, and allegedly lets the directors get on with it. But if I find Ive got a turkey with a week to go before the show, I become a tyrant and then I do stamp my foot.

She sees her theatre now as a springboard for new playwrights and emerging directors, and a gymnasium for actors who need to grow. The actors are picked at tough, twice-yearly auditions, though she gauges their subsequent esteem for her as not astronomically high. They hate me. All the mistakes are mine. Im the bad cop. Im the villain. But Im addicted to the job. I cant stop it, she confessed with her deliberately provocative bluntness. Her speech is that of a high-speed train.

Her view of herself was not borne out by performers in the show that ran until mid-April, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by the popular American actor Steve Martin. The play, a quick-fire, mind-bending comedy-drama about an imagined meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at a bar in Paris in 1904, was Fords 33rd production. The packed first-night audience approved.

Einstein was played by the very funny Birmingham-born Robert Parker, on the boards in London for 15 years and now working part-time for a TV production company in Rome. The part of Picasso, already ego-inflated at the age of 23, was played by 27-year-old Luke Massengill from Wyoming, who studied theatre in San Diego and Idaho.

It was fun to play in, he said after three months of rehearsals, four times a week. After all, its a light-hearted comedy. The difficulty was getting the conflict across. Massengill is in Rome simply because he is smitten with the place, and he finds the opportunities for the likes of him not at all bad because, after all, there is a very limited number of English-speaking actors for directors to cast from.

His director, 28-year-old New Yorker John Penate, was not of the kind Ford shouted at either. The idea of putting on this play was all Lukes, he explained. Were old college friends. The only challenge of the play was getting humour across the language barrier. (He did.) I got them all enunciating like mad. He moved to Rome a year ago. Why? We all need a change sometimes. In the States I felt something was holding me back. And since Ive been here, everything has fallen into place all at once.

Ford is also happy, especially on one score. Were finally into the black. A hurdle has always been paying royalties to living playwrights, an obstacle that embassies in Rome have helped her to clear, especially the very generous Canadian embassy. I cant do British playwrights because the British Council gives us no support. They prefer made-in-Britain productions and consider my theatre would not best represent their authors.

Arte del Teatro, Via Urbana 107, tel. 064885608-064441375,

e-mail: gabyford@hotmail.com. Tickets and members card: 14.

Picture: Frances Nacman and Michael Fitzpatrick in the comedy The Gin Game.