Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Year Not in Reviews: Exploring the Ecology of North Coast Theatre

[An extended version of my Journal column last week, without the part I already cannibalized for the previous post...]

By way of a year-end summing up, this column is about what doesn’t normally get into reviews.

The plays we see may have several purposes. Many—including productions by Humboldt State, CR, Dell’Arte International School, local high schools and organizations like the Laurel Tree Learning Center—are part of the participants’ education. Community theatres like North Coast Rep and Ferndale Rep provide talented community members opportunities to participate in making as well as seeing theatre. Both provide opportunities that participants wouldn't otherwise have to strut their stuff, and since there are many more talented people than ever get to work in theatre as a career, audiences benefit as well.

I seldom mention this in reviews, because what these and other theatres have in common is that they charge audiences money to see them, and I review their shows from that standpoint. But I do take their other missions into account, and I expect audiences do, too.

Something else I don’t mention in reviews but which productions have in common is the achievement: of a group of people preparing and then presenting a play from beginning to end for two or three hours, and then doing it again, over and over. This is an accomplishment by any definition. It’s also one of the great benefits to participants: to commit their energies from the beginning of the process, weeks or months before opening, to the end of it. For some, simply sticking with it from first to last actually changes their lives. When audiences applaud, it seems to me it’s partly for the accomplishment, regardless of the outcome.

We don’t have professional theatre hereabouts in the same sense as in San Francisco or Ashland, but audiences here benefit from our particular theatrical ecosystem in ways they might not realize. For example, both educational and community theatres emphasize participation, which often means large casts. Elsewhere there is tremendous financial pressure on commercial theatres to do nothing but small cast shows.

But we have these community and school theatres doing large cast shows, together with the small cast or one-person shows produced or imported by the Arcata Playhouse, Sanctuary Stage and Redwood Curtain (for instance), as well as Jeff DeMark’s unique solo work. So we have a pretty rich variety.

Another way our North Coast theatrical ecology is unusual is the predominance of a theatrical style that is relatively obscure in most other places: commedia dell’arte. This is due mostly of course to the Dell’Arte theatre and school, and those associated with Dell’Arte who remain or return here to form other theatrical enterprises. Jacky Dandeneau and David Ferney, impresarios of the Arcata Playhouse, are good examples. But there’s also Dan Stone, co-founder of Sanctuary Stage, who has brought commedia from entirely different sources.

The commedia emphasis on improvisational satires, often on standard themes, with acrobatics and clowning, may be a pronounced local characteristic, but a healthy theatrical ecosystem requires other approaches, too.

So other theatres here (including the companies that wax and wane) bring the balance of classic and newer plays; musicals (including the sterling work of the Humboldt Light Opera), drama and other kinds of comedy. We have theatre for (and by) children, for (and by) adolescents, and for (and by) elders. We need them all, and as fortunate as we are to have this much theatre, there are gaps in the ecosystem, too. Other things being equal (which they never are), we could use more.

Because of my very part-time job doing press for HSU plays, I don’t write about those productions in my part-time piecework columns here. But I’m dismayed that HSU productions aren’t covered much elsewhere in the Journal either. There was more copy in one recent issue about Dell’Arte (including in my column) than there has been cumulatively concerning HSU theatre for the past couple of years, at least. So in this context let me speak up for the role of HSU theatre in the local ecosystem, particularly when the university is taking a hard look at its priorities, and from time to time there have been rumors of threats to HSU theatre’s existence.

Besides benefiting the university as a much-needed public interface with the community, HSU theatre brings particular strengths and important contributions in the kinds of plays it does and how it does them. Its recent commitment to doing new plays, often by North Coast playwrights, is pretty much unique here right now. In general, HSU provides training and people essential to North Coast stages, with participation both by students who enliven local theatre while here, and by faculty and former students who remain active in the community. Just how much theatre would survive here without HSU is a real question.

Lastly, this fall was unusual for offering three productions of Shakespeare. That this theatrical community was able to mount two large cast productions pretty much simultaneously (The Merry Wives of Windsor at NCRT and The Winter’s Tale at HSU), while overlapping with the large cast of Noises Off at Ferndale Rep, is astonishing. That's one indication that there's a lot of interest in theatre here, with lots of participants and audiences.

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