Thursday, November 20, 2014

Playing at the Reps: A Retrospective

In addition to musicals, the county's two repertory/community theatres produce plays. Comedy and drama are rough classifications, and each includes variations.  It's become more common for plays to be a little of both, so it's a matter of emphasis.

Comedies can be laugh-out-loud funny, or more gentle romantic comedies, or Shakespeare's comedies which have some laughs and some romance, ending in at least one marriage.

 On the continuum of comedy, the far end is farce.  NCRT's Lend Me A Tenor exemplifies the classic farce form (wind it up in the first act, let it spin out of control in the second.)  Noises Off goes it one better by being a farce about a farce.  Its production at Ferndale Rep and "Tenor" at North Coast Rep were both ably directed by Renee Grinnell.  NCRT went back to the author of "Tenor" for another farce, Fox in the Fairway, that despite a classic farce set and a bravura performance by Anders Carlson, proved that the formulas don't always work when they are so, well, formulaic.

Fairly near to the farce end is the 1930s classic You Can't Take It With You, an ensemble comedy performed at NCRT that honors American eccentricity.  Maybe a Jules Feiffer play is truer to our time, when eccentricity seems mated with violence, but there is a certain hopeful model in this script, and maybe some hope in the yearnings it still expresses. In 2009 Ferndale Rep produced another show of the same era with farce written all over it: Arsenic and Old Lace.  (Renee Grinnell directed, of course.)

 Somewhere in here is another oddball, The Madwoman of Challiot at NCRT.  While it's not exactly Dr. Strangelove, it does combine farce with a political point.

Although it's also classified as a musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is classic (in several senses of the word) comedy and close to pure farce, based on tried and true Roman models (as well as early TV sketch comedy). The 2006 Ferndale Rep production was North Coast classic.  The same might be said of  NCRT's 2009 The Producers (by Mel Brooks, another Sid Caesar alum, along with Larry Gelbart of "A Funny Thing" and Neil Simon--see below.  )

About in the middle of the spectrum there are the comedies that most resemble their progeny, the motion picture or television situation comedies. They are basically about one kind of family or another.  The modern American master of this form on stage is Neil Simon, and NCRT has done a number of his plays.  The most recent was about the offbeat family of writers for a television show in Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

But in my time there was also the third in Simon's most autobiographical trilogy, Broadway Bound (2006) and Jake's Women (2007.)  (Both of these, less than coincidentally, involve comedy writers.)  In "Broadway" I singled out Gloria Montgomery for praise, for probably the first but certainly not the last time.  (Both reviews in full are now here.)  In my review of Jake's, I had this to say about Kim Hodel (later Haile):

"Kim Hodel had the plum part of Julie, Jake's perfect first wife, who he fell in love with when she was 21 and he was 24, and who died at 35. She played it with the moral beauty and physical radiance that forces us to wonder where the line is between Jake idealizing his dead wife and remembering her accurately - was she really this wonderful? Hodel is convincing as both fantasy and tragically lost reality, in a memorable performance."

Kim Haile (formerly Hodel) performed a variation on this role in what remains the romantic comedy I remember the best from playgoing at the reps: The Love List.  This was the perfect match of actor and role--the 'perfect woman' needed to be quick and fluid (adjusting to each male fantasy) and always magical, and she was.  The other actors (Edward Olson, Victor Howard) and the direction (by Carol Escobar) were also excellent. (I kind of like the review of it I wrote as well. I don't always.)

There were also comedies (alot of them in summer) that were funny at the time but are hard to even remember.  Many are set in the South and were born there, in a regional theatre or dinner theatre circuit, and they are the equivalent of a live TV sitcom, except not as memorable.  They are forgettable confections like The Red Velvet Cake War at North Coast Rep---funny at the time (at best), but leaving that hollow aftertaste.

All kinds of comedies need to evoke laughter at some point--usually early and often.  Comic energy feeds on laughter, and something that seems so simple and readily available can be very tricky to get. But a few things increase the odds (apart from, well, being funny.)

So as those tawdry Internet ads are fond of saying, here's one weird old trick: ventilation.  A well-ventilated theatre is comedy's best friend.  Keep the audience cool.  David Letterman was famous for insisting that his theatre be kept so cold that the audience could almost see their breath.

  He's not wrong.  If the house is hot and stuffy, the audience gets lethargic and loses concentration.  You might not even notice this in a drama.  But comedy needs active laughter-- that sound is part of the show.  Ventilation also happens to be the biggest problem for many North Coast theatres (along with inadequate rest room facilities.)  Apart from being unhealthy, stuffiness dampens audience energy and attention...and laughter.

Some of the same stage priorities apply to comedy as to musicals: bright lighting (you want the audience happy, right?) and when speaking, characters should be as close to the audience as possible (jokes play well that way.)  One fairly recent show that got this and the lighting right was North Coast Rep's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. 

The opposite mask to comedy is the one for tragedy, at least according to the Greeks.  But tragedy is a classical form and whether modern plays rise to tragedy is a question best left to academics, at least for the moment.  The term "drama" is used both as a general term for all plays, and a category that basically means everything that isn't comedy.  So it includes melodrama, political and historical or biographical plays as well as tragedy.  

The virtue of the dramas performed by the reps is similar to the musicals and to some extent the comedies:clarity and humanity.  Lacking staging frills and show biz pretensions, they expose the heart.  The negative side of that is a want of intensity and the kind of passion that really superior acting can reveal.  But many plays profit by performances that create characters that North Coast audiences can relate to, in a clear style.

So North Coast Rep produced an interesting and involving version of a modern classic, David Mamet's American Buffalo.  A less star-centered production as this one revealed new aspects of the play, especially its particular humor.  Ferndale Rep's Look Back In Anger is another modern classic that revealed new dimensions, partly by being staged some 60 years after the original production.  The acting was higher octane, too.

Confrontations over law and ethics create drama in a space that the stage at its best can intensify.  So we had Ferndale Rep's 12 Angry Men and NCRT's Doubt.  But especially Ferndale Rep's To Kill A Mockingbird with Brad Curtis.  It's not a great play, maybe not as good as the movie, but its differences are worth experiencing, and just seeing it live was memorable.

I'm going to save Shakespeare for another post, but it's important to acknowledge North Coast Rep's consistent commitment to staging one production each season.

Before this retrospective moves past the reps, there's a pair of interviews I did in the first year of my Stage Matters columns, with the directors of both theatres.  Marilyn McCormick was beginning her 10th year as the artistic director of Ferndale Rep.  That decade plus one year turned out to be the uncharacteristic calm in the Rep's stormy history.  The Rep reputedly sped through and shredded artistic directors before that, and certainly has since.  Most observers I've talked to about it, including insiders, say it's because of the Rep's "impossible" board of directors. (That wasn't necessarily the word used, but the polite form of its meaning.)

Here's a previous post on the last big hiring/firing.  Since then, it seems another de facto artistic director has quietly fled.  Local hopes are now pinned on Leira Satlof, to whom we can only say, good luck.

I also interviewed Michael Thomas, the managing artistic director of North Coast Rep, and he is still there.  I've come to admire his management and his philosophy of play selection which has never wavered from what he describes in this interview.  In addition to the "popular" shows and the stubbornly regular rotation of one or two musicals and one Shakespeare a season,  North Coast Rep has continued to produce "edgier" plays.  They've included not only relatively esoteric modern dramas like Albee's The Goat but, this past season,  a 19th century American melodrama and a pair of plays from classical Greece.  Considering recent trends here, those are bold selections.

It's worth noting however that, as he's pointed out to me more recently, some sure-fire popular shows turned out to be busts, and some edgier choices were hits.

So to end at the beginning so to speak, here are those two interviews.  

Ferndale Rep with Marilyn McCormick (2006)

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to immense disaster…
 Fennyman: So what do we do?
 Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
 Fennyman: How?
 Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
--- Shakespeare in Love by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

 Ferndale Repertory Theatre will begin its 35th year of continuous production in the fall, and Marilyn McCormick will begin her tenth year as Artistic Director. She’s had a hard time settling on the upcoming season but so far it looks like this: The Mystery of Irma Vep (by Charles Ludlum and the Ridiculous Theatre) in late September, then a Young Actors original in November: Ghost of the Hart, which is about Bertha, the resident ghost in the Rep’s home, originally called the Hart Theatre.

 Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella for the holidays, plus another original for the school matinee, Cinderelder. Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage in January, a teen show called Hamlet Through the Looking Glass in March, the Rocky Horror Show musical in April, To Kill A Mockingbird in May, another try at mounting the senior citizen production, Taking My Turn, in July (it was scheduled for this year but was cancelled due when a cast member suddenly became ill), before The Sound of Music ends the season next August.

 When I visited the theatre on a recent afternoon, the stage was dominated by a painted Roman arch. Part of the Young Actor’s Workshop show this past weekend? Or maybe left over from the July 4th pageant? Could it be a bold new concept for Pajama Game, Ferndale’s next scheduled show? Imperial Retro, something like that?

 Not exactly. The director slated for that show got a job in New York, and the new director had a different play in mind. So A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens in a few weeks, on August 3. That’s how it goes in the theatre.
“It’s a miracle it comes off,” McCormick says. “I’ve learned not to worry about it.”

 Ferndale Rep is the oldest and largest community theatre in the county, but what does that mean anyway—community theatre? “To me it’s made up of people of our community,” McCormick replied, “for our community. That’s basically how I like to run the theatre—to give opportunities to people in the community to explore this art form, as participants and audience. It’s grassroots theatre.”

 “Some people think of community theatre as amateurish,” she added, “but I don’t think of us that way. We have amateurs, but also people with lots of experience, including professional experience. There are people of all ages who want to be involved in theatre, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to find out if that’s what they really want. We introduce them to this world.”

 A funny thing happened to Marilyn McCormick on her way to the theatre. From the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University drama school (Carnegie Tech in those days), and acting at the legendary Arena Stage in Washington, DC, she came to California with husband and fellow “dramat” (as the CMU alums call themselves), Robert Foxworth. He began a career in movies and TV ( Boston Legal, various Star Treks) but she didn’t like film acting and concentrated on home and family.
 They came through Humboldt on vacation, returned to run a small café in Honeydew as a lark. Marilyn stayed, and raised her children in Petrolia and Ferndale after the divorce.

 Then the long and winding road led back to the stage when her son, Bo Foxworth, was a stage manager at Ferndale Rep, but had a basketball trip conflict with a show and asked his mom to fill in. She’s been there ever since, as an actor, director, board member and Artistic Director. (Bo is playing Hamlet in southern California this summer.)

 At the moment McCormick is especially excited about working with teenagers. “I like being able to give them the opportunity to experience this, outside of school. There are different rules and responsibilities here, with a paying audience.”  Teens are involved in all aspects of their productions, and McCormick is hoping to find financial support for extended technical training, which would help the theatre, too. “I’d love to have young technicians and designers here.”

The Ferndale Rep audience “is mostly from Eureka-Fortuna, mostly family-oriented,” she said, “and the theatre-lovers who support all the theatres in this county.”

 When we looked out at the 267-seat theatre—virtually unchanged from the 1970s—she recalled that “in the late 70s you had to have a season ticket to get into a show at the Rep. But this was the only theatre around then. NCRT and Redwood Curtain came out of here.”

Now McCormick would like to expand and redesign the stage and reduce the number of seats. She’s already made physical improvements to the green room area backstage, and Technical Director Daniel Lawrence has rebuilt much of the theatre’s façade, with lumber donated by Almquist Lumber. (The film-set façade that Warner Brothers presented as a gift to the theatre after the Outbreak shoot turned out to be built with indoor wood and paint, and has been falling apart ever since.)

 Besides ticket sales, Ferndale Rep is supported by local sponsors and grants, notably the Bertha Russ Lytel Foundation. “We have a staff of three—I’m the only full-time,” McCormick said. “It takes about 500 people to put on a season.”

 While she confesses it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to get people to come, the fascination of live theatre is still powerful. “There’s nothing else like it. It all happens right there, in front of you. Someone can make a movie and if nobody comes to see it, they still have that work of art. But we can’t do a play without an audience. They’re just too important.”

North Coast Rep with Michael Thomas (2006)

North Coast Repertory Theatre concludes its current season with Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, beginning August 10. Soon after, its 23rd season starts with Ladies of the Camellias in September, Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in November, Jake’s Women (by Neil Simon) in January, Henry IV, Part 1 in March, Kiss Me Kate in May and Larry Shue’s The Nerd next July.

 In his office over the theatre, with windows overlooking Fifth Street in Eureka, Managing Artistic Director Michael Thomas was busy with solicitations for next year’s season tickets (you can call him at 442-NCRT and get yours) when I visited one recent afternoon.

The choice of plays for a season is “critical.” he said. NCRT has stayed alive for 23 years by essentially breaking even on season ticket sales and tickets at the door, plus selling ads in the playbill, with help from concessions, donations and grants.

 “But that doesn’t mean we don’t try things that are surprising. There are people who like edgier plays—they may not be a majority, but they’re also part of our community. We have a responsibility to offer plays the community will like, but not just what is safe and guaranteed.”

 “I never use the phrase—or like to hear the phrase—‘well, it’s just community theatre.’ We don’t operate that way,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t enter into my consciousness. We do the best we can with the people we have and the money we have, just like every theatre does.”

 “I work with people who are here because they want to be here, because they want to be part of creating a particular production, not because this is their job. I don’t say that lightly. It’s significant to the atmosphere of what goes on in this building.”

 Thanks to a California Arts Council grant (“before their funding was cut”), NCRT began a policy of paying actors and everyone else involved in a production. They’ve managed to continue it. “It’s not a lot of money—we call it a stipend. But everybody gets something.”

 There are difficulties, not only because NCRT can’t pay a living wage to theatre artists and staff, but because there is no such professional theatre anywhere near here. People tend to go where they can make a living doing what their expensive educations qualify them to do. That limits the talent pool.

 “The most challenging thing is to find competent people to work with,” Thomas says. “I’m always looking. Actors, designers, technical people—it’s difficult. There are talented people here, but not a lot, and they’re busy with other things in life, like making a living. The challenge is to find people who are available.”

 But in the end, theatre is theatre. “In professional theatres you have stronger shows and weaker shows, stronger actors and weaker actors. You have that in community theatre, too.”

 “Part of our mission as a community theatre is to maintain a ticket price that is reasonable for this community,” Thomas said, “ and that means controlling costs.” It also leads to a complex set of mutually beneficial relationships between theatre and community. “We welcome people who are new to theatre, and we’ll train them and use them, when appropriate. Of course, in auditions any director will choose the best actor, and the director defines ‘best.’"

In September Michael Thomas will begin his eighth season as managing artistic director, a self-selected title that reflects the jack-of-all trades nature of his job—everything from paying the bills to critiques of shows in rehearsal-- as the theatre’s only full-time employee.

 Thomas studied theatre at Northwestern University, near the North Shore Chicago suburb where he grew up. “My parents took me to theatre in Chicago. It was amazing. I’ve always been grateful they did that.” After studying mime and performing in Paris, he returned to make his fortune in the U.S. Postal Service. “It seemed like a lot of money to me at the time.”  From Sonoma County, he came to Humboldt with his daughter to earn his theatre MFA at HSU.

For most of its life, NCRT has been housed in this former Salvation Army store, built in the 1923, and they’ve owned it since 1996. Improvements are ongoing. “The building’s been painted this year, we’ve had some foundation work, a new ventilation system—air conditioning for the first time—all thanks to the Arkleys. We got a computerized light board with a grant from Simpson’s. We get a lot of support from local businesses. Sometimes they’ll loan us furniture and props for a show, sometimes donate materials or give us a discount.”

 The 139-seat theatre “seems to work well for us. We sell out some nights for any given play, which tells me it’s a good size.” Still, it’s cramped quarters backstage, and a relatively low ceiling above the stage limits second and third levels, and also means “we’ll never do Peter Pan.”

The stage itself is rough and uneven, which is especially hard on dancers. “We’d like to redo the stage, it’s on our wish list. But really, this space can work just fine,” Thomas said. “It’s what we do with the space that counts. This crack on the floor is not important compared with how the acting’s going. If the product is good, that’s secondary. I’ve seen enough to know that.”

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