Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Arcata Playhouse: Start to Now

The origins of the Arcata Playhouse are described in the 2007 column I also reproduce at the end of this one.  Since then there have indeed been many physical improvements in the theatre, and the Playhouse has been the energetic center of the ongoing revival in the old Creamery district of Arcata.

For awhile, I was going to the Arcata Playhouse regularly to review shows (and indulge in the homemade, still-warm chocolate chip cookies.)  Several notable shows premiered there: the two versions of Crawdaddy, and Tyler Olson's Quake: A Love Story stand out in memory.  Redwood Curtain produced shows there during its exile, and Dan Stone's Signature Stage brought Kopit's Sing To Me Through Open Windows. Jane Hill returned with Getting There.  Shake the Bard company produced a memorable Othello there, which was the basis for a later North Coast Rep production.  While the NCRT production was more polished, I found the production at the Arcata Playhouse to be more exciting as live theatre, possibly because the audience was in the thick of it.

There were also a number of visiting shows: Elizabeth Fuller and Independent Eye,  Cal Pritner's Mark Twain, Ghost Road's Elektra,  Donald Lacy's still relevant Color Struck for example.

Mostly through Four on the Floor Productions, the impressarios of the Arcata Playhouse provided original material: Jackie Dandeneau was a major creative force behind the epic Women of the Northwest, and David Ferney co-wrote and performed a solo show, The Misunderstood Badger. Ferney's brand of humor, in this show and in his part of the first Crawdaddy show, is unique.  There should be more.


 And there are the annual holiday shows, the latest of which played this past weekend.

In the last several years, the Playhouse has concentrated on music acts and family or children's theatre.  This perhaps reflects a dearth of funding for traveling troupes, and the demise of groups like Sanctuary Stage and Shake the Bard, with none replacing them in the theatrical ecology. But it seems to be also a preference for physical theatre (clown, mask, acro.)

It's interesting to note at the end of the article below that at first David and Jackie were hearing from people interested in reviving the kind of productions that Pacific Arts Center Theatre did.  That is not happening.  There was, David said, the opportunity for someone to mount, in his example, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.  No one has taken that opportunity, or anything like it.  The PACT dream has apparently faded from the scene.

In any case, the direction that the Playhouse has gone in the past few years limited my attendance (I don't really know how to review clowns and acrobats.)  So I missed the kind of shows I used to see at the Arcata Playhouse, and I really miss the chocolate chip cookies.

Before I wrote the column below in 2007, I'd written about the first phase of reclaiming this Creamery space for stage: the Star Garden Theatre and its first non-children's theatre production of a play by veteran North Coast news broadcaster Dave Silverbrand.  Here are a couple of relevant passages from my draft of that March 2006 article:

Pacific Arts Center Theatre created challenging theatre on the North Coast for a generation, first in Arcata in the 1970s and then in the early 90s in Manila [This is where I saw its exciting production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.] Along the way, it spawned the children’s theatre group, Vagabond Players. After leaving Manila, both groups moved for about a year to the Eagle House, then to a Eureka warehouse space. Then PACT stopped producing completely, and Vagabond reconstituted itself as a program of the Ink People... 

Coming in from the March mist and cold, the space inside the Creamery building now known as the Star Garden Theatre feels immediately welcoming. The very high ceilings add to a sense of spaciousness and possibility, and there’s a warmth in the combination of modest fixtures and the theatre’s elegant wood floor. The homey reception area has a refreshment bar, topped with the large masks from Where the Wild Things Are[Star Garden's first production], and a revolutionary new concept in local community theatre---two (count’em, two!) restrooms, one next to the other.  

New Life for An Arcata Landmark?  February 2007

In big cities and small across the country, new artistic energies have often found focus in abandoned industrial districts, where superior buildings with lots of space offer opportunities for lofts, studios and performance venues, plus the people-oriented businesses that come to surround them.

Now and again the old Creamery in Arcata, in the largely depopulated and marginal area west of K Street, has suggested this potential. It hosts the Arcata Ballet, DanceCenter and New World Youth Ballet, with spaces for rehearsal, classes and performances. Years ago, the legendary Pacific Arts Center Theatre began here.

 Still, it hasn’t reached the critical mass to transform the area into a familiar audience destination. But there are signs that may be changing—specifically, a new sign in front saying “Arcata Playhouse,” and new paint being applied to the foyer last week from a tall ladder to which is affixed a small red teddy bear.

 Though the fresh paint outside and inside is only the first step in the planned transformation, this venue’s potential is being suggested and perhaps tested with a gala opening event this Saturday, featuring local luminaries such as Rudi Galindo, Jeff De Mark, Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor, and hosted by the couple that comprises one-third of the partnership attempting to create a viable and affordable playhouse for theatre, music and other forms of performance, with a family emphasis and a community reach.

 They are Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney, whose Four on the Floor Productions is partnering with Shoebox Puppet Company (Corey Stevens, owner of the Muddy Cup) and Vagabond Players, which most recently operated the space as the Stargarden Theatre.

 Pacific Arts Center Theatre had spawned Vagabond, which struggled on after PACT faded away, but, true to its name, it was homeless in 2005 when Carole Wolfe, its volunteer artistic director, called the Creamery looking for storage space. Instead she found Vagabond’s new home, in the same place where PACT had begun some thirty years before.

 Other groups also used the space (including Four on the Floor) but this summer Vagabond had fallen several months behind in the rent. That’s when Dandeneau and Ferney put together the partnership and became the venue’s managers. Now all three enterprises—Four on the Floor, Shoebox Puppets and Vagabond—have a home, and the rent is split three ways.

 Ferney and Dandeneau are Dell’ Arte people. Ferney graduated from its school about 20 years ago, and became a member of the locally famous family comic acrobatic troupe, Los Payasos Mendigos. The troupe also traveled far and wide, which is how he met Dandeneau at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, where she was with a traveling feminist sketch comedy group called Full Figure Theatre.

 “We would hook up in New Zealand, and hang out together in England,” Ferney recalled. “Meanwhile I was living in San Francisco, and she was in Vancouver. Finally we realized we would either have to shack up or call it quits.”

 They chose the former, moved to an island between Vancouver and Victoria, started a small theatre company, and a family. Then Dell’Arte called, and hired them both.

 They recently began branching out to produce shows through Four on the Floor, which brought them to the Stargarden Theatre, and to the managing partnership of the Arcata Playhouse. Noting the couple’s professional experience, Ferney said, “I’m interested in exploring a hybrid of professional and community theatre.”

 Upgrading the space is a major goal. ”Getting a decent lighting and sound system, some decent drapes, figuring out the best seating arrangement,” Ferney said. “Corrie is a great partner because he just took over that caf√©, and he’s really interested in getting concessions together, and taking care of all that. So we want to elevate the venue and make it a happening place in Arcata.”

 “I’m excited,” Carole Wolfe professed in the Playhouse lobby, paint roller in hand. “There’s all this new energy—it’s fun again!”

The Playhouse is going forward with a performance later this month by Mookie Cornish (Cirque de Solei clown and Dell’Arte grad) and the Faust Mask Works from Toronto in May. Synapses, which lost its Eureka home, is one of what they hope will be many local groups to perform here.

David and Jackie talked enthusiastically about the possibilities, especially for family-oriented shows and filling community needs, such as a place for young people and seniors to hold performance events.

 But they’re also thinking of adult theatre—the kind the Pacific Arts Center Theatre used to do. “I’ve met a lot of people who are really excited about the rejuvenation of the old PACT space,” Jackie said. “I’d like to do a PACT-style show, with some of the actors who were involved in it.” “You know, pretty much anything is possible, once you’ve got the space,” David observed. “You might be thinking, ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to do Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, so why not?”

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