Friday, December 5, 2014

The Long and Winding Redwood Curtain

I've seen the saga of Redwood Curtain from its public beginning, from its first production at the Eagle House, of A Perfect Ganesh by Terrance McNally.  I still remember that production fondly.  I couldn't anticipate what would happen next, and at least once, I was thrilled by what did.  (Even though in its Internet descriptions, the play sounds awful.)

We saw subsequent plays at Redwood Curtain's first permanent home, in the Henderson Center shopping center.  Their homeless period coincided with the first years of my Stage Matters column.  For awhile they had a property in view, which ultimately fell through.  That's the one described in the interview from 2006 I did with Redwood Curtain's founders, Peggy Metzger and Clint Rebik.  I've attached that column to the end of this one.

There were empty years (2006 itself) but also some very good productions at the Arcata Playhouse, though they tended to be very small scale: two of the ones I liked best were basically one person shows: Randy Wayne as genius physicist Richard Feynman (and come on--what other reviewer could comment on how Feynman said "in-ter-est-ing"?) and especially Tinamarie Ivey in Bad Dates.

Then at last in 2010 the strange boxcar-shaped theatre (which could actually have been a trolley barn) on Snug Alley in Eureka.  Redwood Curtain started off gloriously in its new and present home with Lynne Wells' tour de force in Glorious!  

In old home and new, Redwood Curtain seems to have specialized in contemporary domestic comedies of a kind often described as "quirky."  I can't at the moment think of a word I despise more than "quirky."  It's a lazy, smirky way to avoid taking the pains to actually describe something.  It's very much akin to the all-purpose, supposedly neutral but backwards damning "different."

But these comedies do share certain qualities--unusual location (i.e. not Manhattan apartments), and/or characters with perceived social, class or physical disabilities, with narratives that wobble and wander unexpectedly, or are told in a not strictly realistic style.

I was charmed by many of these comedies on the nights I saw them, and some left lasting impressions: Fortune with Clint Rebik and Cassandra Hesseltine; the  historical Hollywood comedy Moonlight and Magnolias with James Floss; The Language Archive with Craig Benson, Terry Desch, Lynne and Bob Wells; and two shows this past season, Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and the witty yet substantive Equivocation.

I also recall some charming moments in the virtuoso comedy Almost Maine, the energy in the clever if superficial For Better and Circle Mirror Transformation. I suppose superficial is the right word for a number of these--or Skin Deep as one play was called.  Even when these plays don't have narrative problems of one kind or another, they are like confections: fun at the time, but not very nourishing.

Redwood Curtain doesn't do many dramas, but a couple remain favorites and strong in my memory (I didn't see the most recent show.): The Pitmen Painters, and Craig Benson's direction of A.R. Gurney's Far East. It actually started me on a couple of months of reading Gurney's plays.

Common to all Redwood Curtain productions (even the ones I really didn't like) has been the quality of the acting.  It's the gold standard for the North Coast, and that is beginning to extend beyond acting.  The parts in these contemporary plays aren't greatly challenging, but often require virtuosity and subtlety.  Just physically, the actors are credible as their characters--not a luxury that every theatre hereabouts enjoys.

This 2006 interview refers to the dream or goal of creating "Ashland By the Sea," but at the time I didn't realize how literal that description might be.  For it seems many of the plays that end up at Redwood Curtain were first spotted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Sometimes contemporary plays that arrive via that route (as well as from other regional theatres) are bit homogenized or confused in the "development" process.  They typically have a high concept premise (you know, a quirky one) and include a thesis statement speech in case you missed the point.  They might come stuffed with ideas and bits, per the suggestions of countless workshops, even when the narrative strains to the breaking point.

But where else are new plays going to come from?  Not many from Manhattan anymore.  And some extraordinary plays survive the process.  I'm  not sure extraordinary playwrights do, but that's another subject.

The vision described below from 2006 includes the theatre as tourist destination. Earlier that year I'd proposed something like that independently, in a column about uses of the Balloon Track/Tract that didn't involve a shopping mall:

There's been talk of a bay research facility on the waterfront, and the proposed eco-hostel may include research labs. Maybe there's potential for creating related tourist destinations that show off the science that also shows off this region's natural wonders and independent spirit. Because all the waterfront's a stage.

 There are other possibilities to give people more to do, and more reason to come to the waterfront, like a park, a lively museum of regional history, and -- an actual theatre, on the waterfront. 

I imagine a modest but adaptable theatre space, for a rotating menu of productions by local theatre groups and individuals, with daylight programs of children's theatre, street theatre and short plays based on local history and themes, to give tourists a destination and the North Coast some fun. And to provide theatre people some paying work, assuming they don't all die of heart failure at the prospect.

 It's just an idea, but it might be useful to explore how theatre can contribute to making the waterfront a special, signature place, while working with compatible businesses and cultural attractions beyond the waterfront. With lots of balloons, track or no tract.

So far this hasn't happened, but Redwood Curtain's current location holds that potential.  As described below, their dreams of a theatre and restaurant, and other daring innovations (two multiple occupancy restrooms!) got scaled back, but the artistic goals seem pertinent still.

 I was very impressed with how Redwood Curtain supporters stayed with them through the years of exile.  Now that loyalty is paying off.  Plus there are Klondikes.

Ashland By the Sea (2006)

It's been almost exactly a year now since Redwood Curtain closed its last show. A compact legacy of costumes, props and scenery were hauled away from its abandoned digs in a Eureka shopping center and stored. But its current homelessness has not darkened the vision its founders have always had.

 "It's been a roller coaster ride," admitted one of those founders, Peggy Metzger, in a recent conversation on the HSU campus, where she works as Associate Director in the Financial Aid department. "But right now we're in negotiations on a space we really want."

"Our vision has always been to be a professional theatre providing living wages to artists," she said, "and to be a tourist destination — to be part of that economic development world. That's one of the reasons a Eureka waterfront location would be ideal — right where redevelopment is happening."

So no surprise that this is the location of the building that Redwood Curtain hopes to soon inhabit. "It's a big building in Old Town that's been abandoned for years, that's never been a theatre," she said, and laughed. "Even though we can't say what building it is, everybody figures it out pretty quickly from that description."

 If ongoing negotiations are successful (they've been proceeding for about six months), Redwood Curtain has the designs ready for the construction of a brand new theatre. But there's another key piece of the plan as well.

 "We've partnered up with Curley Tate, of Curley's Bar and Grill in Ferndale, who always said, 'wherever you guys end up permanently, I want to be with you.' So half of the space will be the new theatre, and half a fabulous new restaurant."

Besides the negotiations, Redwood Curtain has been active in other ways in the past year. They've ducked out from under the umbrella of the Ink People and are organizing their own non-profit. With Cassandra Hesseltine presiding, there's the new casting agency and a conservatory that's offered acting classes. But always the main attention has been on finally making the theatre vision a reality.

 "We learned a lot from our last space," Metzger said. "So the playing area we've designed is basically the same — a three-quarter thrust stage — but the backstage will be very different. We've also designed it so it can be used for other events like weddings, conventions and conferences, with catering available from Curley's. We'll build a classroom and rehearsal space, so we can do events in the theatre and still rehearse and hold classes."

But perhaps the most immediate revolution in Humboldt County theatre will be the restrooms: two new ones, each accommodating four people at once.

 Artistically, Redwood Curtain will maintain its niche of offering mostly contemporary plays that haven't been performed elsewhere in Humboldt before. "Fresh, thoughtful and funny, sometimes a little edgy," as Metzger described it.

"Even if we would do a classic, it would be a rethinking of it. We want to produce the highest quality we can manage, using the top talent we can find, even bringing in outside talent."

"Contemporary work that excites our artists and our audience," added Clint Rebik, Redwood's Artistic Director, who joined the interview from his job in the HSU Registrar's office. "Work that we feel a connection to."

 Both Metzger and Rebik travel to other theatres, always looking for ideas they can use at Redwood Curtain. But there's one particular model, or at least ideal. "Ashland has been kind of a guiding force for us," Rebik said, "because of their rural, small-town location, and what they do and how they do it, the venues, how they've grown. Of course, they have a 60-year head start on us."

But that's the nub of the vision, as Metzger described it: "Ashland by the sea."

Eventually they hope to be doing two plays in repertory in the summer, "so that tourists who wouldn't come here for one play might come for two," she said, referring to Ashland's system of multi-play packages that attract visitors from up and down the coast. Restaurants and other businesses in Ashland have adapted to serving visitors that the theatres attract, but Redwood Curtain hopes to build in part of that process with Curley's.

"Imagine having a great grilled salmon dinner," Metzger said, "and when you get your bill, your theatre tickets are tucked under it, and your server tells you, 'your performance starts next door in 10 minutes.'"

Getting a good beginning on this vision may not be so very far away, either. "We're hoping for a 2007 season in our new venue," Metzger said, "four shows, beginning in spring."

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