March 23, 2006
Spring Stages and Balloon Dream
by WILLIAM S. KOWINSKI
So here's my spring fever idea for the Balloon Track (or Tract): balloons. Lots of balloons, attached to kids and adults and other clowns, outside a theatre.
Yes, this is a theatre column. The spring theatre season is about to bloom: North Coast Rep begins Kiss of the Spider Woman (the play by Manuel Puig, author of the novel, rather than the musical) on March 30, the same day that Star Garden Theater in Arcata premieres The Tree, a satire by Dave Silverbrand. (More on that next week.)
On April 6, Ferndale Rep opens the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, and HSU opens Hangman, an original adaptation of the narrative poem by Maurice Ogden. HSU then ends its year with its student dance production on April 20-22, and the annual student festival of 10-minute plays at the end of April and the first weekend of May.
Meanwhile, Vagabond Players Children's Theatre opens The Secret History of the Future at the Star Garden on April 21. The Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre presents An Explosion of Clown Mania April 28-29, and The Finals! on May 26-27, with the Youth Academy's Arcata Teen Ensemble performing A Medieval Fantasy in between, on May 6-7. Ferndale Rep begins its Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue, Some Enchanted Evening, on May 18.
But for all this activity, there are some conspicuous absences from North Coast stages. Redwood Curtain has evidently still not closed a deal on a new home, and Plays in Progress is apparently gone forever, since its founder, Sue Bigelow, has left the area.
Some may believe that the amount of theatre here has reached its natural limit anyway, but I'm not so sure. Certainly there are gaps -- we're lacking the contemporary plays Redwood Curtain did, and the new work and special programs (such as the women's festival) that Plays in Progress produced. I can't say I liked everything they each presented (Redwood Curtain seemed to drift away from the daring with which they began, and the women's festival seemed to fall off in quality after the exciting first couple of years) but they brought something unique to audiences here, and North Coast theatre is poorer for their absence.
There seem to be other untried opportunities out there. I'm surprised that there isn't a comedy improv group working the colleges and casinos, for example. Some kind of professional theatre could help make all theatre better. So could more visiting productions -- why not something from Ashland every year?
Which brings me back to the Balloon Tract (or track) -- or rather, to the Eureka waterfront. Hank Sims' cover story last week on what other cities are doing with old rail yards got me thinking about what cities have been doing with their waterfronts in general, beginning with Boston and Baltimore in the 1970s.
I researched those situations at the time (interviewing planners, architects, developers and mayors) and to some extent have followed how they`ve done since. Fanueil Hall Marketplace in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore helped transform not only the waterfront but the downtowns of those cities, and made them major tourist destinations, as well as places local people liked to go.
Obviously we're not talking the same scale, but some of the goals are the same. Old Town already has the kind of small shops and eating places that first filled these "festival marketplace" malls. The waterfront provides opportunity for pedestrian spaces, where no cars interfere with a sense of safe enclosure, which coincidentally, perhaps, is almost a definition of a theatre space.
The retail drama is not the only thing happening on these waterfronts, however. Fanueil Hall's appeal is partly its re-enlivened historic buildings. A Baltimore study found that these days the major attraction to the Inner Harbor isn't the Harborplace mall, but the nearby National Aquarium.
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.
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© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.