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July 27, 2006
The Mystery of Community Theatre
at Ferndale Rep
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.
Henslowe: I don't know. It's a
— Shakespeare in Love,
by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Above: Ferndale Repertory Theater; Marilyn McCormick
and Lance Dickson in the production of On Golden Pond.
Photo by Dan Tubbs.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre will begin its 35th
year of continuous production in the fall, and Marilyn McCormick
will begin her 10th 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 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 canceled 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, D.C., 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 (you may have seen him recently on Boston
Legal or 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."
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