The play's the thing
by TRACEY BARNES PRIESTLEY
CHECK OUT THE CALENDAR SECTION OF this newspaper and what do you see? A vast array of theater productions just waiting for you. Take in the Ferndale Rep, scoot on out to Blue Lake for Dell' Arte's latest extravaganza, get swept away by Humboldt Light Opera's "Music Man," currently running at HSU. Such variety, so many choices.
It's interesting, especially since we're classified as a rural community. An urban dweller might assume that our theatrical opportunities would be virtually nonexistent. What's up with all of this theater in our little neck of the woods?
I decided to take a look at the local production of "The Music Man." Considered a classic American musical, the story line is straightforward; a charming con man sets out to swindle a small town. Instead he breathes life into the citizens, manages to capture the heart of the spinster librarian, and has the entire town singing and marching by the last curtain call.
In this day and age of movies full of exploding cars, illicit liaisons and world disasters, why would someone want to spend two hours with the people of River City? It's simple -- live theater takes an audience far, far away from their everyday lives. Watch actors on stage and you experience a very different kind of energy. Real people touch us in a way video, film and television actors just can't. By light of day, a barbershop quartet can seem downright dated. But put the same men on a stage, in the middle of a town you're starting to like, full of people you're starting to root for, and you'll find yourself smiling from their harmony. In that instant, on some visceral level, you're pleased, and a little relieved that these grumpy guys have finally found a way to get along.
The visual aspect of theater delights the senses. It's a feast for the eyes to look at a stage full of period costumes -- women's hats 2 feet wide, dripping with feathers and lace, boys in knickers, men checking their pocket watches. Every detail adds to the audience's experience, since the costumes subtly define everything from the way the action takes place to the way the actors move and behave. (You won't see any of these River City girls sitting cross-legged. As director Carol Ryder pointed out to her very young actresses during rehearsals, "remember, these `girls' have never worn a pair of pants!" Their disbelief was audible.)
Live theater also moves the story through the magic of sets. In "The Music Man," various shops glide in and out of our view. We may find ourselves in a family parlor, without even being quite aware how we got there. Next we join the River City residents in the middle of the town square, colorfully decorated with patriotic bunting. Through a system of ropes and pulleys, background pieces, "fly" in -- now you see them, now you don't. Even though our logical selves certainly know it's all a matter of plywood and paint, our emotional selves don`t give it a second thought.
OK, so that's what the audience gets for the price of a ticket -- a night out in a very different world, with very different people, customs and, in this show, delightful music. But what do the nearly 100 members of the cast and crew get for all of their hard work? Plenty. Sure, they love to entertain, to sing, to make people happy and send them out into the summer night humming a tune. But the people who participate in local theater productions also get to create and share a unique "community" with each other. These friends and strangers come together in a process unlike any other.
Read the cast list and you'll see people from every corner of Humboldt County. There are teachers, nurses, insurance executives, computer programmers, homemakers, waitresses -- professions as diverse as the people themselves. Plenty of college and high school students commit their entire summer to the show. Little ones, first- and second-graders, show up night after night, to sing their hearts out. Can you think of another activity that brings together so many different people?
Then there is the actual task at hand -- combining their very different levels of experience and talent to create an entirely different reality. It means countless hours of rehearsals, additional time making sets, working on costumes, publicity, even selling tickets. But they all do it because they share a belief in, and enjoyment of, this thing called community theater.
How fitting that the "Mayor" of River City (aka Bob Burchit), would sum it up so well: "Productions like `The Music Man' bring people of varying ages, backgrounds, training, and experience together. The cast and crew work hard, side-by-side for two months, sometimes in very intense situations. Often times, people who would otherwise have little or no involvement with each other find they do have something in common -- community theater. The result can often be the beginning of lifelong friendships."
Community theater -- it's diverse, entertaining, reasonably priced. It adds up to plenty of good news whether you're sitting in the audience or standing up on stage.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.