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July 27, 2006

The Mystery of Community Theatre
at Ferndale Rep

Heading: Stage Matters by William Kowinski, photo of Ferndale Repertory Theater; Marilyn McCormick and Lance Dickson

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.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

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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