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August 10, 2006

Stage Matters

It's Not 'Just Community Theatre' at North Coast Rep


North Coast Repertory Theatre concludes its season with Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, beginning Aug. 10. Soon after, its 23rd season starts with Ladies of the Camellias in September, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado in November, Jake's Women (by Neil Simon) in January, Henry IV, Part 1 in March, Kiss Me Kate in May and Larry Shue's The Nerd next July.

In his office over the theatre, with windows overlooking Fifth Street in Eureka, Managing Artistic Director Michael Thomas was busy with solicitations for next year's season tickets when I visited one recent afternoon. (You can call him at 442-NCRT and get yours.)

The choice of plays for a season is "critical," he said. NCRT has stayed alive for 23 years by essentially breaking even on season ticket sales and tickets at the door, plus selling ads in the playbill, with help from concessions, donations and grants. "But that doesn't mean we don't try things that are surprising," Thomas said. "There are people who like edgier plays — they may not be a majority, but they're also part of our community. We have a responsibility to offer plays the community will like, but not just what is safe and of Michael Thomas

"I never use the phrase — or like to hear the phrase — 'well, it's just community theatre.' We don't operate that way. It doesn't enter into my consciousness. We do the best we can with the people we have and the money we have, just like every theatre does.

"I work with people who are here because they want to be here, because they want to be part of creating a particular production, not because this is their job. I don't say that lightly. It's significant to the atmosphere of what goes on in this building."

Right: Michael Thomas.

Thanks to a California Arts Council grant — "before the funding was cut" — NCRT began a policy of paying actors and everyone else involved in a production. They've managed to continue it. "It's not a lot of money — we call it a stipend," Thomas said. "But everybody gets something."

People tend to go where they can make a living doing what their expensive educations qualify them to do. That limits the talent pool in a largely rural area like Humboldt. "The most challenging thing is to find competent people to work with," Thomas said. "I'm always looking. Actors, designers, technical people — it's difficult. There are talented people here, but not a lot, and they're busy with other things in life, like making a living. The challenge is to find people who are available."

But in the end, theatre is theatre. "In professional theatres you have stronger shows and weaker shows, stronger actors and weaker actors. You have that in community theatre, too. Part of our mission as a community theatre is to maintain a ticket price that is reasonable for this community, and that means controlling costs."

It also leads to a complex set of mutually beneficial relationships between theatre and community.

"We welcome people who are new to theatre, and we'll train them and use them, when appropriate. Of course, in auditions any director will choose the best actor, and the director defines 'best.' "

In September Michael Thomas will begin his eighth season as managing artistic director, a self-selected title that reflects the jack-of-all trades nature of his job — everything from paying the bills to critiques of shows in rehearsal — as the theatre's only full-time employee.

Thomas studied theatre at Northwestern University, near the North Shore Chicago suburb where he grew up. "My parents took me to theatre in Chicago," he said. "It was amazing. I've always been grateful they did that."

After studying mime and performing in Paris, he returned to make his fortune in the U.S. Postal Service. "It seemed like a lot of money to me at the time." From Sonoma County, he came to Humboldt with his daughter to earn his theatre MFA at HSU.

For most of its life, NCRT has been housed in this former Salvation Army store, built in 1923, and they've owned it since 1996. Improvements are ongoing. "The building's been painted this year, we've had some foundation work, a new ventilation system — air conditioning for the first time — all thanks to the Arkleys. We got a computerized light board with a grant from Simpson. We get a lot of support from local businesses. Sometimes they'll loan us furniture and props for a show, sometimes donate materials or give us a discount."

The 139-seat theatre "seems to work well for us," he said. "We sell out some nights for any given play, which tells me it's a good size." Still, it's cramped quarters backstage, and a relatively low ceiling above the stage limits second and third levels and also means they'll "never do Peter Pan." The stage itself is rough and uneven, which is especially hard on dancers.

"We'd like to redo the stage, it's on our wish list," Thomas said. "But really, this space can work just fine. It's what we do with the space that counts. This crack on the floor is not important compared with how the acting's going. If the product is good, that's secondary. I've seen enough to know that."

Before the summer slips away, a brief Stage Matters farewell: Besides teaching theatre and directing at HSU, Theresa May was the creative force behind the Salmon Is Everything project, and the co-originator and associate director of the national Earth Matters on Stage Ecodrama Festival. Her husband, Larry K. Fried, was its executive director, as well as an actor and director for Redwood Curtain and NCRT. They're moving to Eugene, where Theresa will teach at the University of Oregon. We're grateful for their contributions here, and wish them well.

News Note: A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum opens on Aug. 10 at Ferndale Rep, not Aug. 3 as previously announced.


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