by George Ringwald

FRT's Lettice and LovageFerndale Repertory Theatre's Lettice and Lovage with Bonnie Bareilles, left, and Marilyn McCormick, right. Photo courtesy of FRT

"There 's no business like show business ... no business I know."

Ethel Merman sang it in that glorious, shattering voice, and you'd be hard pressed to find more ardent believers in that theme than among the dedicated players of Humboldt County community theater.

They travel countless miles, work their butts off in six weeks of rehearsal -- the final one graphically depicted as "hell week" -- plus four weekends of performance, and without a cent of pay. Ferndale Repertory Theatre (FRT) used to give its players a $50 travel stipend, but that went out with the recession in the early '90s.

What's more, they endure the slams of feckless reviewers -- at least as actors frequently see them -- and suffer through the inevitable glitches of theater -- technical foul-ups, fellow cast members who stumble over lines, and the occasional intrusion of unexpected performers.

A classic example of the last was when Rosie the cat, the house mouse catcher for Pacific Art Center Theatre (PACT) in its old creamery building theater in Arcata, calmly made her way on stage with a fresh kill and proceeded to devour it in front of the audience.

David Anderson, a mainstay of the theater from its beginning (his Falstaffian girth made him a natural for that role in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor), recounts the story: "It was during a performance of Archie and Mehitabel, when all the people on stage were cats."

Talk about actors getting upstaged!

Marilyn McCormick, the veteran performer at Ferndale Rep and now its artistic director, recalls: "We've had two different cats make two different stage appearances. Gus (Ferndale's regular mouse keeper) appeared on stage during It's a Wonderful Life, and Joe's cat next door, Gina Lollabrigida, came on during Hedda Gabler. Walked right up the aisle ... and onto the set."

It necessitated a momentary lapse in the performance to get Gina offstage. But the show must -- and did -- go on; no cat's going to breach that hallowed rule.

PACT's Waiting for GodotPACT's Waiting for Godot with Mutahar Williams, David Anderson and Bob Wells from left to right. Photo courtesy of David Anderson.

Then there are guns and other stage weapons that seem to have a life of their own.

"Guns on stage always make for problems," observes Aaron Shores, the youthful technical director of Eureka's North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT).

(Neither North Coast nor Ferndale, it might be noted, are true repertory theaters, which have permanent companies, but Ferndale did start that way.)

Shores remembers, for instance, the time he was appearing in Ferndale Rep's production of Wild West, when Dan Lawrence, in the role of Jesse James, comes bursting on stage with guns firing. "But one night he came in, raised his pistol, and there's this sad little 'click.' And we all dived down."

Another time, Shores was playing a villainous type in The Fox, a D.H. Lawrence story. At the end of the play he comes on with a shotgun to blast away one of the women, played by Gloria Montgomery.

"I pull the trigger, and nothing happens," he says. But then, showing the quick thinking that saves many a performance, "I came running at Gloria with the shotgun and 'clubbed her to death.'"

Clint Rebik, former artistic director at Ferndale Rep and now active in a group trying to bring professional theater to the county (when he isn't dealing cards at Cher-Ae Heights Casino in Trinidad), tells of the time he and James Read, protagonists in Ferndale's production of I Hate Hamlet, were engaged in a beautifully staged bit of sword play.

"One night, closing night actually, there's a point where I end up with both swords, and I start flinging them around like I know what I'm doing, right? I end up banging them together, which shocks me, because I'm not as good as I think I am.... It's at the front of the stage; I bang it and it drops off the stage, right in front of the apron. I'm left with one, and we have to have both to continue the sword fight. I looked at James; he looks at me, and all I did was jump off the stage, grab it, and pop right back up. And I don't know how I did it -- because that's three and a half feet -- except for the sheer adrenaline."

It was that indispensable adrenaline and adaptability of players that saved one night's opening of Ferndale's Will Rogers Follies (with Bill McBride in the title role) from a nearly disastrous technical glitch. The show opens with the dramatic entrance of Will swinging down on a rope from 15 feet above the stage.

FRT's Will Rogers FolliesFRT's Will Rogers Follies with Bill McBride in the title role. Photo courtesy of FRT

"It took us until the night before we opened to get the rigging right," Rebik remembers. "There was one night the show opens with the chorus singing, and the very last thing they say is, 'Here's our Will! Boom!'"

But on this night, there was no Will. Rebik says, "I'm sitting up in the (light) booth, wondering, 'What are they gonna do?' Michelle Miller, God love her, she is really an amazing improvisationalist. You've got a cast of 12 people on stage, just waiting.... So Michelle launches in, 'Are you still up there, Will? Well, come on down, it's time to start the show.' He says something about he can't, and she says, 'Well, just go around and take the stairs; we'll fill in.'"

That's what he did, with the help of the ever-invaluable backstage crew that pulled Will back up to a kind of catwalk, from which he was able to go to the stairs.

Rebik concludes, "And when he got on stage, completely unrehearsed, the entire cast goes in unison, 'Boom!' And it just picked up. I was so amazed at their professionalism."

NCRT's Shores remembers when they were doing The Glass Menagerie, for which he designed the set, when the Gentleman Caller sat on a sofa under a portrait of the family's father -- "and the picture fell down and hit him on the head."

In the finale of Blithe Spirit, also at NCRT, there were pictures set atilt, lamps falling over and even a mirror cracking -- all of it, in this case, in keeping with the plot -- and it stands out in memory as a magical piece of special effects in local theater.

Shores' "all-time favorite gaffe" occurred in one North Coast performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At the close of the first act, Bob Wells, a star of so many plays at all of the major community theaters, picks up a bottle and breaks it over the bar. The bottle was scored to prevent its breaking into a myriad dangerous fragments, but on this night a large, jagged piece leaped out and landed on the foot of co-star Lynne Safier Wells.

"And blood was gushing out all over," as husband Bob Wells recalls only too well.

At intermission, Shores, who was house manager that night, couldn't find adequate bandaging in the theater's first-aid kit. "There's no theater that has a complete first-aid kid," he adds parenthetically. So, he goes on, "I got to say the words that every theater manager wants to say: 'Is there a doctor in the house?'"

There wasn't -- wouldn't you know it? -- so they wind up running across the street to the fire station. "And they come over with full equipment -- five firemen to bandage her foot," Shores continues. "And got it all done in the 15-minute intermission. Didn't even have to hold up the second act."

That's show biz for you.

Of course, there are those fearful moments when actors have trouble remembering their lines. Perhaps most memorable was the actor in Other People's Money, again at NCRT, who came on stage with cue cards to get him through a lengthy speech. But he had trouble keeping them in order, so while he's fumbling around, he would tell the audience: "Excuse me, I can't find my place." Shores kind of shudders at the memory.

Then there are the audiences, or lack of them. Playing to less than half a house in Ferndale, which seats some 260, can be a downer. By contrast, you might welcome half a house at Eureka's World Premiere Theatre, or Plays in Progress, as it's also known (for staging new works of playwrights), which seats only about 60.

Bob Wells remembers performing there one night for an audience of just two -- both board members, so of course the show had to go on. "And one got up to go to the bathroom, so we lost 50 percent of our audience," Wells adds, laughing.

Those of us who performed earlier this year in the World Premiere Theatre's production of Pure Play remember the night when we had an audience of just four -- two of them, coincidentally, Bob and Lynne Wells -- and we couldn't have had a more appreciative audience.

Craige McKnight, playing one of the leads in that play, and his wife, Pat, who was stage manager, drove 26 miles from their home in Rio Dell for 10 weeks of rehearsals and performances. Craige later was making the trip again for a part in NCRT's production of Picnic, which opened last month.

For Bob Wells, who lives in Bayside, it's a long haul to Ferndale, where he has frequently performed.

Marilyn McCormick, who lives in Petrolia, has a 35-mile drive six days a week to the Ferndale theater for her chores as artistic director, and of course, an even longer one when she's in rehearsals at Eureka's old Carson Block Building, which is used until the Ferndale stage is ready.

You have to wonder: Why do they do it?

Marilyn laughs and says, "I like to drive. Why do I do it? Well, God, I have to do it. It's such a part of my life. I don't look at distances.... Los Angeles people, they drive hours to work and hours back on a freeway; at least I've got a beautiful drive."

Given the actors' pay, which is nil, and the frustrations, which are many, small wonder that there are now no fewer than three troupes locally trying to promote professional theater.

(Aside from set designers like Ferndale's Tom Roscoe, directors are the only ones paid. The going rate is about $300, which seems a pittance, considering their tribulations in dealing with the fragile egos of actors. As Aaron Shores puts it: "You're walking on eggs.")

One of the leading tub thumpers for the pro move is Clint Rebik, together with Peggy Metzger, both graduates of Humboldt State University's theater arts program. It started when they got to lamenting the number of talented players lured away by the dreams and bucks of theater in the San Francisco Bay area and other metropolitan scenes.

Stacey Bareilles, who starred in FRT's production of Evita, has gone on to equity theater in the Bay area. Don Speziale, another star of the Ferndale stage, recently had the lead in a musical in the Marin theater. Michael Nalley, an actor on the local scene for a number of years, went off to dinner theater in Sacramento. And Marilyn McCormick notes that her son Bo Foxworth got the lead in an off-Broadway show, and is now "making a living at it."

McCormick said, "We're losing a lot of men actors.... You know, when we were auditioning for Godspell, we had 20 women and only a few men. We had to go digging in the bushes."

(A recent hit, Godspell was directed by Marilyn's sister, Gilmer McCormick, who was a member of the original cast in the New York production of the musical.)

Going professional, its proponents hope, would end, or at least slow down, that talent exodus.

Predictably, they eye the success of professional theater in Ashland, Ore. as an exemplar of what the North Coast area could do.

"It's the same market that Ashland had 30 years ago," Rebik maintains. "A town of 15,000 with a university. Peggy and I have done a lot of research, how theaters started. Sierra Rep, in Sonora, a town of 3,000, now has gone from community to professional.

"What we have found (is that) once (you have) the talent and you pay the staff what they are worth, when the quality is consistent, then you attract more people from out of the area. Look at Ashland, now turning out 11 plays a year in eight months. They draw from Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento -- they've become a destination."

So will Eureka, the argument goes.

Linnea Conway, who has a master's in theater from Ohio University, who made her directing debut locally with Artichoke at Ferndale in 1990, and who directed Shakespeare in the Park at Arcata last summer, is now launched on the grandiose -- directing Macbeth in what used to be Eureka's old Ingomar Theater. But what was once a glorious milieu is today a barren, unkempt third floor of the Carson Block Building, itself one of Old Town's structures found in need of retrofitting.

"We're gonna turn it into a set," Conway responds to my apparent skepticism. "I've formed a Friends of the Opera House to benefit (its) renovation.

"A lot of people," she admits, "think it's a pipe dream."

When it comes to professional theater here, the naysayers abound.

One of the skeptics is Ron Lajoie, president of FRT's board of directors, whose guiding hand has brought the theater into the black from a deficit of $25,000. No small part in that minor miracle was played by artistic director McCormick. She got in touch with a friend from their days together at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, René Auberjonois, who plays Odo of Deep Space Nine in TV's Star Trek series, to come up with "tons of stuff" for a celebrity auction that enriched the FRT coffers by $31,000. "He was phenomenal," McCormick said of her old school chum, who is also godfather to her oldest son.

Lajoie estimates that there are "maybe 65,000 to 70,000 people" living in the area from McKinleyville to Fortuna, and adds that "it's going to be pretty hard to draw enough people from that nucleus to support a professional company of staff and performers."

(Rebik talks of "between $300 and $400 a week" for actors, and staff salaries in "the high 20s" -- thousands of dollars, that is.)

With community theaters already struggling to survive, it does seem a fantasy to think that a professional company could boost the ticket price from the present $11 max to, say, $25, and still pull them in.

McCormick and Shores both acknowledge that they share the same season ticket holders. Pacific Art Center Theatre, like Phoenix rising from the ashes, is now playing mainly at the Manila Community Center.

"The problem is getting people to know where it is," admits PACT board member David Anderson, who is also a prolific writer for the Times-Standard. "It was slow at first. We're obviously not getting the crowds we had in the old theater."

The old creamery theater seated 150. Toodie Dodgen Harris, a longtime PACT regular, recalls, "Every year was a struggle." They were finally forced out, she says, because "the rent was raised so much, and the debts were so high."

As Bonnie Bareilles notes: "Everybody's fighting for the same dollar."

The charming and talented lady of Ferndale Rep (and mother of three daughters following in her theatrical footsteps) is now herself a member of a troupe bent on a professional company. Yet she voices her own skepticism.

"My dream is to actually get paid for being an actor," Bareilles said. "It's lovely to think this will happen, but we have to take a really good look at our economic base."

"Up here, the chances are pretty dim," said David Anderson. "It would mean shelling out a lot of money, which isn't here."

That seasoned performer Bob Wells points out that Gordon Townsend came down from Ashland, where he was both an actor and director, to start up PACT with the idea of going professional. But the dream faded.

"I don't know anymore," said Wells. "The funds have dried up, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). And who's going to buy tickets for these expensive (professional) productions?"

Matt L'Herogan, former technical director of PACT, said: "I think it's a good dream to have, but I don't think it's realistic."

L'Herogan himself plans to move with his family to Redway, where he has an electronics job lined up.

"I just decided to retire (from theater)," he said. "I was sort of burned out doing it for so many years -- with nothing to show for it. In the bank, that is. A lot to show for it in the heart."

The forever blunt-spoken Jarl Victor, a graduate of the American Academy of the Arts, with experience in summer stock and even a fling at Hollywood, growls: "Well, as far as professional theater (here).... It'll have to be somebody with a bankroll."

Victor, who will direct NCRT's Arsenic and Old Lace, scheduled to open in January, has no hesitation in answering that nagging question: Why do we do it?

"When you're smitten, you're smitten," he says. "Here I am, 79, and still fussing around with it. And there's that magic time when the curtain goes up."

"It's the bug that bites you," responds Bonnie Bareilles. "I love to perform. You have to love it, and you have to be something of a ham."

As Aldous Huxley once observed: "Acting inflames the ego in a way which few other professions do."

Bob Wells is quick to acknowledge the ego trip involved. "It's the old story," he says. " 'Look at me! Look at me!'"

Or as Ethel Merman belted out: "Nowhere do you get that happy feeling, when you are stealing that extra bow."

From old to new

It's an eclectic mix of plays at Humboldt County's community theaters this season -- everything from golden oldies to brand new works, and even the North Coast premiere of the off-Broadway hit, "Sylvia."

"Sylvia," which closed last month at the Ferndale Rep, was produced by Troupe On Q, one of the new groups dedicated to bringing professional theater to the county. It was directed by Aaron Shores, who is the technical director of Eureka's North Coast Repertory Theater. That unusual alliance of the county's two most competitive live theaters appears to mark a successful start in the latest attempt at artistic collaboration as envisioned by a combine of local companies calling themselves InterAct.

Eureka's World Premiere Theater, née Plays in Progress, has a full season of five original works, already earning favorable reviews for its opener, "The Starfish Scream."

Indeed, all of the theaters got glowing reviews for their openers -- Ferndale Rep with "Sylvia," North Coast Rep with "Picnic," and Pacific Art Center Theatre with "Laughing Wild."

PACT has always seemed the odd man out locally. Its forte of heavy fare in earlier days at the old creamery building in Arcata, such as "The Night of the Iguana," prompted one observer to call it "angst-ridden" theater.

"We think of them as 'interesting' plays," mildly rejoins PACT board member David Anderson.

He notes that founder Gordon Townsend's idea was to avoid duplicating the "standard fare" of FRT and NCRT.

"Yeah, we are not doing Neil Simon," Anderson gibes.

Ferndale, with "A Christmas Carol" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner," and North Coast, with "Picnic" and "Arsenic and Old Lace," are wading in with theater classics.

Given what Anderson ruefully sees as "The graying of the audiences, it just may be the way to go.

George Ringwald is a free-lance writer in Eureka with a former life as investigative reporter for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside and Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine. He has performed in various roles of local theater productions, including the lead role in NCRT's Dr. Cook's Garden.

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