Whidbey Playhouse volunteers push limits with Shakespeare

Posted in Feature, Theater and Dance

Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
April 25, 2013

Volunteer. Sacrifice. Grow. Repeat.

That’s a recipe for community theater distilled from a couple of lively conversations with Whidbey Playhouse’s Stephen James Anderson and Janis Powell, which also revealed a spicy fifth ingredient: push the envelope.

Powell has been the business manager for the Playhouse for 15 years. Anderson, a seasoned actor and director with special expertise in Shakespeare and stage combat, joined the Oak Harbor theater troupe just recently. He directs “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opens Friday, April 26, two years to the day from his arrival in Coupeville on assignment for the Navy. It will be the first Shakespearian production that the Oak Harbor company has produced in its 47 years of operation.

Both Anderson and Powell spent a good deal of time talking about the crowd of volunteers it takes to carry a stage production from inception to final curtain on closing night.

“The general rule of thumb is three volunteers for each actor,” said Anderson.

For “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he will direct a cast of 20. Considering the actors are all volunteers also, doing the math results in an impressive number.

Powell said that the average is about 30 volunteers per production to make it all happen.

However, as she rattled off the array of functions each show requires, she revised that figure upward. There are stage managers, producers, set builders, costumers, ushers, concession workers, light and sound technicians, and people who run around town gathering props. There is a volunteer reading committee that reads through plays to determine which ones will be chosen for the next season. Selections are presented to the Board of Directors, which is also made up of volunteers.

Sam Daniel as Demetrius and Heather Good as Helena in the Whidbey Playhouse production of "A Midsummer Nights' Dream." (John Pendelton photos)

Sam Daniel as Demetrius and Heather Good as Helena in the Whidbey Playhouse production of “A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.” (John Pendelton photo)

The Playhouse produces eight to nine shows per year, including five stage productions on its home stage at 730 SE Midway Boulevard in Oak Harbor. Although a few people will work on many of them during the season, most productions see mostly new faces come in as the next director and producer arrive with their own teams.

Anderson, a veteran of more than 400 stage productions, knows well the work involved. His love and passion for the stage were evident as he detailed the contributions that each person makes in the realization of a project.

“Theater is an absolutely impossible endeavor without collaboration,” he said.

The work is demanding in time and often in physical effort. He mentioned his stage manager, a single mother who brings her child to the rehearsals, as an example of how people make sacrifices in their personal lives to get the work done.

“[The volunteers] have to push their limits,” he said, “In so doing, they grow.”

He admitted that his own life is out of balance currently as he goes into the final stretch leading up to opening night.

“My wife Aurora is assistant director, so at least we get to see each other every night.”

Powell also praised the troupe’s volunteers.

“Everybody here [at the Playhouse] is a volunteer. All their peers are coming to see what they have done. So they try harder.”

The Playhouse presented its first show, “Madame President,” in 1966. It  moved to its current location at the former Christian Reformed Church in 1979. That acquisition, with its enormous financial challenges and the need to re-make the altar area into a stage, took a steadfast dedication and commitment from the members of the community. The fine, old church building presents many challenges to production teams. The ceiling is lower, for example, than in most theaters built for that purpose.

Those limitations excite Anderson.

“What I love about theater in general,” said Anderson, “is the parameters that exist. We create parameters all the time; in society, in our personal relationships. One goal of theater is to break those rules, to crack it open.”

One way he will push the limits of the Playhouse stage is by thrusting the action out into the auditorium and into the peripheral “nooks and crannies” that surround the audience.

“It is such an interesting space,” he said, “We can use that.”

Besides technical and personal limits, the impulse to break rules can also sometimes lead to friction in a community with conservative ethical standards.

Powell noted that in such a conservative community, choosing plays can be tricky.

“We have to ask ourselves how far we can push the envelope,” she said. Other companies get away with more than we can get away with. We get complaints when language is too coarse, or if there something against God.”

The final push of the envelope is the choice of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for this season. It was Anderson who brought the idea to the Board of Directors last year.

“They were most enthusiastic,” Anderson said. “The mission of the Playhouse is to inspire the community with what has been tried and proven throughout history.”

He heartily endorses that mandate and added, “Shakespeare is the musical theater for straight plays, for the spoken word.”

So if the community was eager for Shakespeare, why wasn’t it done before?

“They didn’t know they could. A lack of confidence prevented them from attempting it,” he said.

Now he is using his experience and knowledge of theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular, to help the dedicated community theater in Oak Harbor to push yet one more envelope.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs from April 26 to May 19. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 and are available at the theater’s box office or on the website. Call 360-679-2237 for more info.

(Pictured at top, Sheila Terry plays Titania and Kevin William Meyer is Oberon. John Pendelton photo)

Russell Clepper is a singer-songwriter who performs locally and around the country, and a substitute teacher. 

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