This may not be an absolute truth, but the lines of Bobby Gould in Hell very well may be funnier when read by a group of beer-sipping amateur actors lounging on a couch on the bottom floor of an Awbrey Butte home than in a high-end, big city playhouse.
The David Mamet one-act play is being read by members of Volcanic Theatre, all of whom project their voices when reading from the comedic script despite the fact that the only audience in the room is a turned-off television set, some exercise equipment and a rabbit that doesn't seem all that keen on showing its face outside of its cage. The play, or at least the portion the group rehearsing on this night, is funny - sometimes crass but consistently smart - and the players and their director think that Bend will be lapping it up when they take it not to the local playhouses, but into our town's pubs and bars.
Those who've heard about what Volcanic Theatre is doing have called it "beer theater" and others have called it "pub theater," but whatever it's called, it seems to be the new face of a theater scene in Bend that's hardly dying out - in fact it may be growing - yet is in the throes of change. With 2nd Street Theater shutting down its production company this month and the number of large-scale theatrical productions on the decline, the way audiences relate to the stage is shifting here on the high desert.
"The main goal is not to be dictated by money, because I think a lot of theaters fail when they take on too much too quickly. I never want to be dictated by choosing material that I know is going to need to sell $20 tickets," says Derek Sitter, the founder of Volcanic Theatre, of the group's approach to making theater work in Bend.
Sitter came to Bend after pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles, where he earned spots on television shows like ER. He still heads down to LA from time to time to audition for roles.
Sitter is speaking on the phone from Oklahoma where he spent much of December taking care of his ill father. Leaving town meant that Sitter had to cancel what would be the first Volcanic Theatre venture, a solo performance of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries. There was hype about this performance, which was coupled with rumors that the last time Sitter performed the piece (which was at, of all places, a church) he was kindly asked not to return. But adversity aside, Sitter hopes to have his cast - consisting mainly of actors from his COCC classes and newly formed Actor's Realm project - taking Bobby Gould live as early as the end of January.
But before then, there's some preparation to be done, which is why the Volcanic Players have gathered, albeit without their leader, to soldier on with the table readings of the script. Rick DeMarco, a home designer who's lived in Bend for nearly 30 years, is playing Sitter's role of the Interrogator and adding some gusto to the devilish character's lines. He's seen theater come and go in Bend, but thinks the current crop of theatergoers will gladly buy a beer and watch plays like this.
"This thing is going to fly because it's great material, it's a great creative outlet and it's also accessible," says DeMarco, making this one of the only semi-serious things the loquacious one-line zinging man will say all night - on or off script.
The notion of bringing plays into the local pubs comes on the heels of the 2nd Street Theater announcing that it is closing its theatrical company after an eight-year run providing well-attended community productions. Maralyn Thoma opened the theater in 2001 with her then husband when she was still writing for the soap opera, Passions. During that time, Thoma could pump her own money into the cozy theater space and its productions, but NBC canceled Passions in 2007 and the local economy has taken a dive.
It might have been hard to discern that the end of the 2nd Street's theater company was near this fall when the blood-gushing, curse-word tossing Evil Dead: The Musical held court over a mostly full month-long run of shows. Sure, the building was for sale - as it had been for years prior - but people were in the seats. But along with the show times for the next production, Harvey, was an announcement that the play would be the last.
"We had excellent shows and people were loving the shows and enjoying themselves, but I just could not keep going the way I was going without going broke," says Thoma.
The 2nd Street Theater will not, however, sit empty. The Bend Experimental Art Theatre (BEAT) is already planning on producing shows and holding rehearsals for their upcoming production of West Side Story in the space and is looking hard at finding a way for the non-profit theater education and performance organization to purchase the building.
In the past year BEAT has shown its ability to use its mostly youthful cast to create innovative productions, which oftentimes means being equally innovative with their production schedules and budgets. Most recently, the group produced A Christmas Carol at the Tower Theater for the second straight year, using both children and adults in the cast. Soon, says executive director Howard Schor, they want to transition their actors into actual community theater opportunities. To make this happen, Schor and company utilize accommodating venues like the Summit High School auditorium, and now the 2nd Street. Schor says he's certainly seen a change in the town's approach to theater.
"I think people are trying to take things into their own hands. I don't think it's dying, but people are scrambling wondering, 'How do we do things here?'" says Schor.
One group that did some big things here this year was the newly formed Cat Call Productions which rolled out their massively sized debut Cabaret this past September. The production brought the historical musical to the Tower stage for six well-received shows. Cat Call went big from the get go, picking the most iconic venue in town and making sure they could compensate their actors, something any community actor will tell you doesn't always happen around here - or anywhere. The finances proved challenging, considering the cost of producing a show at the Tower can run upwards of $1,000 per performance - making it difficult to maintain the sort of $25 ticket level Cat Call hoped to maintain. But the musical's sometimes-sexual subject matter also seemed like a step into the unknown for the Bend market.
"We wanted to do something a little more risqué and push the envelope of theater in Bend. It was a really good match for us. We chose Cabaret because it's a big name," says Tifany LeGuyonne, the full-time massage therapist who founded Cat Call.
A longtime dancer who studied performing arts at COCC, LeGuyonne always promised herself that she would return to the theater world at some point, and she did just that when she formed Cat Call. The idea with Cat Call, was not to start an ongoing theatrical company, given she and her collaborators don't have the time for that, but rather to "do one really fabulous high-quality show each year," LeGuyonne says.
The group plans to continue producing larger-scale theatrical presentations, with the next project slated for September 2010, again at the Tower. And, once again, they're not shy with their choice of material, this time picking Little Shop of Horrors.
Theater will, indeed, continue in Bend. That might mean shows at boutique playhouses like the former 2nd Street or Cascades Theatrical Company's Greenwood Playhouse. Or it could mean 400-seat sold out performances at the Tower. Or, it could also mean sitting with a beer in your hand along with 75 other patrons at a spot like Silver Moon Brewing Co., the tentative site for Volcanic's debut of Bobby Gould, as you laugh your way through a one-act play.Back in the living room on Awbrey Butte, the beers are still being gently sipped and now Lorraine Starodub, deep into her character Glenna, is leaning across the couch, brazenly delivering her lines, listing off all the despicable things this Bobby Gould has done to her. During the day, Lorraine runs a marketing firm, but right now she's an actress. Check that, she's Glenna. And she really wants to tell us just how awful this guy is.
And it's all believable and fun - even for a guy or gal whose last theatrical exposure was a mandated viewing of classmates performing Oklahoma. And it looks like it's going to go perfect with beer, of course.
But across the country, the play's director, Derek Sitter, thinks that our local pubs may not be able to contain what Volcanic Theatre has to offer.
"Because we're in a pub environment, for lack of a better term, it's guerilla theater," he says, "I've thought of just popping up in Drake Park and doing a play."