A family production
It’s season No. 10 for tight-knit Chico Cabaret Theatre
Chico, CA 95926
If you turned into the entrance of the Almond Orchard on a recent chilly Wednesday evening and continued into the darkest corner of the strip mall, you might have noticed a warm glow around the edges of a huge, somewhat out-of-place, wooden door. And behind that door, far from downtown and Chico’s university hub, you would have heard people singing.
“What the hell is this place?” said artistic director Phil Ruttenburg, laughing as he explained the reaction of some patrons when they first come to a show at the Chico Cabaret. Ruttenburg and his wife, Sue, started the community theater in 2000, and despite what might appear to be a bad fit for creating art, the Cabaret is celebrating its 10th season in the out-of-the-way locale.
The singing inside on that cold night was coming from the final dress rehearsal of the “alt-rock musical” Loud, the second offering of the Cabaret’s 2010 season. On stage, actors Storey Condos and Jason Donnelly sang to each other in front of separate metal frames functioning as see-through computer monitors. This very modern scene in a multilayered, sexually charged show about disconnection and dysfunction is a perfect example of the Cabaret’s musical-centric style, one that’s produced consistently eclectic programs featuring everything from classics like Nunsense and Hair to the company’s signature risqué holiday romps and annual Rocky Horror Show productions.
In 10 years, the improbable space has become one of the brightest spots on Chico’s arts landscape, and the Ruttenburgs’ intention of creating “something different for the community” appears to have been fully realized.
“It’s called a mid-life crisis!” said Phil, when asked about the motivation to start the theater. “[It was] motorcycle, Mustang and theater, in that order.”
“We almost called it the Mid-life Crisis Theatre,” Sue (who teaches kindergarten in Durham) chimed in, laughing.
Originally, Phil, who works as a youth counselor for Butte County, was between jobs and was just looking for a home for his youth-theater program, Theatre on the Inside Out. After falling into the very large Almond Orchard corner unit, Phil very quickly came to the realization that they needed to make some money, which led to starting the Chico Cabaret (named after the Oregon Cabaret in Ashland) as a proper theater and putting on their first production, a two-day run of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Things then took off, Phil said. “It was basically Sue and I and our three kids. All five of us basically ran the theater for a while.”
A few years in, it became apparent that the model of Phil and his credit card wasn’t working, and after Phil announced that it might be time to call it quits, the players who had become involved with the Cabaret refused to let it happen.
“All of these people were all, ‘We’ll help, we’ll help, we’ll help.’”
In addition to number-cruncher Max Zachai volunteering and putting finances in order as managing director, the appointment of the energetic Jeff Dickenson—one of Chico’s most respected actors and directors—as company director was a huge turning point.
The theater reorganized as a nonprofit, which Phil said “allowed the community to help build this theater” while letting him stay on as artistic director and at the same time returning to work as a counselor. The final component to the reorganization was a change in how they scheduled productions. Realizing that certain popular musicals—Jesus Christ Superstar, The Full Monty—could fill the coffers, the Cabaret made it a point to balance artistic goals and financial ones.
Despite consistent attendance and energetic support, there are new financial concerns. The rent for the Cabaret’s big space has skyrocketed—increasing over the last seven years from $800 to $3,500 a month—forcing the company to plan on leaving the space and hopefully find a new home by the time the current lease is up at the end of the year.
“My hope is that I’d find somebody local who appreciates the art,” said Phil. “[Someone who] allows us to fix up the place. I’d love to find a warehouse.”
“The greatest thing about Chico Cabaret Theater,” Ruttenburg explained, “is when you get someone coming in the door, people embrace them.”
And the response to the nurturing environment is evident not only by the fact that the theater sustains an astonishing volunteer base between 80 and 90 strong, but that much of the time, even when not directly involved with the current production, those volunteers are hanging out at the theater. In fact, on the night of Loud’s final dress rehearsal, several company members currently acting in Tick, Tick … BOOM!—a musical across town at the Blue Room Theatre—filed into empty theater seats and cheered on their cohorts.
“They feel like this is their home,” said Ruttenburg. “We have experienced so much together—our kids growing up, the loss of great friends, friends meeting their best friend for the first time, marriage proposals, a wedding on stage after a show, break-ups. We’ve been through it all. The Cabaret has been very much like our fourth child, and now the child has gone forth, spawned and created all of these other wonderful people!”