Summer stock’s last act written
After 40 years and more than 200 productions, the final curtain has dropped on Court Theatre, ending the most intense theatrical experience available to Chico State theater students.
No longer will they be expected to design the sets, create the costumes, do their own makeup, sell tickets for and act in six different plays, from dramas and musicals to the latest off-Broadway experimentation—in just six weeks. Court Theatre was a high velocity summer repertory season that, more than anything else, served as a kind of boot camp for young thespians. It had its share of clunkers, but it far more often did outstanding work that added greatly to the community’s live-theater offerings.
Last Thursday (Nov. 15), CSUC’s Theatre Department sent out a press release announcing that the program—founded in 1967 by now-retired staff member Pat Kopp and late theater professor Larry Wismer—would be dropped. The announcement cited a need to focus on expanding the scope of what the department offers students during the academic year, and “the increasing availability of live theatre outside of the University,” resulting in less-than-desired ticket sales as of late.
Court Theatre was originally designed, Kopp said recently, “to bring students in and train them in all aspects of theater.” In its early years, the program was specifically focused on students who planned to become high school drama teachers, teaching them to direct, sell tickets, do makeup and costumes, and so on.
It began as Theatre in the Glen, putting on plays outdoors in Chico State’s Alumni Glen. After four years it moved indoors—Alumni Glen was used that year as a staging area for construction of Holt Hall, so Court had to move—to what is now known as the Wismer Theatre.
Court Theatre grew and changed over the years, just as the Theatre Department did. That was especially true after 1972, when Chico State College became California State University, Chico, “a much more comprehensive educational place,” as Kopp put it, “where students are trained to go on to get master’s and doctorate degrees, and get some professional training.” The number of theater majors increased, new faculty and staff came in, and more courses were offered.
The first sign that a different kind of change might be forthcoming occurred in the summer of 2005, when the program took a hiatus for a season. The goal was to improve the program, said Brooks Thorlaksson, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.
“It was a huge year of planning…. We came up with a model to really take it up a step. We discussed bringing in professional designers, directors…. But it’s proven to be too costly. Court was taking energy—both money and people—that we felt needed to be redirected to the academic year…. On every level, from students to faculty to community, [closing Court Theatre] was the right thing to do, even though it was a hard decision. It was sad.”
Thorlaksson also mentioned the availability of local summer theater opportunities for students, as well as such out-of-town summer programs as CSU Summer Arts, currently hosted by Fresno State, where students have the opportunity to learn from New York directors, set designers and costumers.
“Court Theatre has done a great job, and it has probably completed its job,” Thorlaksson summed up. “It’s really a mark of the success of Court Theatre that this town is now so sophisticated in terms of theater. We are totally indebted to Pat Kopp and Larry Wismer for that.”
Retired theater professor Randy Wonzong, who held the reins of Court Theatre for 19 years, succeeding Kopp and Wismer, was less sanguine about the closing.
“There is a shortage of qualified directors—today’s theater faculty don’t want to work in the summer,” Wonzong related recently by e-mail. “Today’s faculty want a lot more money than used to be available for … Court Theatre.”
Staging shows has also gotten more expensive, he said, because “today’s faculty are not universally trained in all the tech areas of theater…. They have had to hire a lot more people to do tech….”
At the same time, the university has been unwilling to fund Court Theatre and audience numbers have been going down in recent years, Wonzong continued. “The polite explanation is that there are too many theater companies in Chico (even though most of them do no shows in the summer). But a probable alternate reason is that recent seasons have dealt with lots of topics (often gay issues and themes, as well as lots of musical entertainments) that alienated many of the ‘traditional’ Court Theatre audiences. They didn’t like the shows, they didn’t come.”