In the black
Oroville’s community theater company embarks on 20th successful season on the boards
It’s no secret that the farther away we travel from our childhood years, the less opportunity there is for stealing away from reality for a little daydreaming and creative indulgence. Free time is the big difference, and the trick is getting enough people to offset this shrinking commodity by working together for the same purpose.
Step into any community theater, and you’ll see the power one group’s efforts can have in creating a stage for acting out.
In the quiet downtown of Oroville, the Birdcage Theatre has been playing and inviting the community to join in the fun on Bird Street for 20 seasons now. At a recent Board of Directors’ meeting, the happy group of friends and partners-in-art was glad to be together. They were catching up, poking fun at one another ("Don’t piss off a Portuguese woman with blue fingernails!") and planning the work and the adventures they’d be sharing for the next several months. With a schedule full of popular plays from past years already underway (four of the six productions are on the roster as a result of being voted in as audience favorites), the inviting little “theatre that never could” remains as vital as ever.
There’s enough room in here to build three more theaters, easily. If you’ve ever seen a production at the Birdcage, you’ve seen only half the picture. Maybe only a quarter of the picture. “This is the old Mercury Register building,” revealed Don Bendorf, president of the Board of Directors and frequent director and actor at the theater (Bendorf is directing the theater’s upcoming production of On Golden Pond), “When they bought [their new] building, this place was standing vacant. Donrey Media donated it to the [nonprofit] corporation.”
With a resonating baritone voice, he speaks with the ease and earnestness of a man who is very much at peace doing exactly what he wants after his retirement from Butte County, where worked for 25 years as a probation officer and another 12 years in Family Court Services. In speaking of the theater’s connection with the community, Bendorf explains that “We’re not a closed group at all. The place draws people in, and after a few plays they flourish.”
At the recent meeting, board member and frequent Birdcage player Judith Davies pulled back a curtain leading through a doorway to the back stage—the back back stage. Circumnavigating the giant room was a curtain of old posters from past productions that once welcomed theatre-goers into the lobby in the early days, including a striking all-black Design for Murder poster complete with painted on drops of red blood.
This is the rehearsal area, easily bigger than the lobby and the actual theater space combined. The floor is taped off for blocking and littered with colorful costume pieces and scribbled pieces of paper. In every corner are piles of old sets, wood boxes painted green, an old piano, and water-stained acoustic tiles peeling away from a ceiling that suffered from a leak in the recently repaired roof. The room is full of inspiration, a giant auditorium with mounds of treasures from productions past.
Continuing on through another smaller room of storage and around to the opposite side of the building takes you to a cold room full of power tools and enough lumber to build a small house. The workshop/ storage area is probably even bigger than the rehearsal room. This area is directly behind the stage, the actors’ dressing room and another room, full of a veritable vintage clothing store of costumes.
In the course of the tour, Davies, whose daughter and granddaughter have been involved with the theater as well ("They both won awards!"), confessed that she realizes that there are those who see Oroville as a less-than-sophisticated community, but she believes this to be an unfair conception. “There are a lot of interesting people here, with a lot of interesting backgrounds and plenty of interesting ideas.”
Several key ingredients need to combine successfully for a new community project to get off the ground, and maybe the most important is the catalyst, someone who is devoted to the cause and won’t take “no” for an answer. “He was a really persuasive person,” said Bendorf, adding, “[He is] a really neat thing for our community,”
The “he” in question is Roy Zehren. In 1983, after moving to Paradise with his wife Lori, Zehren’s passion for the theater led to his helping create the city’s first community theater.
“I had been in the motion picture industry in Los Angeles, and I retired and came up here,” said Zehren in a recent telephone interview. Originally from New York, Zehren attended USC beginning in 1938 to get his master’s in theater and got involved in the famous Geller Workshop Theatre (now Theatre of Arts in Hollywood), writing and presenting plays there. From the workshops sprang opportunities in the movie industry, mostly writing but also some dialogue coaching. “Columbia picked me up, and I went under contract. I ended up writing for them for years,” Zehren remembered. “I [have] a broad background in theater.”
In retirement, Zehren (who is now 89 years old) had hoped to stay involved in theater and immediately went about creating a place for theater in his new hometown.
“I went to the city [government],” he said, jumping into retelling a history he’s shared many times before. “They said people have tried that before. Nobody wants a theater.”
He asked the city to give him names of people who might be interested in theater, which put him in contact with Elizabeth Dahlmeier, who at the time was a member of the Butte County Arts Commission, and Las Plumas High School’s then-drama instructor, Gordon Jackson. After an introductory meeting that included founding members Carol McCabe, Frank Castello and Marilyn Nash-Franks (now Marilyn Hill), they decided to hold a public meeting. The notice brought in 25 people.
“We did a couple of one-acts, a reading of poetry and some dancing,” said Zehren. Thanks in large part to an impassioned poetry reading by movie veteran Nash, who had appeared on screen alongside Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and who had deep connections to the community, the group gained some momentum.
“Dahlmeier had a studio in her garden and a big beautiful open area,” explained Zehren, recalling the hugely successful performance of Noel Coward’s Fumed Oak and Tennessee Williams’ The Lady of Larkspur in the Dahlmeiers’ back yard ("Marilyn had a goldfish bowl at the door. We collected over $800!").
The newly born Birdcage Theatre Players had created enough seed money and enough of a buzz among the community and even in the local paper to seek out a regular space for their company. After the Mercury Register windfall, all that was left to do was build a stage and put on the first production. “One of the things I insisted on from the beginning was that nobody was to be paid a penny for anything,” said Zehren, “Everyone is a volunteer, and to this date we have never been in the red.”
The first production, Henry Denker’s comedy Second Time Around, was an enormous success. Every night was a full house, and the community had created something that few perceived as possible, let alone capable of lasting 20 years. Zehren of course never had a doubt. When asked when it was he realized they might be on to something, Zehren in a reverent tone said, “From the very beginning, from the response of that first show … full houses every night.”
Just the solvent existence of a community theater for 20 years is a noteworthy phenomenon, but while success in these endeavors is often measured in terms of economic viability, the importance of The Birdcage is felt most strongly in terms not so rigidly measured. “For every person on stage, there are two offstage,” said Bendorf, explaining the opportunities for involvement available, to which Zehren added, “It gives a lot of people a chance to participate. It’s an activity.”
Zehren saw the need, and thanks to the initiative of a committed core of individuals, the community that didn’t realize it was missing something had an opportunity to get away for a while, right in the middle of their own town. “I’ve met so many people who have retired here from major cities,” he said, “and they were going to theater in San Francisco and Sacramento. And I said, ‘Why not go here?'”
Zehren’s favorite example of getting people in the community involved was born out of that first season on Bird Street. "In about our third show, two elderly sisters—I later found out one was 84 and the other was 86—approached me and said, ‘We want to tell you something.' They told me they had never been to the theater before. From then on they didn’t miss a single one of our productions."