The ‘ministry’ of theater

The people and history behind Chico’s summer repertory company, Shakespeare in the Park

BARD PARTY The directors for this season’s Shakespeare in the Park series, (from left) Joyce Henderson (<i>As You Like It</i>), Dawn McConnell (<i>Dangerous Liaisons</i>) and Jerry Miller (<i>Oedipus Rocks!</i>), celebrate the 16th season of the annual summer theater production.

BARD PARTY The directors for this season’s Shakespeare in the Park series, (from left) Joyce Henderson (As You Like It), Dawn McConnell (Dangerous Liaisons) and Jerry Miller (Oedipus Rocks!), celebrate the 16th season of the annual summer theater production.

Photo By Tom Angel

Joyce Henderson’s memories of Shakespeare in the Park go back 16 years, to its very first season. She played Thibault, “the most bad-ass man” in Romeo and Juliet, which SITP put on “in the campfire ring at Bidwell Park.”

From such humble beginnings she’s watched the series grow and evolve, staying involved, as actor and director, most years since. She now lives in Alameda, where she teaches English and drama at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, but each summer she returns to Chico for two months just to direct one of the Shakespeare in the Park productions.

She’s here now, directing the summer theater group’s next play, Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, and last Wednesday evening she was one of the hosts at SITP’s well-attended Patrons’ Party & Thank-You Gala at the Chico Theater Company on Eaton Road.

“I love playing with the people and bringing out the best of who they are,” the exuberant Henderson says. She goes on to emphasize the spirit of community involvement and volunteerism that has always been so crucial to the survival and growth of SITP: “In 1997, when we did Macbeth in Cedar Grove, we had no money, no stage. We did it in the dirt.”

As You Like It Assistant Director Sarah Knowlton pitches in: “We did it mercenary style because we got free camo [donated to us].”

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE Director Joyce Henderson leads her cast through final preparations for <i>As You Like It</i>, opening this week in Cedar Grove. Below, Jerry Miller’s collection of Shakespeare artwork used for past productions.

Photo By Tom Angel

Henderson points out gratefully that for her current play she was able to borrow $300 worth of bows and arrows from Dry Creek Archery, “no questions asked, no paperwork. … They’re fabulous. Those are real community guys.”

Of her and others’ obvious devotion to community theater, she states matter-of-factly, “Basically, we’re doing ministry, a service to our community, providing culture. … We need culture to survive.”

That the SITP benefit was held in another theater company’s facility was further evidence of the kind of cooperation and community spirit that exists in abundance when it comes to live theater in Chico.

From the numerous theater-supporting community members and actors and directors from the various local theater companies who attended to the many items donated for silent auction, evidence was all around that people in Chico support the local theater scene in a big way.

A very happy crowd partied alongside the tables laid out at the “front of the house” covered with auction goods—duffel bags and backpacks from Mad Dog Wholesale and bottles of wine from Creekside Cellars prominent among the many items donated to raise money for Shakespeare in the Park, now in its 16th season.

Henderson and Dawn McConnell, who is directing the third production of the summer, Dangerous Liaisons, flitted glamorously in pretty dresses among the gala-goers, who included such local theater luminaries as Dylan Latimer, Jeff Dickenson and Sarah Foster. Henderson and McConnell, running between socializing at the front of the house and checking on cast members backstage readying themselves for scenes to be acted out for the attendees, offered upbeat words about their long-term involvement with Shakespeare in the Park.

McConnell, who is also a violinist and teaches violin, likens her love of directing to teaching music students. “[Watching the actors I am directing perform] is like watching my violin students. I want to see them enjoying themselves.”

“Drink more, bid high!” was the occasional encouragement boomed over the heads of the buzzy crowd from Jerry Miller, actor, director, playwright and “the guiding force"—as Shakespeare in the Park Board of Directors member, musician and fellow playwright Marcel Daguerre describes him—behind Shakespeare in the Park for much of its existence.

The amiable Daguerre, behind the bar serving up the bidding fuel on this night, has been involved with Shakespeare in the Park since 1997, when SITP put on Macbeth in Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove, the long-time and present-day site of SITP’s summer offerings. 1997 was the year that Daguerre and his wife Mary joined forces with Miller to help form the Ensemble Theatre of Chico, a nonprofit organization created to take over production of Shakespeare in the Park from exiting producers Wall Street Center for the Arts and Maple Creek Presents.

“That was really hectic,” Daguerre recalls of the rapid formation of Ensemble Theatre of Chico in order to have all of the necessary paperwork in place to get city funding for the ‘97 season. Miller, he said, actually drove to Sacramento and hand-walked the paperwork through so they could have nonprofit status by July 1, the start of the fiscal funding cycle.

ETC was, of course, successful in its bid for funding that year, as it has been every year since, producing two shows per season from 1998-2003. 2004 grew into a three-show season, just like this year’s. Daguerre easily lists off every show since Macbeth: ‘98’s Henry V and The Ladies of the Camellias; 1999’s Romeo and Juliet and Amadeus; 2000’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Night of the Iguana; 2001’s Love’s Labors Lost and All My Sons; 2002’s Othello and The Ghost Bride of Castle Castle (”That was one that Jerry and I [created and directed] … a rock-and-roll musical,” Daguerre tells me with a hint of cheerful pride in his voice); 2003’s The One-Hit Wonder and The Taming of the Shrew and 2004’s Adventures of Betty Rocket—Space Lawyer, Twelfth Night and The Lion in Winter.

Former SITP producer Dan DeWayne, of Maple Creek Presents (and currently head of CSUC’s Chico Performances), via e-mail, helps rounds out SITP’s history: “Christine Myers and I produced Shakespeare in the Park for five years, beginning in 1993, in association with Wall Street Center for the Arts. We had the good fortune of working with some incredible directors, including Donna Breed, Brad Moniz, Cynthia Lammel, Randy Wonzong, Joyce Henderson and many others. We produced two plays per summer, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. In addition, we produced some other great productions including Robin Hood, Dracula, Three Musketeers, Our Town and Grapes of Wrath.

“We had the good fortune of working with some of the area’s finest acting talent, including Amanda Detmer, Michael Gannon, Brad Moniz, Matt Detmer, Johnny Lancaster, Bruce Dillman, Fred Stuart, Bill Johnson and Samantha Livingston, among dozens of other great actors.

“It was a wonderful community experience for both Christine and myself. Not only did we get to produce exceptional local theater (Shakespeare in the Park won a number of Annie Awards for producing, direction and acting), we had the good fortune of spending months and months in the beauty of Bidwell Park.”

Henderson’s words describing her director’s vision of As You Like It could just as easily apply to the spirit that was apparent at last Wednesday’s thespian gathering and in the words of everyone I spoke with who had anything to do with Shakespeare in the Park: “Basically, my perception is of the unifying power of love. …”