Theater of hope
Theatre in the Now provides stage for actors with developmental disabilities
“Please be nice. Support each other. Have fun!”
Those missives were scrawled on the message board recently at the brand new Seventh Street Centre for the Arts. Located just outside of downtown Chico, the center is the home of Theatre in the Now, the fledgling program headed by dynamic local theater veteran Natalie Valencia.
The new drama troupe is designed to “provide theatrical education and performance opportunities for people with developmental disabilities,” Valencia said.
An average day (Theatre in the Now is open weekdays) includes performance rehearsals as well as workshops such as Acting Basics and Open Creative Drama, which encourage improvisation.
Valencia’s new starring role builds on her last, as longtime director and impresario of Drama Extraordinaire, a Work Training Center theater program that also catered to people with disabilities (and for which Valencia was recognized with a 2007 Annie Arts Award). WTC is expected to continue its program, but it will be tough to fill Valencia’s shoes. She was its heart and soul for 10 years as director, and in total spent 18 years offering therapy through theater while helping clients improve their social skills and confidence.
“I am completely grateful for all the experience I [gained] as director of the Drama Extraordinaire program,” Valencia said.
Her theater training dates back to her high school days in the 1980s at Roosevelt School of the Arts in Fresno.
“It was a performing arts high school,” she said. “You needed to audition to get in. It was like Fame except nobody danced on taxis.”
This new dramatic adventure fell into place for Valencia thanks to Mains’l, a Minnesota-based social-services agency that recently added its presence to California, in Chico. During the interview process, Mains’l President Terry Williams traveled to Chico and met with Valencia, expressing confidence that she was the right person to take the idea and run with it. The company also has kicked down a brand-new van for the theater.
Valencia has the vision and commitment to make this endeavor a success, said Lisa Holeman, founder of the original Drama Extraordinaire.
“Her creativity and ability to bring out the best in others are also important aspects,” Holeman said. “Most of all, Natalie has a fantastic sense of humor … and that is the alchemy that makes it work. It has potential to not only empower those who are typically disempowered in our society, but also to open the eyes of the public to see that we are much more similar than we are different.”
“It’s all about responding to their hopes and dreams,” Valencia said of Theatre in the Now participants. “Like everyone, they want [their time] to matter. In our little corner of the world we might have something to help them respond to those hopes and dreams.”
Things are coming together quickly at Theatre in the Now’s new digs, which are equipped with a large rehearsal space that could comfortably fit an audience of 50. The complex also has a green room, music room, kitchen, classroom, spacious lobby, large attic and a couple offices. (The theater will have to be equipped with a fire sprinkler system before accommodating any public performances, Valencia said.)
Valencia is already working on collaborating with the Butte College Drama Department, and has contracted with Chico’s All Fired Up! Ceramic Art Center and Gallery to host ceramics workshops for her group.
Rehearsals are under way for an original production, Aladdin and the Wonderful Gene, based on the Disney classic, which will likely go on a tour of local elementary schools around the first of the year.
In the aftermath of recent fires and storms, Valencia and the troupe are also developing a show on disaster preparedness.
“It’s an original production about the issues that people with disabilities face,” she said, “but to be done in a fun way.”
Five former Drama Extraordinaire troupe members, including Misha Cutburth, followed their leader over to Theatre in the Now.
“Natalie is a wonderful person and great teacher,” gushed Cutburth, who plays Ma Karena in the group’s adaptation of Aladdin. “I’m coming out of my shell and learning lots of good stuff.”
Local theater vet, comedian and former Drama Extraordinaire collaborator Bryan Finnigan is a full-time resident playwright and actor at Theatre in the Now. Local choreographer Stephanie Shields and music director Molly Mahoney also have been involved with the group.
Richard Cross, a veteran of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, who recently played King Lear at Shakespeare in the Park Plaza, is working for the team as well.
“It’s the interaction between the clients and staff, and watching the [actors'] tentativeness evaporate in the last few weeks,” Cross said when asked about the most rewarding parts of his new endeavor. “I’m looking forward to the audiences.”
Valencia’s eyes grew wide with optimism when discussing her vision of the theater.
“I want our people to be of the community not just in it,” she said. “I want the center to be open for other activities. … I think we are an asset to the Chico arts community.”