All the world’s a (small) stage

Theatre in the Heights opens up a tiny space for ambitious drama

It takes 27 minutes to get there. I weave through Citrus Heights strip malls, only to land in another strip mall. This one has a Baskin Robbins and a giant aquarium depot that sells “wholesale and retail.” (A separate sign simply says “reptile depot” and has a picture of scary reptilian creatures.) That’s not the most unusual thing in this mall. That honor belongs to the Theatre in the Heights, an actual mini theater in the burbs—not some hipster midtown joint. It opened just this year on January 14 to provide Citrus Heights with art that’s accessible and DIY.

I wanted to see the space more than anything. I’ve never been inside a tiny theater before. It’s the kind of space you’d see in a New York-based sitcom, where the wannabe actor character forces her friends to come see her perform in some experimental rendition of A Streetcar Named Desire.

A small line forms outside with a half dozen people, most of whom appear to be over 65. Someone says that it’s “a busy night.” On the ticket counter, there’s an assortment of snacks and beverages (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, wine, Pringles, beer). I learn later that all concessions are included with the price of admission, just $15. “It’s our first year,” one worker tells a customer, to explain.

There are only 52 chairs, and the venue appears to be somewhere between half-full and two-thirds full. An announcer takes to the stage: “Welcome to the Theatre in the Heights! You are about to be tremendously entertained!

Someone asks if the play is a comedy. “You are in for a laugh riot,” he replies. The play, A Thousand Clowns, is not the experimental piece of theater I’d imagined. It’s a 1965, three-and-a-half-hour Herb Gardner play about an unemployed writer who tries to retain custody of his nephew and needs to conform to society to do so. The play mostly takes place in the writer’s one-bedroom apartment, so it makes sense logistically on this small stage.

Some of the content of the play struck me as dated, like a scene in which a social worker is aghast over a hula-girl figurine with Christmas lights concealing her breasts. But the acting and production were at a high caliber for being such a small, intimate production.

I chat with the guy next to me—one of the few people under 40—during the first intermission. “They really pack a lot in here,” he says, regarding the space. I learn he’s an actor at another small stage, the Wm. J. Geery Theater. When I tell him I’m not an actor, he looks confused. He must have a hard time understanding why I, a solo guy in his 40s, came out to this play.

A Thousand Clowns, like much of the production schedule, falls closer to a mainstream play than I’d normally see, but the intimacy was fun. It makes you feel more like you’re part of the whole thing. After it ended, the cast was in the lobby, and they reached out to shake my hand and thank me for coming. It felt like we kind of already knew each other.