Best reason Sacramento’s theater scene gets five stars
Small independent theater groups taking big risks
There’s no doubt that the Sacramento theater scene is noteworthy. Recent arrivals often comment on how many—and how diverse, both in membership and artistic direction—the production companies are. The reason, we believe, is at the bottom of the theater food chain, in the “let’s put on a show!” crowd.
These little groups provide the energy and the impetus for a thriving theater scene, and they do it without much in the way of financial support.
Some of the smaller production companies really are just a couple of people. Kolt Run Creations (www.koltruncreations.com) takes its name from the initials of its two primaries, Kelley Ogden and Lisa Thew. Fairly recent arrivals to Sacramento, they found a theater community that was more than willing to make room for more, and so Ogden and Thew jumped in with both feet. Thew compares Sacramento’s theater scene to “a painting, and each little upstart group is filling in a part of it—a different color, a different texture, something that contributes to the whole. Everyone is doing something a little different and it all contributes to a very vibrant larger scene.”
The niche Kolt Run found was in more political works, opening in May 2007 with Keely and Du, an intense little play that tackles abortion from every angle imaginable. Like the civic debate on abortion, the play offers no easy answers and is neither tidy nor comfortable, but that’s the sort of on-the-edge productions that little groups can pull off well. Kolt Run followed that up with a production of Constance Congdon’s Lips, in which a straight, female U.S. president has a fling with a lesbian. It’s a show that skewers American attitudes about celebrity, sexual identity and politics all at once, and it might be enough to scare off some sponsors.
Having less in the way of financial commitments from donors who might want to call the shots may make it tougher to pay the bills, but it also buys some artistic freedom. The 39-seat Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre (www.thistle-dew.net) doesn’t have much in the way of corporate sponsorship, unless you count the lawyer with an office above the theater who regularly buys ad space. What they have got, aside from yummy desserts at intermission, is a commitment to locally written plays.
In order to make that commitment work, Thistle Dew proprietors Thomas Kelly and Eleanor Lediard operate an all-comers Monday night playwright’s workshop, where wannabes and journeymen alike spend some serious time honing their craft. Plays that pass muster get produced, and local theater maintains a regular and truly local space.
Of course, that means the productions may be a little uneven, if only because the experience levels of the playwrights can vary so widely. And themes, premises and topics are all over the place—adoption, incest and Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention a religious farce that SN&R theater critic Jeff Hudson described in these pages as a “comedy of biblical proportions.”
But the really crucial thing about Thistle Dew is that they take risks. Playwrights are given the support they need at the workshop (along with a heavy dose of serious criticism), and in the end, the entire company makes the leap to try something new. And they do it frequently. That also means that new talent gets a chance to stretch and develop. It’s not at all unusual to see talent from Thistle Dew popping up all over the rest of the Sacramento theater scene.
This fresh approach, whether it’s a commitment to new works or to material that pushes the envelope, really does raise the bar. When a small outfit like Beyond the Proscenium Productions (www.beyondtheproscenium.org) regularly brings avant-garde work to the table—and is rewarded for it by a loyal following—it makes it much more likely that other theater groups will take similar risks. BTP’s The First Thread relied on body movement to carry the show, while they took on the effects of the Iraq war in 9 Parts of Desire—a more traditional production that drew its edginess from the subject matter. Could Sacramento possibly have had The Cobra and the Hare (a Pink Toupee Collective production called “theater of the absurd on acid” by SN&R theater critic Patti Roberts as she gave it four stars and a smilin’ Willie) without the groundwork done by groups like BTP and the late, oft-lamented Abandon Productions?
Without these small theater groups willing to take chances on thoroughly demanding or difficult material, local audiences would have to be content with umpteen productions of traditional community theater shows. Standards like Same Time, Next Year or Love Letters are good shows, but frankly, one can only take so much. It’s like eating pizza every day: better in concept than in practice.
These smaller groups provide a fine service in introducing new ways of seeing theater to audiences, as well as raising theatergoers’ expectations. That blend of absurdly funny and deadly serious theater that Kolt Run produced with Lips only increases our appreciation for the next big risk-taking show that mixes politics and edgy comedy, whether it’s Celebration Arts’ The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae or Thistle Dew’s upcoming production of The End of an Error (timed to celebrate the departure of “Dubya” next January).
It’s no accident that so much of what these small groups do is both funny and dangerous. That’s what small groups do best. While we love the extravaganza that is Music Circus, the budget they need to put on such lavish shows means they can’t afford to alienate or confuse corporate and charitable donors with a show any more offbeat than, say, Sweeney Todd. But a self-propelled and mostly volunteer outfit like Artistic Differences (www.artisticdifferences.net) can take it all off, as they did with Hair, open up a few veins and tear ducts with this summer’s Bare and assassinate a few presidents next fall when they take on the edgiest of Stephen Sondheim’s works, Assassins.
So, yes, Sacramento’s little theater groups are tastemakers. Their willingness to follow their art makes us a better audience. When it comes to theater, Sacramento would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge the debt we owe to the little companies that can—and do. Bravo, small companies! When it comes to theater, we love risky behavior.