Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 9, 2006

A long run

The opening nights keep coming as Palo Alto Players turns 75

by Rebecca Wallace

Under the theater lights, two Palo Alto Players actors sing a love ballad, wooing the audience with their rapture. But elsewhere in the theater, someone has called for a pizza.

Trouble is, the poor Domino's guy can't find anyone backstage to pay for it. So he blunders around in the wings until he somehow ends up on stage.

With the audience gaping, he "just slowly backed away," recalls Kenneth Spicer, operations and production manager for the Players.

Spicer has clearly told this tale many times since it happened during a production of Sondheim's "Follies" in the 1980s. But he's still laughing.

The best part, he says, is that the actors were so engrossed in their duet that they didn't even notice the pizza guy. "That's true acting for you."

And so the show goes on. And goes and goes and goes, if you're the Palo Alto Players, the oldest theater group on the Peninsula. This month marks the Players' 75th anniversary.

It's amazing that anything has survived three quarters of a century in the bustling Bay Area — especially an organization that has weathered both the Great Depression and the current recession.

In between, there were other obstacles, such as losing cast and crew members to wartime drafts and government funding to Prop. 13. And sweeping the occasional anchovy off the stage.

The theater group, though, keeps putting on well-regarded shows, staging comedies, dramas and musicals in a blend of classic and current. The 2006-07 season, for example, juxtaposes the '60s girl-group musical "Beehive" with the decades-old favorite "Our Town."

Following those shows comes a tale of a couple who agree to let a government agent use their home to watch a dangerous suspect. The two feel dutiful, even honored, until they realize the government's spying on their neighbors and friends.

A post-9/11 political statement? Hardly. "Pack of Lies," by Hugh Whitemore, is a 1983 play based on true events from 1961. So it's timeless and a good story, something the Players look for when choosing scripts, Spicer said.

"As Shakespeare put it, the play's the thing," he said, escaping cliche because of his genuine enthusiasm.

Along with a story, you need a place to tell it. A large factor in the Palo Alto Players' success is the elegant Lucie Stern Theatre on Middlefield Road. Many theater groups struggle for space in the high-priced Bay Area, such as the Menlo Players Guild, who lost the Burgess Theatre when it was demolished in 2002 after structural damage. But the Players have had the Stern nearly all along.

Back in 1931, the group then known as the Palo Alto Community Players put on the melodrama "Ten Nights in a Bar Room" and other shows in the Community House (now MacArthur Park Restaurant). Admission was a quarter, and the sets were made with wrapping paper, according to "1001 First Nights," a 25th-anniversary book the Players published in 1956.

The stage was makeshift and the location hardly ideal. "There were always one to three-minute dramatic 'pauses' occasioned by the nightly scheduled arrival at the nearby SP station of the southbound 'Lark' and the fast overnight freight," the book reads.

Enter Lucie Stern, theater patron and philanthropist. In the midst of the Depression, she donated $44,000 to build a new theater, and the city gave land in Rinconada Park. The 428-seat Spanish-Mission-style theater opened in 1933.

Nowadays, West Bay Opera and TheatreWorks also use the theater, which means the stage is always blurry with activity: someone's always building or striking sets, performing or rehearsing.

The Players also enjoyed ample city funding after agreeing in 1936 to become a municipal entity. "Curtains Going Up," a 1939 book spotlighting successful small American theaters, called the Players "the only completely municipally subsidized Community Theatre in the United States."

Like today, the actors were a mixture: some just enjoyed acting after work, and some aspired to a career on the stage.

"We have all kinds of people in our theater — the brilliants, the rich, poor, boors, haves, have nots, ins, outs... The whole town's acting," Players director Ralph Emerson Welles said in "1001 First Nights."

As the company grew, it started the Palo Alto Teen Players in 1948 (which lasted about 20 years), and added musicals to its seasons beginning in the '50s.

The city continued underwriting all the Players' productions until 1974, when the group became an independent entity. Some city support has continued (for example, the city still pays for the theater's electricity, Spicer said), but city-funded theater is not exactly flourishing in the America of today.

Like other arts groups, the Players have also been hit by the current recession. Their subscription base is about 2,000, down 10 to 15 percent from the 1990s boom, says Spicer as he sits on a couch in the green room. The backstage area where cast and crew spend free moments is peppered with trivia games and paperback books. On the walls are old theater posters, audition notices, a Chinese restaurant menu.

"This area still hasn't totally recovered (economically)," Spicer said, adding that single-ticket sales are also down. "Audiences are staying home a lot. It's like movie theaters."

Spicer rolls his eyes at his own comparison. "But theater's a live thing. There's nothing like the connection between the performers and an audience. It's magic; you can really feel that, feel them leaning forward in their seats."

Despite the recession, new theater groups have popped up in recent years, including the Pear Avenue Theatre, which started in Mountain View in 2002; and Dragon Productions, which opened its first show in 2000 and finally found a theater in downtown Palo Alto last year.

Just last month, a new company called Elysium Productions started presenting new plays through dramatic staged readings, holding its first reading in Mountain View.

So how do the Players entice theatergoers to choose them? Spicer says his group uses the basics: word-of-mouth, fliers, newspaper ads.

"The best way to grow your audiences is to not piss them off. We don't sell our mailing list information to anyone else. We won't call you all the time," he said.

But it's not all competition among the theater groups. Diane Tasca, founder and artistic director of the Pear, has acted in three shows at Palo Alto Players in recent years.

"They were all very well-produced shows: lovely sets and costumes, very high-end productions. Always very impressive," she said.

Tasca particularly praised the attention to detail. In "The Little Foxes" in 2000, the set included a dining room that was so far upstage that no real action or lines took place up there; she and the other actors would "ad lib breakfast noises and clink."

"It added such depth," she said. "It created a sense of the house beyond the parlor."

These days, Tasca often attends Players shows and would be happy to direct or act there in the future.

"People direct and act both places. It's often a source if we're looking for particular types of actors that I don't already know," she said. "There's a lot of networking in the local theater scene."

And new people are always coming in, be they actors or musicians or costume designers. Spicer says new volunteers are always welcome.

One of the Players' fresh faces is Kuo-Hao Lo, the technical director and resident scenic designer, who previously worked in theaters across the Midwest. He says he enjoys the passion and strong work ethic here.

Best of all, though, is designing a new world for each show, whether it's the grimy city of the musical "Urinetown" or the bon mot society of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," the group's next production.

Lo enjoys researching past time periods, and finds it gratifying when a set piece helps an actor stay in character. It's hard to remain a slouching 21st-century teen when a stiff period chair forces you into Victorian posture.

Out back in the scene shop is one of Lo's creations for "Private Lives," a French-style balcony with graceful curves and an inviting pastel background.

There's sawdust in the air and paint on the floor, but the balcony looks so real that it invites you onto it, cocktail in hand and Riviera view before you. It's just waiting for the next story to be told.

What: Palo Alto Players closes its 75th season with Noel Coward's "Private Lives."

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: June 17 through July 2, with a preview show on June 16. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Tickets range from $18 for the preview to $29 for the June 17 opening night performance and gala.

Info: Call 650-329-0891 or go to www.paplayers.org. To ask about volunteering with the Players, email info@paplayers.org.

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