What They Did For Love: Community Theatre Founders Tell Their Stories

This month, in honor of Valentine's Day, four California Community Theatre founders tell their stories of the early days, of the sacrifices and hard work, and how doing what they did for love has helped their dreams come true.

Kevin Heath

Limelight Actors Theater, founded in 2011

After working at (and loving) all the local theaters, I became a board member of a brand new Art Center. After a few months of trying to get people to discover us, I suggested producing a play. They loved the idea and told me to go for it. At the same time, a local restaurant owner asked me to produce a show in his banquet room. I could see the writing on the wall, so I decided to start my own theater. I created the tag line "theater with a twist" and decided my theater would fill the gaps that were missing...and Limelight was born.

We are about to go into our 8th season with sold out houses and standing O's.I think the financial part was the most challenging. I had to invest my own money with no guarantee of getting repaid. That was scary. The second challenge was space. We are in a building that was not designed to be a theater, so I had to improvise and build from scratch. The next challenge was the City freaking out about having occupancy in the building.




The first Limelight Actors Theater banner

We were shut down three days before opening our first holiday show, but after some <ahem> strong convincing arguments from the board of the Center, we prevailed. The first opening night. A friend suggested doing "bring your own" dinner theater and I did not like the idea. However, seeing the happy crowd on that first night sold me on the idea. People had candelabras, wine decanters, crystal. paper plates. McDonalds, pizza, filet mignon...it was the coolest mix of people. I will never forget stepping out for my curtain speech and holding for what seemed an eternity, as the audience applauded.Prepare yourself, and get the finances in order up front, but DO IT. Know your demographic. Start with something that will appeal to the masses, build a patron base, and make some money. Cast the strongest actors you can. THEN, mix in the more artistic pieces down the road. I wanted to do dramas, but held off or the first couple of years. So, I offered comedies with drama, to slowly test the waters. After a little of that, we moved on to Other Desert Cities, The Country House, ART and The Outgoing Tide.It hasn't changed drastically. I am primarily a "one man show" (no staff). I choose the season, the actors, the directors and mix it up so it is not me all the time (on stage and off). I do all the marketing, finances and set design/building.

Building the stage in the early days

That said, I have embraced a collaborative environment with everyone I work with. I listen more to their ideas, and give actors/directors a little more free reign in my theater. It has been a huge part of our success.I didn't want to become a copycat. I wanted to raise the bar for our area, by offering actors (and patrons) something outside of hee-haw comedies or 90 actors in a show. I've worked with many community theaters over the years. Some good. some not. I wanted to show patrons a different side of community theater. A side where all the actors on the stage are amazing. A side where a huge, projection and gobo heavy stage isn't needed. An intimate night at the theater where you feel like you are on stage with the actors. I feel I have accomplished that and more. Its exciting to see some stronger selections at other local theaters, because they see what works with Limelight. There really is an audience out there for every theater.I think being voted best theater in south county in our very first year, beating out a 40 year old and a 15 year old theater. That was amazing, but I honestly thought it was because we were a "shiny new object". After winning the award every year since, and best theater in our town, I realized it was more than beginners luck. I'm very proud of the work we do.Time is the biggest. As actors we kid and say "I can't, I have rehearsal." Well, I have rehearsal 35 weeks a year. I miss a lot of parties, family events and other shows. I try to get out to see everyone in shows in other theaters in the Bay Area, but sometimes it's impossible. I miss that. I also miss being onstage as an actor. I'm lucky if I can be up there once every one or two years.

Kevin in Limelight's 2017 fall drama "The Outgoing Tide"

I'm a small percentage of community theater founders. I actually own the theater.By choice. No board, no play selection committee. Just me. But, I think the consistency has been a huge part of Limelight taking off. It's not for everyone, and its not the norm, but it works well for this theater.

Limelight's box office in the early days

Dr. Mary Kay Switzer

A Repertory Theatre (ART), founded in 2010

I have a Ph.D. in theatre and television. I have taught and been the head of university theatre programs. As someone with a professional and community theatre background, I have spent many years working in theatre. When I moved to Banning, California, I helped to establish the Pass Area Performing Artists (PAPA) and became the Artistic Director for this theatre group. Eventually, I left PAPA and established ART in order to do plays as fundraisers for charities. My colleagues and I enjoy theatre and the chance to give back to society. When I left PAPA, I formed a small group of volunteers to help find a theatre in which to perform. Eventually we did find a space. Raising money to build a stage was our basic challenge. But we overcame that with donations from people like Sabrina Wareing and others. So our stage was completed, and we began to do shows. To our surprise and delight, most of our shows were packed with standing room only. My favorite memory from the early days of ART's beginning included finding willing and creative talent to work with. It was inspiring to find so much potential in our community.Don't give up. Keep on working toward your goals. I am now living in another state and starting a new theatre here.ART achieved the vision we had for it. We were able to help support many worthwhile causes. My proudest moment came each time we did a play and bought in an audience who gave support to many worthy causes.Since I was working full time as a university professor, my sacrifice came from finding time out of my busy schedule to direct or write a play. But it was worth it.

"Community theatre can enhance many lives. It can bring joy to an audience. It can build wonderful friendships. As Arthur Miller said, "The winds of history blow through the theatre."" - Dr. Mary Kay Switzer

Rodger Hoopman

Chautauqua Playhouse, founded in 1976

What inspired you and/or your fellow founders to start a theatre?

More opportunities for actors and directors.

What were some of your earliest challenges in starting a theatre, and how did you attempt to overcome them?

Raising the funding to commit to leasing our own space.

What is your favorite memory from the early days of your theatre's beginning?

The camaraderie and excitement of putting together our space.

What is something you wish you could share with other theatre leaders who are considering starting a theatre or company?

The importance of assembling a team that has the strengths you lack.

How has your leadership or involvement changed since your founding days?

Because of the teamwork and learning to delegate it has become easier.

What did you envision for your community theatre, and do you feel you have made that vision real?

There were only two year round theatres in the Sacramento area and we wanted to create more and varied opportunities for artists and audiences. We have made that vision real for over 40 years.

What is your proudest moment/memory or experience in your theatre's history?

The original theatre was burned down by an arsonist during the run of MINNIE'S BOYS in 1983. We reopened the next weekend in a new space.

What are some of the sacrifices made or which you currently make for your theatre to begin or continue to succeed?

Missed family and friends parties and celebrations because of a show opening.

"After losing our space to an arsonist we produced in other locations for a year. We reopened in our current space where we have produced year round since 1985."

- Rodger Hoopman

Photos - Top (installing the new theatre in 1985), Below (with THE MOUSETRAP cast - summer of 2017)

Right (1978 the original theatre), Left (the fire 1983)

The Chautauqua Players were formed in 1975, by Rodger Hoopman. The name of the company came from the traveling Chautauqua shows that toured the country in tents in the early part of the 20th century. A revival tent had been offered to the company as a potential performing space in the summer of 1975. After one attempt at setting up the tent and the myriad problems involved (eight hours of work, putting the top on upside down and returning the next day to find the tent collapsed), the tent idea collapsed as well. In the fall of 1975, the Chautauqua Players produced their first show, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, in the Old Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento, and its success led to production of a Sherlock Holmes drama. The financial success of the two productions led Hoopman to a partnership with Gene Morrow and Eric Ericson and the pursuit of their own performing space. The original 65-seat Chautauqua Playhouse opened at 25th and R Streets in downtown Sacramento in April of 1976. On the 12’x20’ stage in the former warehouse, the company produced mysteries, Moliere comedies, and contemporary comedies and dramas to critical and

audience acclaim. Over the next several years, as the repertory became more contemporary, Morrow and Ericson left the partnership and new partner Charles Slater enabled the Playhouse to expand to 135 seats and a larger stage in 1980. Establishing an active children’s theatre program under the direction of Guy Beck (and later under Lisa Krause), and an ever-widening variety of evening performances, the company continued in the facility until an arsonist burned the theatre to the ground in October of 1983. Refusing to give in to adversity, the players reopened the production of MINNIE’S BOYS the following weekend at the theatre in the YWCA building and completed the run. With the close of that production, the company focused on finding a new facility. In the interim period, several shows were produced at the Old Eagle Theatre, Sierra 2 and Eaglet Theatre’s Stage 2. With the help of the theatre community, the use of theatre patron Bill Wahl’s home as office space, and donations from the community, and after several failed attempts to keep the company downtown, the group, now a non-profit organization, opened in the La Sierra Community Center in April of 1985. With the support of the Carmichael Recreation and Parks District and the theatre’s new board of directors, the Chautauqua Playhouse opened its first full season in September of 1985 with Rodger Hoopman as producer and Bill Rogers, instrumental in the transition, as general manager. Since that first season, Chautauqua has produced a season of six plays per season (running from September through May) plus a six-show children’s theatre season under the direction of Marie Raymond. There is also a children’s theatre workshop in voice, drama and dance conducted in Spring, Fall and Summer sessions. Classes are on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Bill Rogers left the theatre in June 2004, to move to South Carolina and Rodger Hoopman assumed the position of Producer/Artistic Director. After years of involvement as an actor and director, Warren Harrison joined the organization as co-producer in January of 2007. Season subscribers and the theatre-going community enjoy a variety of new and traditional comedies, dramas, original plays and musical reviews, with a wide range of ethnic and cultural appeal. The group has been hailed by the Sacramento Bee as “one of the area's most consistent companies.”



Marc Edson

Chico Theater Company

What inspired you and/or your fellow founders to start a theatre?

Lack of a musical theater in our town.

What were some of your earliest challenges in starting a theatre, and how did you attempt to overcome them?

Money-Personal loans from the 2 founders. Experienced Directors-We hired those with experience that we could but we also started a shadowing/assisting program for new directors to learn.

What is your favorite memory from the early days of your theatre's beginning?

Opening night! Ribbon cutting, tuxedos, actor/dancer Marc Platt was here for out first ever performance. (7 Brides for 7 Brothers, the movie of which featured Marc Platt as brother Daniel).

What is something you wish you could share with other theatre leaders who are considering starting a theatre or company?

You must treat it and respect it as a business.

How has your leadership or involvement changed since your founding days?

I'm still just as involved but we've hired part-timers to help sell tickets and light custodial work.

What did you envision for your community theatre, and do you feel you have made that vision real?

Our vision was to present top quality shows that patrons can enjoy locally instead of travelling to San Francisco or Sacramento. I think we have mostly succeeded in that. Patrons tell me all the time now that they used to go to shows in Sacramento but the quality of our shows is just as good and saves them a lot of money and time.

What is your proudest moment/memory or experience in your theatre's history?

1) When we had enough money to pay back the loans used to start the business. 2) When we signed the escrow papers and purchased out building.Very few days off... With three shows always in production, down time is scarce.

A special thanks to Kevin Heath, Dr. Mary Kay Switzer, Rodger Hoopman, and Marc Edson

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