It’s “Only” Make-Believe
Before Bill Zacha built the Helen Schoeni Theater on the grounds of the Mendocino Art Center, a group of theater people had already started putting on productions in the Center’s Nichols Gallery. This was in the early nineteen-sixties. “It was just a small space—no dressing room or anything like that,” recalled Sandra Hawthorne, one of the original founders, actors, directors, and board members of what soon became the Mendocino Performing Arts Company (MPAC), and later changed its name to Mendocino Theatre Company (MTC). “They really started with nothing in the beginning,” she mused, “—no space, no sets, no costumes. In the Nichols space, actors had to enter from the bathroom and exit into the closet! (It wasn’t too bad in there, unless you had to wait a long time before you got to go back out onstage.)” So begins Hawthorne’s tale of the Mendocino Theater Company’s colorful beginnings, five decades ago.
What those original Mendocino thespians did have was a passion for live theater. Many of them had studied drama and performed for years and brought their knowledge with them. The newcomers found each other, which was not hard to do in the teaming, creative atmosphere of the nascent artist colony, and they cooked up a little community theater group and went to work, making do—for sets, costumes, and props—with whatever anybody could scrounge up or devise by hand. “If we lacked a prop, someone would just make it out of wood or paper or clay,” explained Hawthorne. She ended up schlepping props, costumes, “everything” in her VW convertible because there was no place to keep anything, no place to rehearse except in people’s garages or in little vacant studios at the Art Center, which didn’t have the dimensions of a real stage.
In the late 1950s, when Bill Zacha arrived in the slightly down-at-the-heels village with his vision of creating a hub of artistic enterprise, the locals, who were used to an economy based on fishing and logging, knew that it was in decline and were somewhat unenthusiastically creaking toward a system based on artists, art galleries, and tourism. It made for occasionally lumpy relationships between the artistic newcomers and the tradition-bound old-timers, but the trajectory was clear. Zacha had a gift for friendly persuasion and invited friends and artists from all over the world—Monica Hannasch, Dorr Bothwell, Hilda Pertha, Charles Stevenson, and so many other storied artists were part of the migration—to join him in his brave experiment on the left edge of the continent. And they came. The concentration of talent was far denser than most towns with such dinky populations can dream of attracting.
Hawthorne estimated that the average run for a small theater company is seven years, and when she was quizzed about how such an out-of-the-way small town could have mustered the personnel—and gumption—to start and sustain a robust theater company for over fifty years, she firmly exclaimed, “It was not a ‘small town.’” What she meant was that it attracted people of such extraordinary talent and commitment, that it rivaled much larger cities in the quality of work it was able to produce.
Sandra, fresh out of Barnard and Bryn Mawr colleges and newly married to Don Hahn, a young doctor with a promising career in front of him, had relocated to San Francisco from the East Coast. The couple ventured north to Mendocino on a vacation in 1963 and, not surprisingly, were stunned by the area’s beauty. They fell in love with the village and the coast and, when they learned there were only two doctors in the area at that time—and they both practiced in Fort Bragg—realized they needed to decide whether to live out their promising fate in San Francisco or risk moving to the gorgeous hamlet perched on the headlands above Mendocino Bay. They found a house and moved here in 1965. In the interim, they were making regular treks north and had met and befriended Bill Zacha, the firebrand who was to change the trajectory and history of the town. The stuff of legend, (See REM’s issue 763 from October 2022) he had built the Mendocino Art Center on land he bought for a pittance and was busy expanding, while at the same time “hammering away on his own house on Main Street,” Hawthorne remembered. As many people recall, it was not unusual for Zacha to make extravagant gestures, and after hearing that Dr. Hahn was having trouble finding a suitable office space…“Bill built a doctor’s office on the ground floor of his house, for Don,” said Hawthorne.
Mendocino again had its own doctor, and Sandra was his receptionist and assistant. She says she could fill a book with stories about the wild characters who came to her doctor-husband for treatment. But there was so much more to Sandra Hawthorne than what she could do as a receptionist. She had always loved music and art and theater. In her youth, her mother couldn’t believe how Sandra could play piano by ear and could harmonize effortlessly in singing groups despite having had no vocal training. With Bill Zacha’s encouragement, it was easy for her to get gathered into working with the players at the Art Center. One of the arts Bill Zacha intended to bring seriously to Mendocino was theater, and, in a move that predated the ”If you build it, they will come” Field of Dreams ethos, he simply built the Helen Schoeni Theater, in 1972. The thespians finally had a stage to call their own. Really, though, Zacha originally intended it as a children’s theater, so, as Hawthorne remembers, “We still had no wing space, no fly space, no trap door…nothing but the roof over our heads.” But it was nonetheless a dedicated space for the town’s many volunteer players and drama-hungry audiences.
When Don Murray came to the coast with extensive experience in professional theater, he hustled the group to incorporate as a theater company. They put on their first play, The Visit, for which the artist Charles Stevenson designed the poster, in 1977, showing off the new theater. Don Murray directed the first three productions in 1977 (The Visit, You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, and Candida, which starred Sandra Hawthorne) and directed and acted in many more plays over subsequent years.
Two hundred, eighty-two productions have been performed at Helen Schoeni Theater since then, and other offshoot theatrical companies have been formed. Gloriana Opera Company put on The Mikado to great acclaim, also in 1977, in Mendocino’s old Portuguese gathering place, Crown Hall, and continues producing musical theater to this day. Hit and Run Theater joined the lineup with comedy theater and improv in the late 1970s, putting on madcap revues through the ’nineties, with a special production showing up now then to this day. Sandra Hawthorne directed Madame Butterfly for the fabulous Opera Fresca, which Clare “Sunny” Barca had founded in 1996. Barca’s passion for opera on the North Coast drove highly praised performances for over ten seasons. And dramaturge/director Meg Patterson started her Warehouse Repertory Company (2005 to 2010), mounting high quality productions in various venues, like a rollicking version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in what was then known as Redman’s Hall, in Fort Bragg.
There was inevitable cross-pollination between all of them, sharing actors, directors, stagehands, tech people while producing a variety pack of theatrical flavors.
What is the magical draw that makes lifelong participants and fans of live theater?
“Of all the arts, theater is the most collaborative,” said Beth Craven, for the last year MTC’s Producing Director who came from a long life in producing plays and teaching drama in the US and internationally, including teaching in a master’s program at the University of Tennessee. “It literally takes a village: actors, directors, designers, carpenters, electricians, costumers, backstage crews, advertising execs, audience members, donors, subscribers, volunteers, ushers, and a great deal of planning and coordination” to pull a production together.
Bob Cohen came early to Mendocino, and his experiences illuminate how this works:
“I’m an old guy now. I turned eighty-three this year. My first experience with theater was when I was nine. I lived in Queens, New York and my Aunt Kate took me to see the original production of South Pacific on Broadway. Mary Martin was playing Nellie Forbush and Ezio Pinza, who was cast as Emile, had been replaced because of shall we say politely…inebriation. I was immediately hooked, particularly so on musical theater. At Smithtown High School, on Long Island, I finally got to be on stage. The one play I remember is Time Out for Ginger, but the title is about all I recall, except that I loved it. In college, I got involved on the production side of an original musical that we did each year, progressing from working backstage as a freshman to being the producer in my senior year. That was a show we called Loch, Scotch and Barrel! About an American submarine that got swallowed by the Loch Ness monster! I would have loved to have been on stage, but to my lasting woe, I couldn’t sing or dance. Truth be told, I just loved hanging out with theater folk. That was in 1961, and that was it for me with theater, except as an audience member, until I moved to Mendocino in 1976. I was on my own, having recently ended my marriage and I used to go to see movies shown at the Art Center. There wasn’t a movie house at the time. One week in early 1977 I looked in the Mendocino Beacon to see what was playing that night and right next to the ad for the movie was an announcement of auditions for the premiere production of the new Mendocino Performing Arts Company — now MTC. It was a German potboiler play called The Visit. I vacillated about attending. That could have been the end of my theater “career” before it started. There were lots of talented theater people in the community and I figured that they could do without me. Anyhow, I gathered my nerve and went to the auditions. Don Murray was the director, and the room was filled with about thirty people. Surprisingly, I got cast (at the age of thirty-seven) as the sixty-five-year-old Schoolmaster. Bobby Markels and Jim Bertram were the leads in the show. I had a great time and got hooked all over again. Later that season I played Eugene Marchbanks sitting at Sandra Hawthorne’s feet who had the title role of Candida. I was totally in awe. Don Murray became my theater mentor and almost a second father. Yack, yack, yack with him and Ruth over bagels at their house on Sunday mornings became something of a ritual for me. Since that beginning, I have acted in about thirty-five MTC shows, and the experiences have made my life as joyful as it is today. I directed my first play, William Inge’s Bus Stop in 1985 and directed about two dozen since. I also directed two shows for Gloriana (Next to Normal, and Company) and even got my singing and dancing fix as a performer in a small role in Pajama Game. In sum, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without theater. Its absence would have left a very big hole to be filled.” Cohen will star in MTC’s next production, The Seafarer, opening November 16.
Dan Kozloff has performed leading roles in thirty-one MTC productions (between 1984 and 2023), directed eight productions (between 1984 and 2018), and taught drama and other subjects at Mendocino High School. He will co-star with Cohen in The Seafarer this month. He presents this explanation of one appeal of theater:
“In our real lives, our range of acceptable behavior is severely limited. But in a play…
“I especially remember a moment in an MTC production of a David Mamet play. In the play, my work colleague has just shared something inappropriate with a client and lost me a great deal of money. I explain to him, as to an idiot, what the rules are. And I end up with a straight insult: ‘You child.’ I looked forward to this every night! It was me, looking into the face of a friend and focusing on hurting him. Surely it’s helpful to practice a range of behaviors in a safe space.”
Margaret Fox was abruptly introduced to Mendocino’s theater culture right after she arrived in the fall of 1975. Bill Zacha rented one of the newly built theater’s four upstairs apartments to her. She paid $180 a month (including utilities) for one of the two south-facing units, where she lived for several months. “It was so funky. The walls were like cardboard, and I could hear (and memorize) every line of every character during hours and evenings of rehearsals. Bob Avery was directing a Commedia dell’arte play—I don’t remember the name of it—replete with fake Italian accents, and I could mimic every single role as I baked my Congo bars in the miniscule kitchen.” [Before Margaret bought Café Beaujolais and turned it into a culinary destination, she sold her still-famous Congo bars around town.]
BEHIND THE SCENES IS FUN, TOO
The appeal of theater doesn’t end with being under the lights on stage. Far from it. Diane Larson has been designing sets since she came to the coast and her account of her “accidental” entrée into this world shows the value of everything that underpins the actual show’s run. “In 1990, I received a phone call from my friend Bob Winn asking if I would be willing to serve on the Mendocino Music Festival Board. Bob and his wife Sue were from my hometown in Southern California. We also attended UC Berkeley together; Sue and I were roommates. By chance, we ended up settling on the north coast and raising our families. The Music Festival was a newly developing organization and I love music, so I said, ‘Sure.’ He also said Sue was directing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the Music Festival, to be put on in the big tent, and would I be interested in costuming. For many reasons I was intrigued. I have always been fascinated by the Orient, I was keeping an authentic wedding kimono in my attic for a friend. And I like to sew. So, I said, ‘Sure.’”
“In the process of designing costumes and sets over the next five years for those early festival operas, I met Sandra Hawthorne, friend of Sue, who asked if I would design costumes for The Miser at MTC. That was when I met Horace Irwin who taught me so much about set design. And then a set for Uncle Vanya…I was hooked. I got to work again on Madame Butterfly—the Opera Fresca production that was put on at Fort Bragg’s Cotton Auditorium, with Sandra Hawthorne directing. A great pleasure. It was a marvelous show: Shozo Sato [renowned master of Japanese traditional arts], came in and taught the actors how to walk properly, both men and women, and how to put on oshiroi, the white powder makeup geisha’s wear.
“I early on checked out an armload of books from the library to educate myself about theater structure, terminology, and artists in the field. I learned something new with every production and from the people I worked with. I love the whole process. It begins with reading the play/libretto, listening to the music, researching shapes, solving the puzzle of creating an environment to support the playwright’s intent, match the director’s vision, and allow the actor/singer to convey the whole effort to an audience. The audience completes the work with its response.”
KIDS AND DRAMA…of course!
Sue Winn worked with MTC in 1994 and taught drama at Fort Bragg High School in the late 1960s: “I found that it drew students of all types, the ones who always did what they were supposed to do and got good grades…and sometimes the ones who didn’t. There were some who never were a good fit for traditional classes but who did great in drama class and school plays. In drama class, they didn’t have to sit at a desk and listen to a teacher talk. They were up on their feet, participating. They got to experience success in ways they never had in regular classes. And they had to show up on time and memorize lines and work hard, not because a teacher told them to, but because it was obvious they had a responsibility to do those things for the good of the group. They could see themselves—and show themselves—in a new way, as capable and talented and funny and part of a group doing exciting work together. So, three cheers for drama in school curricula and for whatever MTC might be doing to promote that.”
And what about kids and drama at MTC…Glad you asked! Lorry Lepaule has been active with the company since 2002, first as an actor, later as a director, then administrative assistant (2014), and since 2021, as Director of Green Space Players, which offers youth and adult classes and workshops in drama, as well as radio plays for KZYX.
“At its best, live theater, either as an actor, director, backstage, tech, or as an audience member, offers catharsis, exhilaration, emotional freedom, and maybe best of all, wonderful friendships! It’s healing.
“It’s amazing to see when young people, especially, spring up in confidence and enjoyment while taking part in a production. Theatre is like any great music that brings people together…they’re all in the zone at the same time, experiencing a feeling of community, of not being alone, but of understanding and enjoying the same thing at the same time. To be able to offer that to young people, who are courageous in their ability to explore who they are, even when they’re not sure themselves…that is amazing! As much as they may learn from their teachers or mentors, we absolutely learn from them. It’s a privilege to work with young people.
“Theater, music, art, dance should all be part of every school curriculum, because they call out to the students’ imaginations, their stories, their voices—a chance for them to be present in all their human selves. I experience their insight and intelligence at every rehearsal of Our Town. This is the play that MTC will be showing from October 25 through 29 on the main stage of the theater.
“Our Town, although done in many high schools as an American classic, is not the easiest to appreciate—It’s taking place more than a hundred years ago, not terribly exciting things happen; in fact, it’s basically plain folks living their lives, and in the end, experiencing their mortality. And this young cast is bringing their intuition, intelligence, and insights into this production, making it a humorous, endearing, and poignant slice of life.”
“I know what…Let’s put on a show!”
Putting on a show has been a basic human urge, presumably since the beginning of time. Before the advent of movable type, and printing presses—and widespread literacy—the news came traipsing through towns in the persons of traveling bards and jesters who recited, sang, or acted out current events, myths, and tales of derring-do to the illiterate citizenry. Shakespeare’s plays were so powerful that they continue to be a force in the world five hundred years later…not to mention that they changed the English language—it’s said that, in the absence of an exactly perfect word, he created seventeen hundred new ones! In the ’thirties and ’forties, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney repeated various versions of the line, “Hey, my uncle has a barn! Let’s put on a show!” in a cycle of movies starting with Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band. (Spoiler: the show saved the day every time.)
Invariably, actors and other theater people describe the exhilaration and camaraderie of creating an entire world out of thin air and putting it on for paying, applauding fans. They talk about the extreme sacrifices they are willing to make for this art, about how theater has changed their lives. There’s nothing like the intense bonding that churns in a company when going all out for those rave reviews, nothing like the discipline it takes to memorize lines and deliver them with feeling, nothing like making a roomful of people laugh or cry or think, and then, nothing like the let-down when a play ends and the make-believe world evaporates, the players scatter to their real lives, and only the memories and the old posters live on. For those who haven’t encountered this variety of peak experience, it’s hard to imagine giving up so much. And, in this community, with an all-volunteer crew, planning for rehearsals must include making room for people to tend to the obligations of a day job, getting their kids to soccer practice, making dinner, etc., etc…Basically, scheduling-wise, having cake/eating cake is not for the faint of heart.
Jeff Rowlings is the new president of MTC’s Board of Directors and, as well, designs sets and lighting. He was production manager of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) for eleven years, Magic Theatre for ten, and San Diego Repertory Theatre for three. He has produced, managed, and designed theater productions for more than forty years and he splits his creative endeavors between the Bay Area and Mendocino. “I’m a good example of what can happen to a kid who gets involved in theater early on,” he said. In high school, he had to choose between varsity football and theater, chose the latter, and has worked in professional theater ever since. “[With] a lot of people working together, collaboration is the name of the game…many people bringing their own selves into a common goal. Running shows is challenging. You basically give up your weekends and Thursday-through-Sunday nights. It’s a challenge to stay focused. But when that audience leaps to their feet…there’s nothing better.”
NOT ALWAYS SMOOTH SAILING
Human beings, being what they are, it isn’t surprising, especially with the kind of egos drama attracts, that things don’t always go smoothly. Sandra Hawthorne has lived through many ups and a few downs: “I can go into flights of gush about people who work on plays learning so much about themselves and about working with other people. But over the vicissitudes of five decades, we’ve had damaging people in the office.” One character took charge of production and threw out everything they could from MTC’s archives. “Another fellow—who asked nobody’s permission—took what was left of the archives to the Kelley House Museum!” Eventually, the museum gave it all back. Sandra, along with Pamela Allen, who was the producing director at that time, bought new cabinets to store the historic chronicles. Another couple came in to “weed out,” and threw away all the photographs from years of productions, assumedly with the intention of saving space. A terrible loss. And, of course, COVID came along and put a stop to all performance art. MTC had to close down for three years.
Nevertheless, they persisted…
MTC persists and even thrives today because this marvelous community cares deeply about this marvelous art form…as players, as behind-the-scenes workers, as audiences, and as donors. Producing Director Beth Craven emphasized that, “No theater can survive on ticket sales alone. The fact that MTC has existed in a small rural community for fifty years speaks well of the widespread and generous support we have received from our community. Fundraising and outreach to new audiences and donors will determine whether we survive into the next fifty years.”
After COVID, some generous legacy gifts came to the company from long-time friends of MTC. Martha Wagner left a large financial blessing to MTC in her will. Faithful theater-goer Beth Cooney, and others, too, have left generous bequests. The legacy gifts and The Long Intermission*, a video fundraiser, have injected much-needed “grease for the machine” and renewed energy into the company. Additionally, more new people have come in as society has reawakened from the long COVID shutdowns. MTC is back to its regularly scheduled six plays a year with tremendous vigor and the excitement of innovative perspectives from its new producing director and board**. And, most importantly for MTC’s future, Green Space Players continues to provide young thespians with the skills, thrills, and rigor of serious theater.
Sandra Hawthorne left the Board of Directors in January 2021. Because she is losing her eyesight to macular degeneration, she felt she could no longer participate in theater to the extent she always had, yet her passion for theater remains undiminished. MTC recently honored her fifty-year legacy with the first ever “Star Award,” which now hangs in the theater lobby along with photos of her in some of her favorite roles. The indefatigable founding member directed over twenty-six plays and acted in more than thirty, often rolling up her sleeves and pitching in on anything else that needed doing: painting sets; working the lights; finding new financial sponsors; mentoring aspiring new talent; and attending countless board meetings. The importance of her contributions to theater in Mendocino can’t be calculated.
Recently, Sandra attended the first full run-through of Our Town that will be put on by MTC’s Green Space Players, October 26 through 29, in the Helen Schoeni Theater. Sandra relished watching these young actors as they explored their roles and relationships in the hundred-year-old Thornton Wilder play. She later mused: “You know, theater is nothing but storytelling…and people love story…The bards used to go from castle to castle carrying their tales and songs to the eagerly gathered folk. They may have heard the stories and myths many times before, but it didn’t matter!” She laughed as she imagined the jostling and hubbub as people stood in cold stone rooms to watch a single jester jesting, a bard declaiming—and no Marvel blockbuster epic could have prompted more delight. The story took them out of their day-to-day lives and put them in a world that, for a moment, was magically realer than real. Today, as then, we love to be transported by storytelling just as much. On the Mendocino coast, MTC supplies the rhymesters, the jesters, the tragedians who bring the audience into the play. Theater people know this is the true magic, the magic of the human story, the magic of dramatic transport…“The most wonderful thing about live theater—because there’s no obstacle between the people on the stage and the audience—is that we meld, we become one. It’s the experience of that exchange that makes it worthwhile for everybody—the live, human connection that no other entertainment can give us. Everyone gets something different from a play because each person brings his or her own experience: everyone involved may take new and valuable insights home with them, too. If you connect with the story, you’re satisfied, you’re fed. Yes, the most wonderful thing about live theater is that you know you have succeeded in touching people.” —Sandra Hawthorne
Learn more about MTC at www.mendocinotheater.org
* During pandemic year 2020, MTC produced The Long Intermission, a video presentation and fund-raiser that dramatized MTC’s past, present, and future. It was co-hosted by Dan Kozloff and Lisa Norman, and showcased talent from the theatre community, including, notably, Bill Irwin, Hit and Run Theater, Gloriana Musical Theatre, Flynn Creek Circus, and Mendocino Dance Project. It was a creative outlet for performers during an uncertain time, and allowed the community to connect again to the value of live theatre. It showcased the talent of the community as actors shared personal stories about what MTC meant in their lives.
The Long Intermission can be found at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2QqgBbdqS8
MTC is seeking diverse and qualified individuals to join our Board of Directors, to help shape the future of performing arts in Mendocino—develop policy, participate in fundraising, develop educational initiatives, build community relationships, and participate in strategic planning. Interested persons should send a letter of interest with bio and/or resume to: Board@mtc.org.
** Producing Director, Beth Craven; Board President: Jeff Rowlings; Board: Raven Deerwater, Julie Ahrens, Bob Cohen, James Cummings, Emily McPhail, Lisa Norman, and Ronda Smith, and artistic directors: Betty Abramson, Mark Friedrich, and Roxy Semans (outgoing 2023), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (incoming 2024). REM