Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DMTC at 30

Things are busy at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center as the Davis Musical Theater company prepares for its 30th Anniversary Gala, to be held on Saturday, August 23 at 6:30 p.m.

“Last night we had a Young Performer’s Theater committee meeting in the women’s dressing room, the cast of “Shrek” was rehearsing the big tap number on stage, and in the lobby, singers were rehearsing for the Gala,” laughed Jan Isaacson, who added that set building and painting for the upcoming production of “Shrek” were also taking place on the dock in the afternoon.

The gala anniversary evening, at only $15 per ticket, will include hors d’oeuvres and a light dinner catered by Symposium Restaurant, followed by an evening of musical theater songs and highlights from dozens of productions that have been offered by DMTC over the years.

“I found people who performed from the beginning of the company,” says Jan, “so it will start off with ‘Oklahoma’ in 1987. Joe Anthony is coming back to perform ‘Oh what a Beautiful Morning.’ I picked selected songs from different decades. Mary Young is going to do ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from ‘Gypsy.’ Jay Joseph lives in Las Vegas and he’s coming back to sing ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from ‘Follies.’ The pi├Ęce de resistance of the evening is going to be Ben Bruening’s half hour movie tracing our history from the very beginning to now.”

Mayor Dan Wolk, a long time supporter of DMTC will present a proclamation congratulating DMTC on its 30th anniversary and thanking the company for its commitment in making performing arts accessible for all in the Davis, California region.

"I am so delighted about presenting this proclamation to Jan and Steve Isaacson and DMTC. As someone who is an alum of DMTC, has been a performer in a number of musicals, and who recognizes the importance and joy of community theater, this celebration has particular meaning to me,” Mayor Wolk said.

Bob Bowen, Promotions Manger for the City of Davis. laughs ''If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 30 years, I'd have thought their gaffer's tape was wound too tightly, Having produced my fair share of theater, I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis. For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children's shows - every year, and for more than a quarter of a century - is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater."

Statistics show that many community theaters which get off the ground and achieve some sort of success generally begin to peter out around 30. The founding members start to get older and can’t do what they did 30 years before, the younger members don’t have the dedication. Ultimately they call it quits, throw a big party to celebrate a long and productive life.

At 30, the Davis Musical Theater is just hitting its stride. Last year their house was amazingly 91% full and they expect to equal or surpass that this year. The company appears to be healthier than ever with exciting plans for the future.

DMTC produces six Main Stage musicals and five Young Performers Theater musicals annually. That’s more than one hundred performances on the DMTC stage each year. What keeps things so vibrant and alive?

“There’s a real sense of family about the group,” says actress Dannette Vasser, who joined in 1997. “There’s not the backstage drama that you sometimes find in other theater groups. It’s a very comfortable place to be. Everybody gets along and a lot of that is due to the atmosphere Jan and Steve foster. They’ve created this to be a family place, where all different members of the community can work together to put on a show.”

“I consider DMTC my musical theater home,” says Mary Young, who has been with the company since she followed choreographer Ron Cisneros to Davis and performed Lady Thiang in the company’s second show, “The King and I.”.

Mary, who lives in Roseville, never thought she would ever drive to Davis to perform but once she started she “just never stopped.” “It has a lot to do with Jan and Steve. They are such good human beings,” she said. “I had a really bad car accident a few years ago and Steve just put me in the next show. Didn’t make me audition. It was my road to recovery. Physical therapy, mental therapy. What better place to go and just play.” Young will be performing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy" at the anniversary show.

Young’s daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade when her mother joined the company, and she literally grew up with DMTC. “She was one of the children in 'King and I,'” Young said, “and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.”

Young has had an opportunity to perform with not only her daughter but also her grandchildren on the DMTC stage. In fact, the upcoming “Shrek” will feature 3 generations of Youngs. “I haven’t been able to perform with all three of my grandchildren,” she says, “But it’s on my bucket list.”

She remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans' Memorial Theater into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk ... and being escorted out to the Port A Potties during evening rehearsals.

People who started at the Second Street theater were like “the survivors, ” laughed Marguerite Morris, who joined DMTC out of high school in 1985 at age 19 to play Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

That was the show, Steve remembers, where Pat Piper bought the very first DMTC season ticket (she would later become DMTC’s first lifetime season ticket holder.)

Morrison remembers the difficulties working in that small theater and the company’s eventual move downtown to the Varsity theater.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bob Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while all were in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

'When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved. I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

'Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theater, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.'

“One of the things that makes me want to do shows there is the people,” said Morris. “ I’ve made excellent long term friendships there. It’s a family.” Morris herself will be singing the Mother Abbess' "Climb Every Mountain" from "The Sound of Music" at the gala performance, one of her favorite roles.

Morris’ daughter Rachel performed in 8 shows, when she was 9-11. “There is always a tight knit group of kids as well as adults. There’s no real age barrier. A lot of the older kids take younger kids under their wing and show them the ropes.”

John Ewing, who joined as an actor in the late 1980 and moved on to become a designer and director and member of the Board of Directors, has a slightly different take on why he has stuck around. “One thing I like about DMTC is they’ve always been really great about being open to anybody, they always had open auditions. I get a real thrill out of taking something from nothing and creating a show for an audience. The great thing about the way DMTC does their shows is that so many ordinary people, not necessarily pursuing theater as a career, have the opportunity to experience it. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Ewing points out that people come and people go, but he most values the ones who have stuck around, people like Lenore and Gil Sebastian, who were in the very first show Ewing did and are still around.

“I’m excited about Saturday’s Gala, that people who performed years and years ago have been invited back to perform again.”

As the company has grown, the expertise of the Young Performer’s Theater (started as “DMTC’s Children’s Theater” in 1987) both in its performers and its parents has grown and become an essential part of the DMTC family.

Jen Nachmanoff is a mom who came to DMTC because her daughter Sophia wanted to perform.”I’m a ceramic artist and have learned how to paint here at the theater, so I’m now a painter too. I didn’t know how to paint before I came here, but I’ve learned on the job. So I help with the scenic artistry. We find out we can do things we never knew we could do.”

Jen oversees the decorative tiles on the wall (continuing the work begun by Jeni Price). She helps families create tiles and has been overseeing the design and firing. I’ve only been here three years, but it feels like forever. It’s the volunteers who make DMTC.”

Children in the Young Performer’s Theater learn all aspects of theater, not just performing, and kids as young as 10 now run the light board for main stage shows. “They’re focused, they’re mature, they know what they’re doing. The kids who run the light board are phenomenal,” said Steve proudly.

Lighting is a big part of every production, and an aspect which the audience, for the most part, is unaware. Someone told me once that if the audience doesn’t notice the lights, the lighting designer has done her work well.

On October 18, 1985, when DMTC opened its first show at the “Old Theater,” which had no walls, insulation, heating or air, Steve remembers chaos on opening night, when Diane Wershing was running the lights. There had been no time for lighting rehearsal.

“I remember going to the theater for opening night and HOPING that they had hung lights,” Wershing said, “Luckily, it was a show that I knew inside and out, so as long as someone was going to hang the lights and hook up something for me to control them with, I figured I could wing it. I was hoping beyond hope that there was something for me to work with, and lo and behold there was. A little 6-dimmer board that I could hold in my lap in the back row of the audience. I ran the lights from there.”

More recently, in the final performance of “South Pacific,” the 10 year old light board just died. Light board operator Mia Piazza turned on the board and there was no response. They were faced with having to cancel a show that was sold out. But they were able to turn on the house lights and the work lights, and Steve went out to face the audience. “This was going to test how good a salesman I am. I explained that our light board died and someone in the audience cried out ‘the show must go on!’ We did the whole show with just the work lights on and the house lights on. When we finished a scene and we’d cry out ‘scene!” It was like a recital. The audience loved it!”

One thing that separates DMTC from many theater companies is it has been and remains an all-volunteer organization, and everyone works on everything. Actors know when they audition that they will be expected to help build sets or help in some other way.

“Except for the piano player we’re still all volunteer,” said Jan proudly. “We have the best volunteers around. People love it here. They’re here because they want to be here. It’s not a paid job. I always say we must be doing something right.”

They even have a complete all-volunteer orchestra. Nikki Nicola and Pam Thompson both get all the musicians. “We had 26 for ‘Les Miserables,’” Jan pointed out proudly. “We never have to worry about the orchestra. Ever. People ask ‘how do you get your musicians to volunteer.’ I tell them they all get a free cookie and a drink at intermission. The ushers go down, take the orchestra order before the show gets started, at intermission they bring it down there. They love not having to get dressed up.”

Steve adds, “Other music directors ask ‘how do you get them to volunteer?’ I say....uh...ask them?”

Costumer Jean Henderson has been with the company for 17 years and for her recent 70th birthday, a surprise party was held and she was told the theater had been renamed for her. “It came as a complete surprise,” she said. “I was so shocked.”

Henderson loves the DMTC family. “I don’t like to be with just old people. I like the diversity of age, I get to know what’s going on in the world. I’m not the retirement home kind of person.”

One of her new roles, since DMTC got a liquor license, is to handle the bar before the shows and at intermission. “People like being able to take the drinks into the theater. I try to find something that will represent the show.” For “Peter Pan” she found a drink that used Cpt Morgan rum. “We had ‘Barricade lemonade’ with vodka and sparkling water for ‘Les Miserables,’ a Spamarita for ‘Spamalot,’ and a Fa-Gin for ‘Oliver!’.

As the company has aged, the shows have gotten bigger. On April 14, 2012 DMTC’s second performance of “Titanic, the Musical” opened exactly 100 years to the minute of the sinking of the great ship. Ludy’s Main Street BBQ recreated the last 11-course meal served on the great ship, as a fundraiser for over 50 patrons.

Thanks to donations by many patrons, the company was able to buy mirrors for a spectacular production of “A Chorus Line” in April of this year

In June, Steve directed “Les Miserables,” the show he had dreamed of directing since he first saw it in 1988. The production was described by one patron as “the best night I’ve had in this theater.”

Though the Davis Musical Theater Company does not always get the respect or the attention it has earned, the fact is that they have outlasted every single theater company in Davis, that they are the longest-running, year-round, non-professional musical theater company in California, and that the quality of productions has continued to improve every year over the past 30 years, as evidenced by their loyal audience (40% of which comes from Davis and 60% of which comes from other areas). The company has proved that they are indeed doing something right.

As DMTC start its new season, the company is deserving of a hearty bravo! for a job well done

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