Hamlet was a character in a play who wanted to use a theatrical production to provoke an audience made up of people he knew. The choice of a play is as important to a theatre company as it was to Hamlet. It says a lot about the motivations of those involved, and who the audience is known or believed to be. Back in the days of the WPA Federal Theater Project, there was a thriving theatre world from one coast to the other. Perhaps that type of grassroots theatre was indeed too provocative, for those who would have theatre be reserved for the wealthy. But many of the traditions that are rooted in the Roosevelt Era of Theatre in America still co-exist today with glitzy broadway productions, and the more classical type shows that appeal to a highly educated audience.
Most of the reasons for neighbors coming together for the purpose of presenting a play to their own community are still the same. People need to listen and be heard. A real community communicates, makes deeper than surface connections to solve problems and face an uncertain future together in solidarity. Whether to expose an injustice or celebrate victory, theatre is a way to speak truth to the heart, not in the solitary hours of a dark morning, but under a spotlight before a crowd. If the crowd is moved to laugh, cry, clap, shout or outright action, then something has happened that could have happened in no other way.
What we see going on in the news is reflected, refracted, reconstructed and sometimes regurgitated on our stages for our souls to sort out the real meaning. What is terrorism, or love, or the meaning of my existence? You might not have an intelligible answer to any of these questions, but a play dramatizing any of them might make you cry anyway, and swear that you understand now, or see things differently, or even have you walking out in anger or protest.
In the last two and a half years, Listen & Be Heard has reviewed and previewed plays from Walnut Creek to Oakland to Vacaville. We’ve gone to Solano College Theatre productions, Benicia Old Town Theatre Group shows, and right here in Vallejo we’ve seen musicals presented by the Vallejo Music Theatre, plays that dared to be different by Darkroom Productions, student productions at Jesse Bethel High School, and of course a variety of productions presented by the oldest theatre group in Vallejo, the Mira Theatre Guild.
Vallejo Music Theatre currently is occupying the old Federal Building at 823 Marin Street. They have plans to create a performing arts center in that building, but according to Director Judith Brown, they are struggling to keep their mortgage paid and working on getting some studies done. They still use the Fetterly Theatre, located in the Vallejo Shopping Plaza, for their productions. They are hoping that the community will get behind them and support their ambitious project. Most of what they are doing to raise money appears to be behind the scenes, however, since I observe very little day to day activity in the building. It’s unfortunate that the front steps are a favorite spot for people with nowhere else to go. It would be nice to see the group really own the building. Maybe they could pull some stuff out from their costume collection and do some old style theatre in the streets community outreach, right in their own front yard. It would go a long way toward building connections with the neighborhood that exists here today, and not in any particular vision of a future that doesn’t exist yet.
Darkroom Productions also uses the Fetterly for its productions in Vallejo, including their upcoming Indie Film Slam series. That may just be because the Fetterly is currently the only theatre in Vallejo. The doors to The Empress Theatre remain closed. The Mira Theatre Guild will unfortunately not even be announcing a theatre season this year. The drama there has become the play. The theatre is locked up, but that hasn’t stopped vandals from entering and stealing essential equipment. The Mira Theatre Guild has a temporary Executive Director appointed by a court order, because the oldest theatre group in Vallejo has degenerated into factions. A committee to “save the Mira Theatre Guild” threw a party last Friday to raise funds. According to Carmen Slack, a member of the board in question, the party took place in her establishment but she had no knowledge of how much funds were raised or for what purpose. She referred me to Stacey Loew who said the money was raised to pay off unpaid utilities, and that the committee was formed by “neighbors to the building who are concerned about the degeneration of the theatre property and their own property values.” She could not tell me how much money they raised. I won’t go into the long, ugly fight because I’m here to promote theatre in Vallejo and not cast a shadow over it. My major concern here is that this committee seems to have little regard for the history or the mission of the Mira Theatre Guild, and a whole lot of concern for the value of the property that this small and rundown theatre is standing on. A Vallejoan needs to write a play about Vallejo for Vallejo and present it here in Vallejo with actors from Vallejo, and like Hamlet, take note of how the audience responds.
Whether you live in Vallejo, or somewhere else on this side of the Bay Bridge, theatre still exists where you live, and you have the opportunity to participate. If you have never ventured to a live theatre production before it is my hope that you will use this special theatre issue as an initiation guide. Don’t let Hollywood dictate the subject matter and the actors every time. You have the power to choose, and you really can’t say anything at all until you have at least tried it.
Wishing you Peace and Poetry,