The Very Little Theatre is not that small. It has two stages: a Main Stage with 195 seats and Stage Left, which supports 77 chairs, and doesn’t exactly have a stage at all, but is a large room where people gather to perform. One of the oldest continuously operating community theaters in the country, it was named after the “little theater” movement of the 1920s and 1930s, when community theaters sprung up across the United States as alternatives to professional venues.
A member-run and -supported nonprofit, VLT is funded by ticket sales, donations, and grants. It has been in its location on Hilyard Street in Eugene since 1950 and has presented plays each year since it opened in 1929. Through the Depression and World War II, it never closed its doors, until the pandemic forced a pause in 2020 and 2021. Even then, it stayed connected to its members and audience by presenting readings, interviews, stories, and improvisations on a newly created YouTube channel.
For most of the time it’s been around, VLT has provided Eugene and Lane County with a theater where professionals and amateurs alike could work on a play, whether on stage or behind the scenes. The 2023-24 season begins with Thornton Wilder’s 1942 classic, The Skin of Our Teeth, and wraps up with Silent Sky, “a music-rich, female-led science drama” by Lauren Gunderson. Recently, VLT has been acting as an incubator, too, supporting minority groups whose stories haven’t yet been told, a fledgling improv group, and a readers theater that reaches into the community to perform at senior centers.
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Visiting VLT online, you may not recognize any of the actors, but that’s the way it is with community theater. These actors work just as hard getting into character, rehearsing, and performing as those whose names you might know, except they don’t become famous or make enormous sums of money. In fact, they don’t get paid at all.
Why put in all that work, then? What are the rewards? Ron Evans, VLT’s new executive director as of six months ago, provided a possible explanation.
“Once you love the theater, it stays in your heart forever.”
He speaks from experience. Evans’ love for theater began in high school drama productions in Salinas, Calif. Between then and this job at VLT, he worked as an independent consultant helping theaters across the globe to succeed, by assisting with marketing and development. Besides this practical experience, Evans studied theater from an academic perspective. His focus was not on the stage, or even backstage, but rather on the people sitting in the audience. He formulated his dissertation to quantify emotional responses of people as they watched a play. In an effort to measure emotions, he wired individuals to collect data on their heart rates and skin temperatures as they took in a production.
What he likes best about his job as director of VLT, he said, is creating a space where people can have feelings together. Not alone on a screen at home, but responding in real time, together with others. In other words, as a community.
Member Carol Dennis believes VLT can make people’s dreams come true. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. If you want to act, then audition. It doesn’t matter if you have years of training or none at all. If you want to direct, get a job as a stagehand, because that way you’ll be assisting the director and learn firsthand.
I saw what she meant during my interview with Evans, when I mentioned that I was trying my hand at fiction, writing a story about coming of age as an immigrant in Los Angeles.
Without hesitation he said, “Let’s turn that into a play!”
I told him I’d never written a play. It didn’t matter! That’s what “workshopping” was for, he said. Then, before the interview was done, still musing it over, he said, maybe VLT could create a workshop that showed people how to translate a novel into a play. I’m not sure that I want to write a play, but it’s quite remarkable that if I did, VLT would be open to supporting that endeavor, or is open in this fashion at all, to people who’d like to share their stories.
Evans is VLT’s first full-time, permanent executive director in its nearly 100 years of existence. Before he was hired, Jessica Ruth Baker acted as interim executive director, helping the theater to reopen after pandemic shutdowns. That said, the operation still is mostly executed by volunteers or its roughly 100 members, who each pay a $20 annual fee and agree to a requirement to participate. Members elect the board and choose the plays. “It is a democratic system,” said Evans.
Rebecca Lowe is a member on the board and is also directing the upcoming production of The Skin of Our Teeth, which opens Aug. 4 and will run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Aug. 20. Wilder’s play won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was originally directed on Broadway in New York City by Elia Kazan and starred Fredric March and Tallulah Bankhead.
Lowe allowed me to sit in on a rehearsal, a “run” she called it. A run focuses on blocking so that actors become familiar with their environment on stage. With a little more than a month to go before the play opens, the cast mostly had their roles memorized, but some still carried scripts as a backup or occasionally had to break character and ask, “Line.”
“We’ve gotten through this Depression by the skin of our teeth,” is a line from the play. When I heard it, I couldn’t help feeling the same way about being in the theater, coming out of the pandemic. I was struck, too, by how contemporary the play felt as Sabina, played by Leslie Murray, broke the “fourth wall” by interrupting the play to speak directly to the audience.
Dennis designed the set – her first set design – for The Skin of Our Teeth. Giving me a tour backstage, she showed how the workshop will be expanded into a larger space. Part of a $1.5 million renovation project at the theater, begun with a $200,000 lead donation by Herb Merker and Marcy Hammock, the larger workroom will allow folks to construct sets in the shop. Sets have had to be built on stage, because the workshop is too small to accommodate large structures, and that has taken up precious time onstage that could have been otherwise utilized.
VLT produces seven main productions a season, with about eight weeks between shows. The weeks in between have increasingly been rented out or shared with other arts groups in the community. In recent years, that has allowed VLT to act “as an incubator,” said Evans. Helping to give birth, so to speak, to groups like Readers Theater Performers (volunteer actors who perform at senior centers in Eugene and nearby Springfield), the No Script Society (an improv and sketch troupe), Virtual Little Theater (a group that was born during the pandemic), and Minority Voices Theatre (“theater that creates a sense of belonging”).
Minority Voices Theatre was originally Dennis’ idea, something she dreamt of doing once retirement came. Her life as a professional actor began in 1973 when she earned her Equity card in New York City. Her interest in stage production began back then, too, and in 1980 she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a stage manager. When she moved to Eugene in 1990, she had a hard time getting hired by theaters in town.
Actor’s Equity is a labor union that supports actors and stage managers, but her status as a professional prevented her from working at most local companies. She found a way to stay active in the theater by founding Little Apple Productions, where she was able to produce and direct, versus act or stage manage. Little Apple Production ran from 1993 to 2000, producing plays by women for women.
Dennis was freelancing as a director when she met fellow actor/director Stanley Coleman, and shared her dream with him about forming Minority Voices Theatre. As a gay Black man in a biracial relationship, he was on board. He had recently moved from Louisiana, where he had retired from the Teacher’s Retirement System of Louisiana. In those days, though, people weren’t sure Eugene had an audience for theater about minorities, or even actors to fill the roles. Then, the way Dennis described it, 2016 happened (“he who shall not be named” became president) and she contacted Coleman, saying, “We have to do this now.”
Minority Voices Theatre, co-founded by Dennis and Coleman, opened in 2017 at VLT with a reading of a play that Coleman chose, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. The play is about two sisters who were civil rights pioneers, born to a former slave. Their stories were unknown until reporter Amy Hill Hearth compiled them and turned them into the bestselling book that in turn inspired the play.
On VLT’s website, Coleman explains the usefulness of a reading: “Doing staged readings will create opportunities to perform plays with minimal rehearsal time and low production costs – and maybe help determine if the local community has the resources to create a fuIl production.”
Other readings staged by Minority Voices Theatre include Now I Am Your Neighbor: Stories of Lane County Immigrants, and Transfigurations, a 1988 play about Oregonians who identify as transgender. At the 2018 Transfigurations event, the theater included an updated version that presented stories by transgender and gender-nonconforming members of the local community.
To date, the relatively new program has donated about $4,000 from its proceeds to local nonprofit agencies, such as Eugene/Springfield NAACP, Centro Latino Americano, and Soromundi: Lesbian Chorus of Eugene. Minority Voices Theatre is working on the possibility of creating a Spanish language theater project, Dennis said.
An intriguing aspect of community theater is that seasoned professionals may work alongside people who have absolutely no experience in the theater. Coleman is used to directing actors with no training. As a high school drama teacher, his job entailed coaching young adults who had no previous experience. He taught students the basics as they went along, which is what he does with first-time actors at VLT.
Coleman and Dennis are retired, but both are busy with multiple projects. How is their life different from the one they had before retirement? Coleman answered and Dennis quickly agreed: Before retirement, they worked on other people’s projects. Now they get to do what they want – at VLT they do the work that is meaningful to them.
Coleman started acting in Eugene in 2012, a couple of years after arriving, when director Craig Willis of Lord Leebrick Theatre (now Oregon Contemporary Theatre) called him to audition for the role of Beatty, the fire chief in Fahrenheit 451. Just a decade ago, it was unusual to cast a Black man in a role traditionally played by white actors.
Ryan Rusby, media designer at Lord Leebrick Theatre for the 2012 production of Fahrenheit 451, found it amazing how the play, based on the 1953 novel by Ray Bradbury, mirrored what was happening in the 21st century, portraying “devices that talk to us and never turn off” and corporations that intrude on our personal lives. With ChatGPT and AI in general, that trend has only grown since then, illustrating that these classic stories continue being relevant, it seems sometimes even more so with time.
After Coleman performed in Fahrenheit 451, he played Paul Robeson, the actor/singer/athlete who was famous for his political activism. “A play should not be frivolous,” Coleman said about his choice of material. “A play should have a message.”
Funny, then, that I ran into him after our interview at VLT at the inaugural performance of the No Script Society. The improv group performed skits and played games, invited audience members to participate, and acted about as silly – even frivolous – as you can imagine. The show began with Adam Leonard, the group’s co-founder, pretending to be a kindergarten teacher explaining improv to his students. The troupe – grown adults – ran in as if they were 5-year-olds, and later in the show stuffed marshmallows in their mouths everytime they got a laugh (I caused someone to eat a marshmallow at least once).
Coleman directed Leonard when he played Van Helsing in VLT’s 2018 production of Dracula. Leonard lit up talking about the experience. It was his “dream show” and the play that brought him back to the theater.
Now in his early 40s, Leonard is not anywhere near retirement, though he did stop having anything to do with the theater for about eight years. After studying acting at the University of Oregon, he was discouraged by not being able to find a way to make a living at it. He gave up on the dream until he played Van Helsing, the vampire’s nemesis. That experience made him realize something had been missing from his life. Then friends in the production introduced him to improv.
He studied improv techniques with formal training and eventually founded his own troupe with Robert Williams. “It’s an ongoing process,” he said. Kali Kardas helps run the group, teaching people games and taking them through how to build a scene to tell a story. Though the show is meant to be silly and humorous (e.g., the marshmallows), there were moments of sincere acting that shone through among the funny.
Leonard said he now thinks of his day job as necessary for physical survival, but he spends all his free time working with the No Script Society players because that’s the work that “feeds his soul.”
The No Script Society show I attended was sold out, with a waiting list of people trying to get in. They played in Stage Left, an intimate room where it was easy for the group’s 10 members to interact with the audience. During intermission, folks went into the lobby for snacks and to view what is in effect a mini-museum of Very Little Theatre history.
The lobby walls are covered with posters of plays produced at the theater. Lists of all productions, with the names of directors, are on view, as well as photographs of actors from bygone eras. The names of “Honorary Members” are listed, “Life Legends,” too. Also remembered are members who died during the pandemic.
The lobby exhibit does not look like it was professionally curated. The edges of photographs and text aren’t always cut straight. Images are not displayed behind glass. But the history is there. Everyone who put their hearts into telling other people’s stories have their own stories told, as actors, directors, and supporters of VLT.