Summer always triggers many happy memories for me, and much of it has to do with reveling in being outdoors, in the water, under the sun. All restrictions on bedtime eased so that I could continue my adventures well after dusk, catching fireflies and inventing new worlds.
Summer as an eight-year-old marked a life-changing introduction to the world of storytelling, first to Shakespeare with A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Mall in Washington and then listening for hours to regional storytellers spin tales under a tent during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Those summer experiences inspired me to take things into my own hands that summer and adapt and produce a Japanese version of Cinderella, Sima Who Wore the Big Hat. It was a site-specific piece — the site being my back yard. The costuming went way over budget, the sets were finished “just in time,” and the natural lighting was supplemented by some of my mom’s floor lamps, but the show opened on schedule. I reveled in my first producing gig ever! The die was cast.
I have made the Sierra Madre Playhouse my artistic home since 2009 and have produced 11 shows there since then. In the past few years, I have seen the organization leave its community theater beginnings behind and transform itself into “a theater of its community” by hiring professional actors, directors and designers and striving to do the best work possible. This has brought some proud moments on our “mainstage”, beginning with the popular and critical success of To Kill A Mockingbird in 2011, which received several BroadwayWorld.com nominations including best play (local); our first two Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice designations, for Woman in Mind and Incident at Vichy; and our first-ever Ovation-Recommended designation for this year’s Driving Miss Daisy.
We are a theater in transition. We have just begun a year-long process to decide who we are and what kind of theater we want to produce. We’ve taken a look at our audience demographics and realized that, as at many other theaters, our audiences are graying, even though we’re located in a small town brimming with young people and families with children.
We have co-produced June Chandler’s Fairy Tale Theatre, which focuses on young children, at the Playhouse for several years. But we saw the need for plays aimed at families and older kids in the San Gabriel Valley and thought that the timing was ripe to launch a family series as part of our regular programming, committing to producing at least one play a year, suitable for the entire family. How else can we ensure that we’ll have audiences into the future?
As we looked for the perfect play to launch our new initiative, I remembered my summers in D.C. and immediately thought of Mark Twain — as a kid, I think I read everything he wrote. So it has been an absolute joy mounting The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as these lazy days of summer come to an end. Laura Eason’s terrific adaptation of Twain’s novel celebrates not only his storytelling but also the essence of storytelling — a compact between the storyteller and the audience to find truth in the moment. We have assembled a talented group of young adult actors to bring Twain’s beloved characters to life and the results are charming. And we are already planning our next family show — the West Coast premiere of Los Angeles playwright Doug Cooney’sBattledrum, a play about Civil War drummer boys, set to open March 14, 2014.
Sierra Campbell-Unsoeld and Mike Rosenbaum
Sierra Madre Playhouse takes very seriously its role as the performing arts center of our community. After all, it resides in a structure that is approaching its 100th year, constructed in 1923 as a vaudeville theater. We are very excited to announce a Sunday evening series in conjunction with the Colburn School beginning this October, designed to bring the best of young musicians to our stage. As we’ve been saying to ourselves, “See them at the Playhouse before seeing them at the Phil!” And our next show opening in September, The Lion in Winter, has great family appeal.
Summer always gives way to fall and the memories of idylls in the sun, playing with imaginary friends, charting unknown regions. Living in a world of imagination fuels us for our return to the demands of school and work. But producing theater is a way for me to continue my summer adventures throughout the year. It is not so far a journey from Sima to Tom Sawyer. And as Mark Twain said, “What work I have done, I have done because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it.”
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024. August 9- September 7, Fri 7 pm, Sat 5 pm, Sun 11 am and 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $15-$25. www.sierramadreplayhouse.org. 626-355-4318.
**All The Adventures of Tom Sawyer production photos by Aaron Lyons.
Estelle Campbell has produced seven plays at SMP: Anna In the Tropics, Our Town, To Kill A Mockingbird, 20th Century, Woman In Mind, Driving Miss Daisy and God’s Man in Texas. She serves as president of the board of the Sierra Madre Playhouse.