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Nevada County theaters go dark for the year

Tom Durkin
Staff Writer


Which is the correct spelling: theater or theatre?

That depends on who you ask.

Pam Hodges, artistic director of The UpStart Theatre Company, offered this clear distinction:

“The difference between theater and theatre is, a theater is the venue, and theatre is what is done in the theater.”

Unfortunately, her definition is not universally acknowledged. The oldest theatrical venue in California in downtown Nevada City spells its name Nevada Theatre.

“Theatre is more of a British spelling, and some people here think it sounds more educated — or snobbish — and use it exclusively. Or the other way around,” Hodges observed.

She added, “There are humongous threads on Quora about it.”

The Associated Press Stylebook flatly states “theater” is the preferred spelling, except when it is the name of a venue or acting troupe that uses “theatre” in its formal name.

In his play “Hamlet,” Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.”

But here’s the thing about plays: The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down theatrical performances all over the world.

In western Nevada County, Sierra Stages, CATS, NorCal Fringe and UpStart have all gone dark for the rest of this year.

Sierra Stages Community Theater had to close in the middle of its run of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” at the Nevada Theatre, according to Peter Mason, managing director of the nonprofit theater company.

“We canceled the final two weekends, six out the 12 scheduled performances,” he said.

CATS had to shut down rehearsal and put costumes and sets in storage for “The Joy Luck Club,” said Jeannie Wood, executive director of the Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra.

“I’m really upset about it,” said Wood, but, “It’s nobody’s fault.”

The NorCal Fringe Festival in Grass Valley pulled the plug on its four-day experimental theater extravaganza.

“Literally, six days before we opened, we had to make the call,” said co-producer Richard Fisher of Quest Theatreworks, a 510(c)3 nonprofit community theater.

“We’re dead in the water. It shut us down,” stated Pam Hodges, artistic director of The UpStart Theatre Company, a profit-sharing theatrical collective. She said the company had been preparing to go into rehearsal when the curtain fell on everybody.

Even the outdoor Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor has canceled its 2020 season.

All local theater companies speculated they might attempt some kind of virtual production in the fall. But once burned, twice shy, none of the theater companies were willing to announce a firm commitment.


Besides losing “Blithe Spirit,” Sierra Stages had to cancel two scheduled shows, “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Escaped Alone.”

“We also canceled our April and May Theater by the Book play readings, which we co-present with the Miners Foundry,” said Mason. “We were fortunate to be able to present our March Theater by the Book play reading (“The Credeaux Canvas”) on March 11.

Sands Hall, who was scheduled to direct “Escaped Alone,” said she and Mason are studying the feasibility of a one-time, live production online with a limited time for people to see a recording of the livestream broadcast.

“At the moment, we are considering a virtual performance, but we have not yet received permission from the licensing companies to do so,” Mason said May 26.


“Our cast and crew will be back,” Wood declared, adding, “at least, I hope so.”

The CATS’ April-May production of “The Joy Luck Club,” this year’s theatrical showpiece, was halted in mid-rehearsal in March. Costumes and half-built sets had to be put into storage.

The play will be presented next year, with most of the same people, Wood said. If, however, some of the original cast members aren’t available, “We will have to audition,” she said. The same goes for the stage crew.

In addition to being executive director, Wood is the marketing director, membership director, grant writer, box office manager, and cultural enrichment director.

She said CATS was able to roll over the rights to produce the play next spring, but, “We’d already spent the money on advertising.”

And another disappointment was that Amy Tan, the author of the book “The Joy Luck Club” play is based on, was scheduled to speak at a matinee performance, she said.

While losing the biggest money-maker of the year for CATS, Wood said, “The community has been wonderful. A good percentage (of ticket holders) donated their tickets.”

Now in its 26th year, and despite the setback, Wood said, “We’re OK financially.”


Now in its sixth year, the NorCal Fringe (formerly the Nugget Fringe) is “the largest rural fringe festival in North America,” Fisher said. There are more than 200 Fringe Festivals globally, he said, but most are based in big cities.

“It was a hard choice to make,” Fisher said of canceling this year’s festival, but that’s a decision all Fringe Festivals everywhere had to make. “All Fringes have been canceled worldwide,” he added.

Created in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a Fringe Festival is a celebration of short-form, experimental and avant garde theater held in small, nontraditional venues.

According to the NorCal Fringe website, the Edinburgh festival in August this year would have featured more than “forty thousand performances of over six thousand shows taking place over three weeks in August with two million tickets available.”

Somewhat smaller but still growing, the Grass Valley festival was to feature 20 shows, 14 of which were out-of-town acts, Fisher said. This year, performances had been scheduled at three sites within the Courtyard Suites compound in Grass Valley, as well as one performance area at Gold Miners Inn.

As in years past, some of the acts would have featured world premieres of shows that would go on to tour other, larger Fringes around the world,” he said.

Like CATS, the NorCal Fringe lost money on advertising. “We bought two half-page ads in the Prospector (The Union’s weekly entertainment magazine),” Fisher said, but, “We’ve got a lot of support. We have a lovely bunch of people.”


“It was pretty discouraging,” said Hodges. “It seemed like everything (in theater) crashed in a matter of hours.”

Not only did they lose their season, they lost the UnChurch. The private residence in Grass Valley had been serving as UpStart’s performance venue. The COVID-19 threat has quarantined the at-risk owner, Hodges said.

According to the company website, a reading of an original screenplay “Badge” and a short-film premiere of “Jurassik in the Park” were scheduled.

Additionally, Hodges said the company had been planning to start rehearsing “HamletMachine,” a post-modernist play that is “very open to interpretation,” Hodges remarked.

The company had planned to perform “No Exit” by Jean Paul Sartre in September.

UpStart is the heir-apparent to Synthetic Unlimited, an ambitious but short-lived little theater company that distinguished itself for its bold and daring approach to black-box theater.

Upstart was founded in 2017. “We’re fairly young,” Hodges said, but she emphasized that most of the collective of actors, producers, writers, directors and crew are veterans of the local theater scene, including Synthetic Unlimited.


All four theatrical troupes confirmed they are considering virtual productions in the fall, but all are in a watchful, wait-and-see mode. None were willing to commit.

As Sierra Stages’ Mason put it, “It’s impossible to know what the future holds, but if live theatre gatherings were permitted in 2020, we would do our best to put together and present a production this year,” Mason said in an email.

If theater gatherings are permitted, Wood said, “I’m willing to sell every other seat and every other row to meet social distance guidelines.”

The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival website offered this advice from the bard from “Much Ado About Nothing:” “Have patience and endure.”


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Tom Durkin is a staff writer for The Union.

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