Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 20
The Great American Melodrama serves up classic live theater, song, and dance to the central coast
BY JOE PAYNE
The lamps are dimmed, illuminating the stage. A lone piano heralds the coming of the night’s master of ceremonies, who introduces the Great American Melodrama and the play to be performed that night. Unaided by a microphone, the actor projects his voice to every corner of the warm and welcoming room.
And before you know it a story unfolds. Characters march across the stage, engaging in their lives, practically unaware of anything else in the room. The piano chatters with the characters, running a pleasant counterpoint to their conversations. It isn’t until a man dressed all in black takes to the stage that the tone shifts—a deep, dissonant chord, as dark as his intentions.
And it isn’t until this dastardly character is left alone on stage that he turns away from the country scene and cabin, toward the open room, and pours forth his inner thoughts, giving anyone listening no doubt as to how evil this character really is.
Except, there is no audience to hear the character’s terrible schemes, just a handful of people in the back of the room. This is a dress rehearsal, with the producing artistic director, director, technical director, and costume designer serving as the only audience. They are there to observe and help put the finishing touches on a play that is to be performed, eye any kinks that need to be corrected, and, of course, to act as moral support for the troupe of actors, cheering, booing, and hissing appropriately.
“Melodrama started when members of the community would get up on stage and comment on social society,” said Nova Cunningham, producing artistic director for the Great American Melodrama, “and members of the audience would say ‘yay’ if they agreed, or ‘boo’ if they disagreed, or ‘hiss’ if they hated somebody.”
The style of melodrama caught on in America in an age before radios, television, movies, and even electricity. The Great American Melodrama honors that genre with an authenticity that is apparent on walking into the theater, with the ragtime piano to greet you, sawdust-covered floors, and iconic red curtains covering a wooden stage. It’s a place where the audience is almost as much part of the show as the actors, providing cheers of approval and boos and hisses of derision for the actions of the characters.
“Keeping that interaction is what makes this place unique,” Cunningham said. “A lot of people come and like the good old-fashioned humor to it, and yet the theater doesn’t date itself or make it old.”
The palate of the Central Coast is for quality live theater, which is something the Great American Melodrama is definitely dedicated to. It becomes readily apparent, just sitting in on a dress rehearsal, the attention to detail that is paid to just about everything going on both on and off stage. The upcoming production, Death at Devil’s Cave, for instance, enjoyed an intensive four-week prep period.
“I start with just blocking and moving people around the stage, and then we put on the fight layer,” said Brian Rickel, director of Death at Devil’s Cave. “The last thing we put on is all the style work, all the stylized movement.”
Once the show comes to an end, complete with an iconic vaudeville review after the two-act play, the actors, pianist, and music director, director, and producing artistic director meet for notes. Communication is of huge importance to the quality of a play, and the entire staff does it with such ease and openness that the group begins to resemble one whole rather than several different parts.
“It’s such a wonderful job to have as an actor,” actor Kat Endsley said, “We get so little opportunity to have a job where you get housing and get to work with people that you live with. It really is like a family here.”
Many things make the Great American Melodrama unique for a theater company, especially if you are an actor. Used to traveling shows, one-part contracts, and constantly shuffling around looking for work, the Melodrama offers a contract that often lasts months and provides housing for its actors.
“A lot of times when you work for theaters you go there, they tell you what your contract is, and then you go off and find an apartment,” Cunningham said. “Well, think about the cost of living here, it is quite a challenge. We provide everything from the minute you walk in.”
The entire cast and much of the crew at the Great American Melodrama live in a house and condo covered by the company. This leads to a personal tightness among all involved. A coalition of coworkers feels more like an extended family or group of best friends, all the more conducive to the flow of creative energy.
The Great American Melodrama was founded in 1975 by John and Lynne Schlenker. John, a professional actor who came out to the Central Coast on work, ended up teaching drama at Ernest Righetti High School, and noticed that the turnout for his high school plays was enormous.
Living in Halcyon at the time, Schlenker would often pass by an empty building—the former home of a Rexall drug store—and the wheels began turning. The first play ever performed at the location was Ten Nights in a Bar Room with the ticket price set at $1.50. The show sold out almost immediately.
“They wanted that honky tonk piano feel, like you’ve just walked into a saloon,” Cunningham said. “John liked that old-Western idea, and that’s how he started the whole basis of it, and he is so passionate about melodrama.”
Though the Schlenkers are retired, they are still hands-on owners, Cunningham explained. If something needs to be fixed, they are the first ones to take a look and usually fix it. Right down to the tables in the theater, which John made himself all those years ago, they are always present in the building.
“They knew it was going to be successful so they kept it going,” Cunningham said. “But think about it, this guy’s vision of a theater, and here it is still 30 years later.”
After their retirement, the Schlenkers have allowed a constant revolving door of talented actors, directors, organizers, technicians, and artists to pass through. Many actors are returning artists. In the case of Cunningham, she worked as an actor at the location in the ’90s and is back now as the artistic director.
“They are so kind and generous that when you come here you feel welcome,” Cunningham said. “The theater looks the same, it smells the same, and with the recent renovations, the theater and snack bar all look the same because they set it up right.”
The building recently underwent a renovation that covered what used to be an open, patio-type area that served as a line to the box office. The area now serves as a line to the concessions area, filled with classic posters and iconic memorabilia of classic American theater. The renovation also included a beautiful facade that faces Highway 1 and gives the location the curb appeal it deserves.
The actors on stage are aided immeasurably by the efforts of a few folks most Melodrama patrons will never see. Every aspect of the sets that the audience sees is carefully planned and executed by the theater’s technical director Brian Williams.
“I do just about everything: design, build, dress all the sets, props, maintain the building, tools, workshops,” he said. “I do a little bit of everything.”
The outcomes of his efforts are stunning. The hand-painted backdrops he provides leave no doubt that the cast is in the middle of the woods or in a cornfield. Many of his backdrops are what are called ‘roll drops’, meaning the painting is rolled up, and is pulled down like a window shade, a technique that is hardly employed anymore in live theater. His interior set designs can feel like an Old West saloon, a log cabin, or the inside of an old jailhouse. All of these sets, which include four plays during the summer, have to fit in a backstage area that can be described as small, to say the least. Resourcefulness is a trait that has kept Williams at the Melodrama for almost three years now, that and his love for the job.
“I’m lucky to say that I’m a one percenter,” he said. “One percent of artists in the world can actually pay their bills with their art.”
As equally excited about her job is costume designer Renee Van Niel, who enjoyed a career in business, with costume design being a peripheral passion. Only until the last two years has she enjoyed costume design full time since she signed on with the Melodrama.
“This is really the first time I have done this as a full-time job,” she said. “It is the most wonderful job in the world, I love it and I love coming to work each day.”
Van Niel fits each costume to each actor, who all look like they are wearing tailor-fit clothes. And for productions like some of the vaudeville reviews, which include lightning-fast costume changes, she has plenty of tricks up her sleeve. From Velcro button ups, to costumes that fit underneath another costume, she makes sure the actors are ready and equipped.
After director Brian Rickel embarks back home after opening week of Death at Devil’s Cave, when stage manager Amanda Johnson takes over. She is responsible for lighting, supervising set changes, and just about everything else backstage. She wears cuts and bruises like badges as she gets things done backstage.
Something everyone remembers after a night at the Great American Melodrama is a visit to the concession stand. All the actors you see on stage are instantly behind the bar, serving up hot dogs, nachos, sodas, and draft beers, ready to sing a song in four-part harmony when a dollar (or more) is thrown in the tip jar.
“It’s hard a lot of times because when you go to a theater and you are just doing one show, you have all this down time and you don’t really know the community,” said actor Alex Sheets, who often serves as the theater’s master of ceremonies, “whereas here, it’s like not only are we spending the majority of our time with each other in this space, but it’s so in touch with the community.”
“They come out to see us and they see us in the bar line, they see us at the end of the show, they see us around town,” he added, “and most theaters, when the show is over, you walk out the back door to your car and you are gone, you don’t talk to anybody.”
The kind of epicenter of creative energy achieved by the Great American Melodrama is rare. A small troupe of talented people who all love their job make for some fun live theater, all for a price only a little more than a movie ticket.
“It’s a cliché, but they say if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life,” said Endsley. “This never feels like work.”
Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.