By Alfonso C. Hernandez
One of the best qualities of the American people, not much touted about, is the quality of voluntarism. Everywhere one looks, there are volunteers: in churches, schools, libraries, theaters, auditoriums, political campaigns, in halls serving food for the homeless or gleaning food to distribute to citizens in need.
Because of this quality of voluntarism, amateur theater is alive and well in Visalia and Porterville. The Barn Theater in Porterville has been presenting plays for more than 60 years and is considered one of the oldest continuously running theaters in California, whereas the Visalia Players is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.
The Visalia Players’ most recent production was a musical called the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman and directed by Corey Ralston. The title tells the content of this musical comedy: a satire on what is practically an American institution, the Spelling Bee contest.
We see on the stage adult actors trying to play an unloved fat boy, the unhappy overachiever, the lonely girl whose mother is traveling in India, and one who lusts without control to the point of having an erection before and during his turn to spell a word.
To add verisimilitude to this superficial, vacuous musical, some members of the audience are invited to join the contest. The audience enjoyed the forgettable songs and the vulgarity of the situations and jokes. I could not remember one single melody or any memorable line when the show was over, not even the song about an erection. At moments, I thought I was seeing a TV reality show or one of the most dislikable scenes in a Jerry Springer show.
The Barn Theater started its season with Georges Feydeau’s La Puce a l’oreille (A Flea in Her Ear). Feydeau’s vaudeville farce is about the chaotic and sophisticated world of the adulterers and the innocent in a Paris of the “Belle Epoque.” This slapstick farce is fast-paced, humorous and full of sexual tension requiring physical and verbal athletics. The Barn producers did their best presenting the revolving bed, the character who can only pronounce vowels, the mistaken identities, the verbal insinuations. Because the Barn updated the action to the 1960s, the Frenchness of Feydeau’s art was nearly absent.
Despite all the flaws in the production of both theaters, all the actors were from excellent to good and competent. The musical accompaniment in Spelling Bee was near professional, whereas the choreography and the costumes were more than adequate. Still, all the actors could have spoken louder and been more deliberate in their delivery of lines.
The question remains: What would we who love the theater do without all these volunteer, amateur productions, including the ones in Tulare, Hanford and Lindsay? These productions demand 4–6 weeks of rehearsals and 15–20 hours a week of one’s time. Unpaid. I believe that not even Fresno has a fully professional theater company. And this voluntarism exists all over the United States.
Why is it that in one of the richest countries on earth, professional theater is found only in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco? How would the cultural landscape of theater, music and art, look in these United States without the generosity of the American volunteer?
Alfonso C. Hernandez is a writer and poet from Three Rivers, Calif.