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Theater returns to Volcano, Calif. After COVID and fire

The aging actress had made up her mind.

After a brief and boring retreat to the country, she planned to make her triumphant return to – drum roll, please – la to organise!

“I yearn for excitement! And glamor! the conceited Judith Bliss proclaimed to her children who rolled their eyes. “Think of the thrill of a first night, of all those gaming enthusiasts who want to be successful.”

Such excitement was gone at the Volcano Amphitheater, where actress Paula Bibby played Judith in the 1924 play “Hay Fever”.

For it turns out that life itself provided its own dramatic storyline that darkened the scenes in this Sierra foothills town squall for nearly 20 months.

Actors Brenda Metzger, left, James Dove, Savannah Mulderrig and Madison Stevens prepare backstage before a performance.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

First there was the COVID-19 pandemic which canceled the 2020 season of the Volcano Theater Company. Then the vaccines arrived, and with them, the hope of a carefree “hot summer” and a victorious comeback on stage here in the Mother Lode area of ​​California.

Enter from the left of the stage, with the fury of a villain: the Delta variant of the virus. He tried to steal the show, infecting both the actors and the locals. But the season opened on July 30 with a performance of “Hay Fever”.

A triumph, they said.

Sadly, smoke filled the air the following week as the Dixie Fire burned in the north, erasing the sun and stars and another spectacle in the open-air amphitheater. The Caldor fire came next, with its evacuation warnings extending to the volcano. Two more shows, kaput.

“It has been incredibly depressing,” said Colleen Hagyard, treasurer of the not-for-profit Volcano Theater Company’s board of directors.

Theater returns to Volcano, Calif. After COVID and fire

Actor Alex Sharp, who plays Simon Bliss, arranges his costumes before the evening’s performance begins.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“This year everyone is getting vaccinated, the state is opening up and we are still dealing with COVID. The actors understand. It’s just a problem. And now the fires on? It feels like we can’t take a break.

The Volcano Theater Company has long been the cultural heart of this Amador County hamlet, drawing thousands of people to its few restaurants, hotels and businesses each year.

The town, which has around 100 residents, sits in a bowl-shaped valley, which Gold Rush miners believed to be the crater of a dormant volcano. It was once a thriving city, with thousands of inhabitants, a private law school, an astronomical observatory, and, out of respect for the sacred and the profane, numerous churches and saloons.

Now it’s one of those little places dotting California that looks like it’s ready to be wiped out by some calamity, man-made or natural.

When the Caldor fire started, Hagyard, 60, could see it from his volcano home. She and her husband put clothes and valuables in the trunk of their vehicle for three days, ready to escape.

The fire burned far away from them, to the north and to the east. They felt both lucky and guilty. Two friends from Grizzly Flats had just lost their home in flames.

But, all things considered, it was time to be happy, Hagyard said. She stood in front of the amphitheater on the last Saturday in August. The air was wonderfully clear in Volcano, one way or another. The show would go on.

As spectators entered the amphitheater, the cast and crew – with a flair for the dramatic – could barely contain their excitement.

“Was it… frustrating?” It’s a good word, isn’t it? director Jim Estes said of last year. “As actors, being involved in the theater, that’s what we doooo. “

“That’s a really good – what’s the word I want to use?” – a diversion away from it all, ”Bibby added.

“Our life away from life,” cut Estes, satisfied to find the perfect line.

The all-volunteer theater was established in 1974. Performances take place in the open-air amphitheater and across the street in the Cobblestone Theater built in 1856. With only 35 chairs it is reputed to be the smallest fixed-seat theater in California.

“We’re such a small county and we don’t have a lot of art,” said Savannah Mulderrig, a 32-year-old actress. “It’s just important that people experience the theater live. If you don’t go here, you will go to Sacramento.

Theater returns to Volcano, Calif. After COVID and fire

Volcano Theater Company actors Alex Sharp, left, Paula Bibby and Madison Stevens perform “Hay Fever” by Noel Coward.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Mulderrig – whose biography on the “Hay Fever” program says she was “born in a car just up the road at Pioneer” – was performing in her first production for the Volcano Theater Company.

She had tried there in January 2020 and had started rehearsals. The whole was built. His lines were memorized. The show never took place.

This year, “you don’t know, day to day, if there is going to be a big outbreak of the Delta variant or if the smoke and the air are going to be OK,” she said in powder on face during a picnic. table near the stage. “You just wait, hour after hour, wondering, ‘What’s the call going to be? So this is – exciting? ”

As he waited to do his makeup on stage, James Dove, a blue-eyed comedian nicknamed Stud by his castmates, said opening night was like a return to normalcy.

Dove, 41, of Sutter Creek, owns a house cleaning business, which saw its work cut in half during the pandemic because people didn’t want strangers in their homes. He could barely keep his employees paid, and he took a second job as an assistant manager at a pizza place in Jackson.

Eventually, people realized their homes wouldn’t clean and called back his cleaners. There is so much work now that he couldn’t keep the second job.

But without the theater, Dove was going crazy.

“It’s nice to be able to express yourself other than just clean up and go to work,” he said. “There are so many ways to clean a house, so many ways to make pizza.”

The pandemic, the fires, the appalling weight of last year – all of that is fading on the scene, said actress Brenda Metzger, a retired state emergency management employee who played the flirtatious. dredger Myra Arundel.

“When you play, you have to stay in the moment,” she said. “When I’m on stage, I’m Myra. And what matters most to Myra is getting laid.

Theater returns to Volcano, Calif. After COVID and fire

Spectators line up at the volcano amphitheater on September 3. The show attracted a hundred people.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

There were only about 38 people in the audience that night. Away from the typical crowds of around 120 people.

Karen Rovane, the publicity manager on the board of directors of the theater company, worried aloud about the canceled shows and the small crowd.

“I’m looking at how we need to have so many people to at least make the show profitable, let alone make a profit,” said Rovane, 60, of Pine Grove.

Everyone involved in theater – the actors, set builders, costume designers, technical operators – is a volunteer. All the money from ticket sales is reinvested in operations.

After the summer 2019 production of “James and the Giant Peach” at the amphitheater, volunteers took the set apart when they realized “things were spongy,” Rovane said. All the wood under the stage, which had lasted three decades, was rotten.

The small town came together, raising over $ 40,000 for a complete rebuild, an effort they called Save Our Stage 2020.

But who would save their stage from 2020?

“We had this big fundraiser and then we closed,” Rovane said. “We cannot continue to ask people for money. “

Theater returns to Volcano, Calif. After COVID and fire

Game lovers Jill Miceli, Julie Youngblood, Frank Miceli, Lois Pickett, Pat Adams, Jordon Bramell and Dennis Adams enjoy a pre-show picnic at the Volcano Amphitheater on September 3.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The audience sprawled out on the grassy steps of the amphitheater, picnicking with coolers full of wine, cheese and crackers.

At the start of the show, cheers echoed through the canyon and a faint smell of smoke hung in the air. A strong choir of crickets, deep in the pines, accompanied the play.

On stage, the children of Judith Bliss’ character wondered how boring life must have seemed for her, newly retired to the countryside, away from the limelight. She would come back, she said, because you can never stay away from the theater for long.

During the intermission, volunteers serving cookies and coffee greeted the fire trucks and ambulances, fresh out of the Caldor blaze, which kept rolling down Main Street.

In Volcano, at least, the smoke was gone. When the stage lights went out, you could see the stars.