Mark Norwood didn’t have any illusions over the years about how hard it is to run a small community theater company.
“It was always a struggle to keep the wolf away from the door,” he says.
After more than 20 years, Norwood on Aug. 7 stepped away from the theater company he founded after finishing up the run of “The Buddy Holly Story,” a rousing production with a breakout performance by Joseph Ham as the title character. The River City Theatre Company, which makes its home at the Reedley Opera House, will go on without Norwood, but it will be hard to imagine that venue without his cheerful, omnipotent presence, backed up by his ever cheerful wife, Denise.
The reason he’s leaving, as is often the case in life, is money.
“The decision was actually pretty simple,” he says. “Due to economic pressures, my choices were to lay off or terminate employees that were like family to me, or resign and allow my salary to be absorbed back into my theater to ensure its continued survival.”
But there’s more to the story than that. In a candid series of interviews, Norwood went on record with me about the back story that went into his decision. They include what he says are city leaders who didn’t truly appreciate the benefits that a successful theater company can bring a small community – as compared to, say, the strong support the city of Selma offers its resident company. And he talks about a strange turn of events involving a large promised donation from the grandson of the man who founded the Reedley Opera House – a donation that fell through. For an extended version of the interview, go to the story at www.fresnobee.com/entertainment.
Q: Tell us about your problems with the “wolf.”
A: I knew from the very beginning that trying to produce year-round theater in a conservative, small farming community would be daunting, if not sheer folly. But there was this opera house that my wife and I fell in love with. I believed the mantra, “If you build it, they will come.” I believed that if I wrote some of the musicals and directed all of them, if I bussed tables and did the dishes and acted in the shows and designed the sets and the lights the audiences would come and the city leaders would see what a great treasure the opera house was. Audiences were beginning to build when the recession hit in 2008.
When the economy collapsed I took a significant cut in pay, or no salary if the wolf was knocking hard enough at the door. In addition, after the recession, production costs and rent to the city rose dramatically.
Another function that I served was as the major fundraiser for the company. I would take my hat in hand and go to the same generous donors each time. Lee’s Service, McClarty Farms, Knoll’s Plumbing, Gerawan Farms, David’s Gifts and Hobb’s Grove sponsored numerous shows. Many individuals also donated generously. I am eternally grateful to all of them and I am very proud of a theater that overcame tremendous obstacles. I also feel I was a good steward of the Reedley Opera House for almost 20 years and helped return the building to its original purpose.
Q: A “dream” question: In an ideal world, how do you think community theaters would be funded?
A: I believe that dream is a reality in Selma. I know that the city leaders in that town are very supportive of the Selma Arts Center. They recognize the very important role that the arts play in a community. In Reedley, the paid city management doesn’t reside in the town. It is understandable that they are going to buy their gas and patronize restaurants and stores and support their kids schools in the communities where they have made their homes.
When the Reedley Opera House was donated to the city in 2000, some city council members were bitterly opposed to the deal. River City Theatre got lumped into this squabble, and the opera house remains a political football to this day. River City Theatre pays rent and provides management at no additional cost for city events held in the building.
My dream was that the political leaders and downtown merchants would support the theater by attending a show. That dream was never fully realized in Reedley.
All of this is not to say that I am not forever honored to have served the audiences that did support us from Reedley and throughout the Valley.
Q: The loss of a major promised donation hit you hard.
A: The very first show produced when we went year-round in 2003 was an original musical of mine entitled, “An Opera House Christmas Carol.” I researched the history of the building and took Dickens’ premise and wove interesting Reedley Opera House facts and Reedley trivia into the plot. I played “Ebenezer Jansen,” the fictitious nephew of Jesse Jansen, the Danish grain merchant who actually built the opera house in 1903.
I remounted this show during Christmas 2014. It so happens that Jesse Jansen’s grandson and his caregiver came to see the show. They expressed great delight in the fact that I was keeping the Jansen family legacy an ongoing fixture in the building. They promised a “sizable donation” if I could accomplish two things. The first was to design and display a plaque in the lobby honoring the Jansen family. The second condition was to return the Jansen name to the front of the opera house. Once those conditions were met, I was told, the donation would be made. I kept my word and visitors to the opera house are now greeted by the proud Jansen name on the front of the building and a beautiful commemorative plaque in the lobby.
My phone calls and texts (to the grandson) went unanswered for months after that and I have never heard from them again. (A message left by The Bee for comment on Jansen’s phone went unreturned.)
I still believe that the lobby plaque and returning the original name to the building were great additions from a historical perspective. However, the empty promise of the donation was a real psychological punch in the gut.
Q: Walk us briefly through the history of your company.
A: My wife, Denise, and I moved to Reedley in 1993. In the fall of that same year I was approached by Kings Canyon Unified to begin teaching drama and directing RHS plays.
After re-evaluating our mutual goals, I left the classroom and became the theater arts coordinator for KCUSD, a position I was asked to return to in 2010 and still am thrilled to fill today.
One of my mandates was to create a community show involving students, faculty and parents. I began writing, directing and producing a series of shows entitled “Theatre Tonight,” which were held in the Opera House. Then, in 1998, Martha Willems, who served as my pianist for many years, helped me gather a group of fathers to play the papas in “Fiddler on the Roof” at RHS. Through this experience I was privileged to meet Matt Weibe and Mark Johnson. Both went on to play many roles for RCTC (both on stage and off, in particular Matt, who remains president of the RCTC board of directors and who has constructed many sets, directed shows and performed in countless others). The early efforts with KCUSD sowed the seeds for River City Theatre.
Q: Do you have a count of how many productions you put on through the years?
A: I am privileged to have directed approximately 166 productions for various companies including Good Company Players, Kings Canyon Unified School District, River City Theatre Company and a major corporation for whom I worked for 30 years as writer, director and spokesperson. I also have written 22 musicals with my partner Darrell Devaurs. The icing on the cake is the countless acting opportunities afforded me.
Q: You wrote a series of original plays: the “Blossom Trail” series. Did those shows “sell”? Or did you get bigger audiences when staging better-known titles?
A: “The Blossoms Up Series” was written to accomplish several goals. The Opera House stage is very small so I wanted to create custom shows to fill the space. I wanted to write shows that Reedley might like. I wanted to try and market to the people traveling the Blossom Trail. I wanted to save money by writing my own shows thus avoiding costly royalty payments.
While the savings were worth it and the performers and I thrived creatively, the attendance was never what I had hoped for or expected. It wasn’t until we started doing larger, more known titles like “Big River,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma” that we started to see fuller houses. Even then, it was not unusual to play to audiences of under 40 people.
Q: In “The Buddy Holly Story” I was very impressed with Joseph Ham, who owned his character every single moment he was on the stage. I know you’re very proud of his performance. Why?
A: I believe that my job as a teacher is to ignite a creative spark in a student, fan the flame with information and instruction, and then step back and let experience be the greatest learning tool – knowing that the fundamentals have been covered and stressed.
Joseph, like most of the great performers I have worked with, was extremely quiet and shy. He was encouraged by his parents to watch his sister perform at RHS. He wouldn’t say one word to me, so naturally, I was surprised when he showed up to audition for “Bye Bye Birdie” his junior year. He showed me then that he was willing to listen and take direction (something that isn’t as common as one might think). He developed as rapidly as anyone I’ve ever worked with. His parents didn’t even know he could sing. And then in just three short years he is commanding the stage, singing, acting AND playing the guitar as Buddy Holly. It was truly remarkable and Joseph has stayed grounded and humble and eager to learn more through it all.
Q: Looking back, is there a show over the years that was your favorite? Why?
A: I think “A Royal Fanny.” Darrell and I wanted to write a rock opera around the character of Fanny Feastyoureyes. Darrell’s score is truly great.
Our productions of “Les Miserables” and “Sweeney Todd” were remarkable given our limitations.
Q: You’re severing ties with the opera house for now, just to make a clean break of things. Do you ever see yourself getting involved again?
A: I think “A new broom sweeps the cleanest” is an apt phrase. It’s time for the Opera House to begin its next incarnation.
Q: Anything to add?
A: I want to thank everyone who bought a ticket and to the hundreds of volunteers who helped make RCTC the true miracle that it was. It was an honor working along side you. Thank you.