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Chautauqua Playhouse: Oldest Community Theater Trying to Stay Young

"Orphans," a gritty family crime drama which recently closed at Chautauqua Playhouse, was part of the theater's attempt to attract a more youthful audience.

The Chautauqua Playhouse is Sacramento’s oldest community theater company, and though it’s doing well, it faces some of the same threats that many arts organizations — the ballet, symphony, opera and other theaters — face: a constant search for new financial support, good material and bigger audiences. Patrons of “the arts” are aging, and younger potential patrons are sometimes hard to attract.

It’s no different than with the board of directors of the Sacramento Ballet (who haven’t yet accepted that 70 is the new 40) and is looking for a younger artistic director to make the company into an edgy, “contemporary” dance troupe. It’s not so much the boss as it is the dancers he or she can attract and the material he/she can create. Some of the dances created by the current co-artistic director, Ron Cunningham, 73,  are as edgy and exciting as can be.

Chautauqua Playhouse doesn’t face a change in leadership as the Ballet does. The guiding light there — Rodger Hoopman — is the guy who founded the Chautauqua Players, an assemblage of local actors, in 1975. The group took its name from the Chautauqua shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that toured the country, presenting entertainment and cultural performances in tents wherever they went. Hoopman hoped to give his group a permanent home.

Finding a Home

Hoopman liked the idea of a tent (so, too, did the Music Circus, the professional summer stock troupe that performed in a canvas tent until 2003, when it moved “indoors” at the Wells Fargo Pavilion). In the summer of ’75, Hoopman and the Players were offered a revival tent as a potential performing space. Hallelujah!

But setting up a tent isn’t necessarily an actor’s prime pursuit. Just one attempt at raising the tent — working eight hours nonstop, putting the top on upside down and returning the next day to find the whole thing collapsed — showed the Players they would not be performing in tents. In the fall of that year, the theater company moved indoors, presenting two financially successful plays (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and a Sherlock Holmes drama) in the Old Eagle Theatre in Old Sac.

In April 1976, the Chautauqua Playhouse opened in a 65-seat theater in an old warehouse at 15th and R streets. A new partner, Charles Slater (who replaced previous partners Gene Morrow and Eric Erickson), helped the theater space to expand to 135 seats. And all was well until October 1983, when an act of arson burned the place to the ground. The company finished its production in the theater space at the downtown YWCA. During their search for another home, several shows played back at the Old Eagle as well as the Eaglet Theatre and at the Sierra 2 Center in Curtis Park.

After several failed attempts to keep the theater company downtown, the Players moved into the La Sierra Community Center in April 1985. And there it remains today, enjoying a good relationship and continuing contract renewals with its landlord, the Carmichael Recreation and Parks District. The Chautauqua Playhouse opened its first season in the La Sierra Community Center in September 1985.

Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Playhouse
Rodger Hoopman, founder of the Chautauqua Players, has starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in productions of “Scrooge” since 1978

It was during the early years of the Players that Hoopman began playing Ebenezer Scrooge in an original version of Charles Dickens’ “Scrooge.” He first performed it in 1978 at the Golden Bear Playhouse at Cal Expo. It played for 33 holiday seasons at the Playhouse in Carmichael before becoming an itinerant production in other Northern California locales. It’s a holiday “must see” even more long-lived than “The Nutcracker” is.

40th Season Closing Show: Exit Laughing

Chautauqua’s 40th anniversary season (the 32nd in its current home) concludes with a production of  the comedy “Exit Laughing,” running May 12 to June 11.

“Exit Laughing” is a reliable offering for audiences of a certain age — i.e. those who would prefer “On Golden Pond” to “Urinetown,” “Wait Until Dark” to “Waiting for Godot.”  It is a comedy about a foursome of card-playing women who wonder what to do at their next weekly meeting after one of the four has died. The solution? Steal her ashes from the mortuary for one last game. Hilarity — of the almost-bawdy, kind of-titillating genre — ensues, involving a police raid, a stripper, and a new look at life and how best to live it.

It’s the kind of comedy that can safely be offered by any community theater group, considering the age and makeup of most such theater audiences. But it’s not exactly the kind of show that attracts a younger crowd that can stick with the company for many years to come.

Attracting a New Audience

Hoopman admitted as much in a recent interview. He said the quandary of the community theater producer is how to program plays that will attract new audiences yet not offend or repel current subscribers. In that vein, the show the group just recently closed — “Orphans” — was a family crime story that was a bit grittier and profane than the usual Chautauqua offering.

” ‘Orphans’ has been doing very well,” Hoopman said during the run of the show, which closed April 23. “You’re right — it was a move to expand our audience base. But we promoted the ‘strong language’ factor, offering subscribers who might be offended the option of attending another show–the season closer ‘Exit Laughing’ or ‘The Mousetrap,’ our summer show.”

Hoopman said the company had fewer than two dozen subscribers who took them up on the offer, and, gratifyingly, “the attending audiences have been really appreciative,” he said.

The challenge now is to find other shows with a similar younger appeal that won’t scare off the regular subscribers. One example of such a show would be the Resurrection Theater’s 2014 production of “Frankenstein,” the Mary Shelley horror story which was adapted by Sacramentan Jes Gonzales. It has the drama of the classic man-as-god tale and the youthful sense of experimentation. It might work — and it wouldn’t hurt to promote a local playwright, either.

The company “took a hit during the recession” — as many arts groups did — but, Hoopman said,  “We’re rebuilding our subscriber base, which was a little over 850 before to 675 now. We’ve been steadily recovering subscribers over the past few years — and our single ticket sales have been up, too.”

Chautauqua hasn’t lasted 40 years without keeping its eyes on the prized audience and always looking toward — and planning for — the future. Season 40 is about to end, but Season 41 is just a few months away.

Featured photo courtesy Chautauqua Playhouse

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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