Steve and Jan Isaacson, founders of the Davis Musical Theatre Company, stand on stage with "Shrek" cast members during a rehearsal Tuesday. The show opens Sept. 12. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Local News

The show must go on: DMTC celebrates 30 years

By From page A1 | August 21, 2014

Join the fun

What: Davis Musical Theatre Company 30th Anniversary Gala, featuring hors d’oeuvres, a light dinner and an evening of musical theater songs and highlights from dozens of DMTC productions

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23

Where: Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center, 607 Peña Drive

Tickets: $15 each, available at www.dmtc.org

Things are busy at the Jean Henderson Performing Arts Center as the Davis Musical Theatre Company prepares for its 30th Anniversary Gala, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23.

DMTC is the longest-running, year-round, nonprofessional musical theater company in California.

“Last night we had a Young Performers Theater committee meeting in the women’s dressing room, the cast of ‘Shrek’ was rehearsing the big tap number on stage, and in the lobby, singers were rehearsing for the gala,” says Jan Isaacson, who added that set building and painting for the upcoming production of “Shrek” also was taking place on the dock in the afternoon.

Tickets for the gala are $15 each and will include hors d’oeuvres and a light dinner catered by Symposium Restaurant, followed by an evening of musical theater songs and highlights from dozens of productions that have been offered by DMTC over the years.

“I found people who performed from the beginning of the company,” says Jan, “so it will start off with ‘Oklahoma’ in 1987. Joe Anthony is coming back to perform ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.’

“I picked selected songs from different decades. Mary Young is going to do ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from ‘Gypsy.’ Jay Joseph lives in Las Vegas and he’s coming back to sing ‘Buddy’s Blues’ from ‘Follies.’ The pièce de resistance of the evening is going to be Ben Bruening’s half-hour movie tracing our history from the very beginning to now.”

Mayor Dan Wolk, a longtime supporter of the organization, will present a proclamation congratulating DMTC on its 30th anniversary and thanking the company for its commitment to making performing arts accessible for all in the Davis region.

“I am so delighted about presenting this proclamation to Jan and Steve Isaacson and DMTC,” Wolk says. “As someone who is an alum of DMTC, has been a performer in a number of musicals, and who recognizes the importance and joy of community theater, this celebration has particular meaning to me.”

Adds Bob Bowen, public relations manager for the city of Davis, ”If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 30 years, I’d have thought their gaffer’s tape was wound too tightly. Having produced my fair share of theater, I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis.

“For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children’s shows — every year, and for more than a quarter of a century — is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater.”

Hitting its stride

Many community theaters that get off the ground and achieve some sort of success generally begin to peter out at around 30 years. The founding members start to get older and can’t do what they did 30 years before, and the younger members don’t have the dedication.

At 30, DMTC is just hitting its stride. Last year, its house was an amazing 91 percent full and they expect to equal or surpass that this year. Forty percent of the audience comes from Davis and 60 percent from other cities. The company appears to be healthier than ever with exciting plans for the future.

DMTC produces six Main Stage musicals and five Young Performers Theater musicals annually. That’s more than 100 performances on the DMTC stage each year. What keeps things so vibrant and alive?

“There’s a real sense of family about the group,” says actress Dannette Vasser, who joined in 1997. “There’s not the backstage drama that you sometimes find in other theater groups. It’s a very comfortable place to be.

“Everybody gets along and a lot of that is due to the atmosphere Jan and Steve foster. They’ve created this to be a family place, where all different members of the community can work together to put on a show.”

Mary Young, who has been with the company since she followed choreographer Ron Cisneros to Davis and played Lady Thiang in the company’s second show, “The King and I,” says, “I consider DMTC my musical theater home.”

Young, who lives in Roseville, never thought she would drive to Davis to perform, but once she started she “just never stopped.”

“It has a lot to do with Jan and Steve. They are such good human beings,” she says. “I had a really bad car accident a few years ago and Steve just put me in the next show. Didn’t make me audition. It was my road to recovery. Physical therapy, mental therapy. What better place to go and just play.”

Young’s daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade when her mother joined the company, and she literally grew up with DMTC.

“She was one of the children in ‘King and I,’ ” Young says, “and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.”

Young has had an opportunity to perform with not only her daughter but also her grandchildren on the DMTC stage. In fact, the upcoming “Shrek” will feature three generations of Youngs.

“I haven’t been able to perform with all three of my grandchildren,” she says. “But it’s on my bucket list.”

She remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans’ Memorial Theater into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk, and being escorted out to the portable toilets during evening rehearsals.

Multiple locations

People who started at the Second Street theater were like “the survivors,” laughs Marguerite Morris, who joined DMTC out of high school in 1985 at age 19 to play Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

That was the show, Steve remembers, where Pat Piper bought the very first DMTC season ticket (she would later become DMTC’s first lifetime season ticket holder).

Morris remembers the difficulties working in that small theater and the company’s eventual move downtown to the Varsity Theatre.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while all were in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

“When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved,” Bowen says. “I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

“Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theatre, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.”

Fast friendships

Longtime DMTC actors say the people associated with the company are what makes them stick around.

“I’ve made excellent long-term friendships there. It’s a family,” says Morris. She will be singing the Mother Abbess’ “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music” at the gala performance, one of her favorite roles.

Morris’ daughter Rachel performed in eight shows, when she was between the ages of 9 and 11. “There is always a tight-knit group of kids as well as adults,” Morris says. “There’s no real age barrier. A lot of the older kids take younger kids under their wing and show them the ropes.”

John Ewing, who joined DMTC as an actor in the 1980s and moved on to become a designer, director and member of the board, has a slightly different take on why he has stuck around.

“One thing I like about DMTC is they’ve always been really great about being open to anybody, they always had open auditions,” he explains. “I get a real thrill out of taking something from nothing and creating a show for an audience. The great thing about the way DMTC does their shows is that so many ordinary people, not necessarily pursuing theater as a career, have the opportunity to experience it. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Ewing points out that people come and people go, but he most values the ones who have stuck around, people like Lenore and Gil Sebastian, who were in the first show Ewing did and are still around.

“I’m excited about Saturday’s Gala, that people who performed years and years ago have been invited back to perform again,” he says.

As the company has grown, the expertise of the Young Performer’s Theater (started as DMTC’s Children’s Theater in 1987) has grown and has become an essential part of the DMTC family.

Children in the Young Performer’s Theater learn all aspects of theater, not just performing, and kids as young as 10 now run the light board for main stage shows.

“They’re focused, they’re mature, they know what they’re doing,” says Steve Isaacson. “The kids who run the light board are phenomenal.”

Lighting is a big part of every production, and an aspect of which the audience, for the most part, is unaware.

On Oct. 18, 1985, when DMTC opened its first show at the “old theater” — which had no walls, insulation, heating or air — Steve Isaacson remembers chaos on opening night when Diane Wershing was running the lights. There had been no time for lighting rehearsal.

“I remember going to the theater for opening night and hoping that they had hung lights,” Wershing recalls. “Luckily, it was a show that I knew inside and out, so as long as someone was going to hang the lights and hook up something for me to control them with, I figured I could wing it.

“I was hoping beyond hope that there was something for me to work with, and lo and behold there was. A little six-dimmer board that I could hold in my lap in the back row of the audience. I ran the lights from there.”

Volunteers galore

One thing that separates DMTC from many theater companies is that it has been and remains an all-volunteer organization, and everyone works on everything. Actors know when they audition that they will be expected to help build sets or assist in some other way.

Even the orchestra members are volunteers. Nikki Nicola and Pam Thompson recruit all of the musicians.

“We had 26 for ‘Les Miserables,’ ” Jan Isaacson says. “We never have to worry about the orchestra. Ever.”

Costumer Jean Henderson has been with the company for 17 years. At a surprise party to celebrate her recent 70th birthday, she learned that the theater had been renamed for her. “It came as a complete surprise,” she says. “I was so shocked.”

Henderson loves the DMTC family.

“I don’t like to be with just old people,” she says. “I like the diversity of age, I get to know what’s going on in the world. I’m not the retirement home kind of person.”

One of her new roles, since DMTC received its liquor license, is to handle the bar before the shows and at intermission. “People like being able to take the drinks into the theater. I try to find something that will represent the show,” she explains.

For “Peter Pan” she found a drink that used Captain Morgan rum. “We had ‘Barricade lemonade’ with vodka and sparkling water for ‘Les Miserables,’ a Spamarita for ‘Spamalot,’ and a Fa-Gin for ‘Oliver!’ ”

As the company has aged, the shows have gotten bigger. On April 14, 2012, DMTC’s second performance of “Titanic, the Musical” opened exactly 100 years to the minute of the sinking of the great ship. Ludy’s Main Street BBQ recreated the last 11-course meal served on the great ship, as a fundraiser for more than 50 patrons.

Thanks to donations by many supporters, the company was able to buy mirrors for a spectacular production of “A Chorus Line” in April of this year.

In June, Steve Isaacson directed “Les Miserables,” the show he had dreamed of directing since he first saw it in 1988. The production was described by one patron as “the best night I’ve had in this theater.”

Local theater lovers can be sure that DMTC will strive to reach that bar and go even higher in the coming years.

Bev Sykes

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