Dinner Theater Deluxe 

Pocatello's Westside Players

Perhaps there is some wisdom in Hamlet's line about "a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will." In 1983, Randy Dixon rode his bicycle past Pocatello's historic Chief Theatre and wondered who owned it, since the theater appeared abandoned.

Evidently he heard a voice in his mind saying, "You own it." Dixon inquired about the lease of the old Chief, built in 1939, which led to conversations with the Chief's owner, Frank Ricketson. Dixon remembers the thrill of going inside the ornate, abandoned building and finding the original blueprints on the floor. A deal was struck. After five years and many negotiations, the city approved the sale the property, and the Chief reopened on July 31, 1988, with a Westside Players' production of The Life and Death of Sneaky Fitch. The Chief, an Idaho landmark, continued to host other shows and concerts, including one by country music singer Jerry Jeff Walker.

Unfortunately, the Chief came to a heartbreaking end when it burned down in 1993. Dixon still has those original blueprints, a reminder of an earlier time and the epiphany in the empty theater that provided his introduction to a new world.

click to enlarge Westside Players founders Randy Dixon, Bruce Hendricks and Richard Schlehuber in 1986. - COURTESY LYNN LEONARD/WESTSIDE PLAYERS

It was during the renovation of the Chief that Randy Dixon studied theater in California, performed in Sam Shepard's True West and learned the value of portable modular sets. Along with Bruce Hendricks and Richard Schlehuber, Dixon started Pocatello's Westside Players. It was meant to be a light, dinner-theater company. They rehearsed in a back yard until they found a studio and eventually performed in hotels, carrying a set that had to be constructed and dismantled for each performance. In 1986, they opened with three one-act plays called Answers written by Ernest Thompson, perhaps better known for On Golden Pond and the subsequent film adaptation. Many other shows followed.

After a performance of Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild at the Elk's Club and subsequent strong criticism of Durang (who loves to satirize the Catholic Church), they realized the Westside Players needed a permanent home and some independence. They cleaned and converted an old warehouse and created a theater space. Dixon's huge scrapbook—weighing in at close to 30 pounds—chronicles many of the company's productions. The theater went nonprofit, and because of other commitments, Dixon left the group in 1996. Steve Rhodes took over as president and raised funds to remove a post that obscured much of the stage. In an odd way, the "post" was almost part of the Westside's organic charm. With a bar in the back, the warehouse was always more like a cabaret than a theater. Watching a show after a meal, it's easy to forget the hard work and the legal hurdles surpassed before Westside Players became a solid self-sufficient company. They eventually bought the warehouse, and current Westside Players director Tom Potter—an easy-going man with a rich sense of humor—enjoys the responsibility and admits he "loves the PR work."

The company has come a long way since the days of Sneaky Fitch. The word "amateur" usually has a pejorative meaning, assuming that work produced is poor or mediocre. The original meaning of "amateur" simply defines one who does something for the joy of it, rather than money. Community theaters are considered amateur, yet often one can see work at a community or university theater that's as well-done as that by professionals. A production of Uncle Vanya starring Derek Jacobi some years ago received perhaps the most unflattering reviews in Broadway history. The late Christopher Reeve insisted the Cornell University production of Long Day's Journey into Night was better than the acclaimed London version starring Sir Laurence Olivier.

With their last three productions, The Cemetery Club, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, the Westside Players demonstrated considerable growth and confidence. The ethnic Jewish accents of the widows in The Cemetery Club could easily have turned the characters into caricatures but didn't. The show was poignant and moving. Communicating Doors deals with time travel and presented some technical challenges that the company overcame. Ayckbourn has been called a British Neil Simon, but his plays are character-driven, and not dependent on clever one-liners.

Edward Albee's mythic 1962 drama was particularly problematic. This corrosive play dramatizes a couple, George and Martha, locked in a deadly battle of wits, destroying each other by fighting over a phantom child, and woe to the guests, Honey and Nick, who arrive for a late-night drink. If it isn't done well, the audience spends three hours with vile characters in what they may dismiss as a dated play. There is also competition with the celluloid ghosts of Richard Burton, who played George, and Elizabeth Taylor, who won an Oscar playing Martha. An added mishap occurred in the Westside production when director David Blake lost his lead close to opening and had to step in as the acerbic George. Jamie Romine took over as assistant director. With Diana Potter effective as the combative but vulnerable Martha, Michael Czerepinski as Nick and Lauren Bernall stunning in the role of Honey, the cast delivered the last scene with considerable power. Westside Players had reached a new dimension.

This company matters to Pocatello's artistic health, since Pocatello does not have a large talent pool, an annual theater festival or a resident equity company. Although Boise has a number of theaters, for Pocatello, which has fewer theater companies, any quality production is good. But things are improving for Pocatello's theater scene. Idaho State University's new Stevens Performing Arts Center can bring in outside shows in addition to its regular season. The Mystique Theater recently staged Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's also commendable that the Westside Players performed a service to local theatre patrons with a revised production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's doubtful Idaho will see the play again unless a professional company visits.

Potter makes it clear that despite the success of the recent Albee play, the Westside Players will not be staging Death of a Salesman or any other serious drama during their regular season. There is no David Mamet or Samuel Beckett festival in the planning.

click to enlarge Communicating Doors, 2006-2007 season. - COURTESY LYNN LEONARD/WESTSIDE PLAYERS

"We will continue as a dinner theater," Potter says. "We do four commercial shows a year. The next play is And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. In the summer, our actors get a chance to do a serious play of their own choosing.

"We are in good financial shape," Potter continues. "Attendance is good. We are in the black, but the theater still needs repairs."

Local actors may find themselves in good company. A number of professional and academic performers have appeared or worked at Westside, including Leslie Leek, Judith Long (who made a strong impression as Maria Callas in Master Class), Bo Hudson (also a voice-over artist), Joe Haney, Jackie Czerepinski, Jamie Romine, Mary Alice Boulter and Diana Potter, who teaches theater at Idaho State. Though these seasoned theater artists from Idaho State and elsewhere have joined local amateur actors, the Westside Players still represents a community effort.

Czerepinski, who holds a Ph.D. in theater, states that "Westside fills an important niche in the community by offering, for the most part, light entertainment of increasingly high quality. My goal is to keep seeking high-quality scripts that offer interesting challenges for our volunteer directors, great roles for the excellent actors who live in Pocatello, and intriguing possibilities for designers." Czerepinski makes another interesting point. "In the 2007 season, we used four directors, 24 or so actors, several designers of this and that and provided paid employment for the staffs of Hooligan's, The Continental Bistro and the Raven's Nest." He agrees that the summer productions offer a chance to do "edgier and more adult shows."

It's important to note that Samuel French, in addition to commercial Broadway fare, offers many scripts that are meant for community theater. In their search for higher quality scripts, the Westside Players have produced plays usually too demanding for dinner theater. The Cemetery Club takes strong actors who can capture the sense of longing and tragedy that comes with spousal death and old age. Communicating Doors demands actors with some daring and an imaginative set designer. The heavy acting demands of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? usually discourage all but professional companies from attempting Albee's fierce domestic drama.

The Westside Players appear to be in a good place artistically and commercially. It doesn't hurt that the surrounding neighborhood has changed, with the Portneuf Valley Brewing tavern and the stylish Sanang Bar and Tapas Bistro now operating along Pocatello's railroad tracks. Westside Players should have a long history, but the summer dramas and cutting edge comedies may allow them to artistically expand beyond the usual expectations of community theater.

And to think it all started with a bike ride down Pocatello's Main Street.

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