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Very Little Theatre

In business for nine decades, VLT keeps training actors and turning out shows
Alison Meeler and Peter Fehrs in Perfect Wedding
Alison Meeler and Peter Fehrs in Perfect Wedding

It’s 10 in the morning on a Saturday last spring, and Very Little Theatre has its doors wide open. Hopeful actors sit inside the building, tapping their feet and talking in quiet whispers. The theater itself is dark like the interior of a ship’s wooden hull, but the stage lights are shining on a set.

This is audition day at one of the oldest community theaters in the country — and hearts are racing. The show these hopefuls are auditioning for is British playwright Robin Hawdon’s Perfect Wedding, the penultimate show in the theater’s 2016-2017 season.

As Eugene’s theater scene grows and matures, the role of community theater has become even more vital, both as a training ground for actors and technicians and as a vehicle for audience development. VLT may be Eugene's oldest theater, but it’s just one of a tidal wave of performing groups in town.

Besides VLT, Oregon Contemporary Theatre leads a local scene that includes The Shedd Theatricals, Actors Cabaret of Eugene, Radio Redux, Free Shakespeare in the Park, Roving Park Players, Not Ready for Retirement Players and No Shame Theatre, as well as theater departments at the University of Oregon, Lane Community College and a handful of private colleges here. Venture a short drive out of town and you’ve got Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove. 

For a place that calls itself  “very little,” VLT’s building, a charmingly antique wooden Quonset hut at 23rd Avenue and Hilyard Street, is bigger than it seems from outside. With two performance spaces — the smaller studio Stage Left and the 220-seat Mainstage — the VLT produces a range of plays and musicals throughout the year.

The lobby is covered in posters from past shows such as My Fair Lady and Death of a Salesman. It also features costumes and a glass case full of trinkets related to the theater’s current show.

In a hall parallel to the two performance spaces, a framed poster board features pictures of other “little theaters” in small towns across the country. A card on the board reads, “Community Theatre is Alive and Well!!”

The VLT was founded in 1929 by eight local theater lovers as part of the Little Theatre Movement, which swept North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by European art houses, scores of small amateur theaters popped up around the United States and Canada to present experimental fare that couldn’t find a home in the commercialism of Broadway

VLT’s website says of the theater company’s founding: “One person said to the others, ‘There are hundreds of little theatre groups up and down the country, but this is certainly going to be a very little one!’”

The cast of VLT's Perfect Wedding Samantha Cross (left), Alison Meeler and Diana Sobczynski

 

This passionate sentiment is what drives those involved with VLT’s shows, including Perfect Wedding director Karen Scheeland, who has served as board president both in the ’80s and now. She became involved with the community theater in 1969, at the age of 23.

Cast members of Perfect Wedding rehearsed in the building almost every weeknight last spring. One night in May — three weeks from opening — the cast was deep into the rehearsal process, running the second act. A pale pink and green set, resembling the ornate bridal suite of an English inn, was in place on VLT’s main stage.

Scheeland sat in the audience, taking notes, chuckling and sometimes nodding her head. Every so often an actor would shout “Line!” or slip out of his or her British accent. Scheeland, who is originally from England and studied at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, would correct the actor, and the run-through would move on.

When the actors finished the scene, they all sat on stage, some perched on chairs from the set, others on the stage itself.

The cast of six comes from a slew of backgrounds and occupations. Some have previous experiences from theater in high school and college or are members of VLT, but others auditioned for the show without any previous experience in the theater arts.

Diana Sobczynski, a compensation analyst in human resources at the University of Oregon, auditioned for Perfect Wedding because a colleague from work “dragged” her along.

“I was asked by a friend who has a new motto for the year, and it’s to try things that scare her a little bit,” Sobczynski said. She ended up being cast as Rachel, the bride-to-be — her first acting role anywhere.

Director and VLT board president Karen Scheeland (center) and her <i>Perfect Wedding</i> production crew

 

Sobczynski plays in a band in town and mentioned a concert of hers to her fellow cast members. They ended up coming to her performance, even though it was early on in the rehearsal process and the cast members weren’t as close yet. “I was so touched that they would come out and support me without knowing me very well,” she said.

Coming into rehearsal at 5:30 pm, right after work, was challenging at first. “You have your everyday life and whatever you do — class, work — and then suddenly you have to be somebody else.” 

“I hope that I don’t speed things up. When I perform, I do get nervous. I turn that nervousness into energy and I get very energetic,” Sobczynski said.

Despite the play’s action taking place during her character’s wedding day, Sobczynski wanted to make sure her energy level wasn’t too over the top.

Craig Willis, executive director of local professional theater company the Oregon Contemporary Theatre, sees the Very Little Theatre as a “learning ground” and “community gathering place” for local talent.

“As a true community theater, except for a handful of people who are building sets, they are doing it as volunteers,” Willis said. “The nature of [this] community is such that it’s great that people from a whole variety of skill sets have opportunities to be involved — in ways from just volunteering the way they can at Oregon Contemporary Theatre to directing, stage management or acting.”

Scheeland says the theater wants to expand out into the community and recruit more volunteers. She wants to bring in a new generation to keep VLT going while still satisfying current members’ wants and needs.

The theater’s 89th season features some heavy hitters, Scheeland says. She’s particularly excited for the winter show, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, a play about a Jewish man in the post-Civil War South.

On June 9, Perfect Wedding opened on VLT’s mainstage. The show ran through June 24.

Sobczynski’s nerves held up. Her character’s pointed dialogue and anxiety about the wedding day was in direct contrast to Sobczynski’s personality during the interview: She was acting

As the cast came on for their last bow, its members were still in character, some smiling, some grimacing.

“You’re thrown into this troupe of people you don’t know,” Sobczynski said later. “You don’t know the director. You don’t know the stage manager. You don’t know your actors, your co-actors and suddenly it’s coming to life. You get to know each other and you build these relationships. Suddenly you have a performance, and it’s really phenomenal.” 

To audition for a play or volunteer to help out at Very Little Theatre, go to TheVLT.com/participate.html.