Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Not Quite Curtains for Love Street Playhouse

The Love Street Playhouse, Woodland, Wash.


It was a bitter-sweet night for us all, but none felt the love and angst so much as Melinda Leuthold, the founder and Artistic Director of Love Street Playhouse (LSP) which she and her husband Jeff bought ten years ago. The theater opened a little over two years later in 2007 after extensive remodeling and a trying permit process.

More than fifty friends (family really) of Love Street Playhouse gathered February 23, 2014 for an announcement not quite like everyone expected. With the gradual demise of theater in Southwest Washington over the past year, we all, sadly, wondered if closure was on the books. Thankfully, it wasn't quite like that.

After many hugs and a potluck celebrating ten wonderful years, constituents of the theater listened as Melinda, seating aptly in a directors chair, recounted the years of joy and productivity.

Christmas Dinner Theater inside the Love Street Playhouse
The journey began, she said, when, one day, Jeff told her, "I think I've found your theater." He took her down to the little Open Bible church in the heart of Woodland, Wash. She took one look and said, "I don't think so." But Jeff is not only a visionary and a contractor he had a way of convincing her it could be done.

In 2007, recounted the Artistic Director, the small playhouse was finally ready to roll. The first show evolved out of a ten-day summer children's theater camp culminating in the production of "The Emperor's New Clothes" followed by a Christmas production of "It's a Wonderful Life" presented as a live radio show.

The next year they presented the children's workshop production of "Charlotte's Web," "The Night of January 16th," and a repeat of "It's a Wonderful Life."

"Steel Magnolias" at Love Street Playhouse
In 2009, the company produced "The Sword in the Stone" (a children's production), "Steel Magnolias" (directed by Tony Bump), and a variety show called "Christmas Pudding."

2010 brought the melodrama "No Opera at the Opera House" (the first show I saw at LSP), the children's show "Robin Hood," "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (directed by me), and the radio show "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." The year marked substantial growth for the theater--both artistically and popularly--garnering rave reviews from the critics. Production qualities and talent base also increased markedly.

2011 opened with "Leaving Iowa," followed by a collaborative production of  "The Magician's Nephew," then "Dirty Work at the Crossroads" (another melodrama), the children's production "The Princess and the Pea," Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," and the Christmas variety show "Noel." Their shows continued to become increasingly complex, stunningly produced and expensive.

"An Inspector Calls" at Love Street Playhouse
2012 brought their first musical to the stage when Tony Bump directed "You're  a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The year also included "An Inspector Calls" (directed by me), the children's show "Alice in Wonderland," the gritty thriller "Wait Until Dark" (directed by David Roberts),  and a radio show of  "A Christmas Carol."

Last year opened with "Crossing Delancy" (again directed by Tony Bump and, for the first time in the playhouse's history, featuring Melinda in an acting role--a return to the stage after years of hiatus).

"Crossing Delancy" at Love Street Playhouse; that's Melinda (right)
Next, Christopher Cleveland directed "Harvey." The children's production that year, "Dr. Doolittle," was the theater's second musical. "Arsenic and Old Lace" followed. The year closed with a collaborative production of "The Trial of Ebeneezer Scrooge" between LSP and The Columbia Theater in Longview. The show played at The Columbia. Melinda said it was a wonderful experience in which all she had to do, for once, was direct. But, she indicated, it was nothing like the intimacy and warmth of doing a show at her own playhouse.

Since that time, the LSP website has been devoid of announcements regarding future productions. We were beginning to wonder. Then we got an email from Melinda inviting us to a mysterious potluck announcement.

Melinda Leuthold, Artist Director
The night of the event Melinda, LSP's owner, director, designer, chief cook and bottle-washer, now at the top of her game, shared all that and then came to the difficult part of the script. With a tear in her eye and a choke in her voice she said, "Now I come to the spot in my notes that's blank because I don't know what to say."

There was a silent, dramatic pause before she continued. 

"I'm really burnt out," she said, "I'm going to take a break...let's just say it's for a year..."

"I need to see my kids, they need me...and I need them them." Her husband later explained that for years they would come home from school and she would leave for the theater. And Melinda expressed much joy at pursuing her craft in the art, that the theater never really made any money and that she needed to put her creative efforts into something that paid. She is pursuing a career in her second vocational love: graphic design. She has opened her own studio and is also working as a custodian at The Columbia Theater while looking for other work.

"Seven Keys to Baldpate" at Love Street Playhouse
The decision to step back for a time is not an easy one, she explained. While Melinda loves collaborating at the theater with the adults and children she dearly loves, she will miss the children the most. She admits that she wants to maintain her theater students "because they're so important to me." Because of what it means to invest in others, Melinda will deeply miss the least for the time being. She needs to rest and enjoy her family and make some money to pay back the bills of a costly enterprise, she said.

"The Mousetrap" at Love Street Playhouse
The news follows closely on the heels of many setbacks on the southwest Washington theater scene. Many local companies have closed their doors over the past year. Some are desperately trying to reinvent themselves. Vancouver's Magenta Theater, and Longview's Rising Star Productions and Stageworks Northwest are the only companies still operating in their own space outside of educational entities (high schools and colleges).

Hopefully, LSP and Melinda will soon find a way to, once again, pick up where they left off and brighten the southwest Washington theater spotlight. They are one of the best and will be sadly missed.

Friends gather at Love Street Playhouse. Taken Sunday, Feb. 23 by Ruth A. Zschomler.
By Gregory E. Zschomler
All photos, courtesy of Love Street Theater, by Darcie Elliott (except as noted)

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