When they say "Break a leg," it's just a theater way of wishing actors luck.
Cindy Flood wasn't so lucky.
Appearing in the musical "She Loves Me" in Chinook, Washington, a couple of years ago, the former Los Angeles dance teacher fell before a performance and wound up in the emergency room.
Her talented college-trained daughter, Brooke, sang her mother's lead role that night — and the remainder of the summer schedule — to prove "the show must go on."
The story, now legend with the Peninsula Association of Performing Artists, isn't unusual.
When The River Theatre staged "Macbeth" in Astoria some years ago, founder Nancy Montgomery had to remind cast and crew about Shakespeare's "cursed" play as they wandered backstage with sharp-pointed daggers and axes.
The Scottish Play's bleak reputation is no myth. Director Edward James, a professional actor who retired to Astoria more than a dozen years ago, recalls a Portland production in his youth when Malcolm was in a car accident, Banquo's ghost performed while bleeding from a stab wound and Macduff, who had the flu, swooned during a sword fight.
Backstage "dramas" are nothing new. Some 75 years ago, the Astoria newspaper reported police responded to the Merwyn Hotel after a report of gunshots, only to learn they were blanks fired during rehearsals of an amateur theatrical.
But despite occasional mishaps, live theater is alive and well in the Columbia-Pacific region, providing work for a cadre of experienced directors and pleasure for a corps of amateur actors.
Some, like Bill Ham and Bill Honl, shift from show to show, often performing in one while rehearsing the next. Others, like Sheila Shaffer, Lisa Fergus and Katherine Lacaze, direct one show, then act in another.
"I like to do both," said Shaffer, whose work at the Coaster Theatre Playhouse in Cannon Beach dates back to 2002. "People ask, 'Do I prefer acting or directing?' They are completely different. Sometimes I see a script that I have a vision for, but I also like to be an actor and work with other directors and pick up skills."
Cannon Beach and Astoria
Clatsop Community College has long since given up productions. So two successful troupes, the Coaster and the Astor Street Opry Co. in Astoria, continue to form the backbone of the Clatsop County theater scene. Their niches are complementary, rather than competing.
The Coaster has existed since Maurie Clark, a Portland arts patron, purchased the roller staking rink in Cannon Beach in 1972 and attracted Portland State University Summer Stock Co. On Clark's death in 2001, the playhouse became a nonprofit organization.
Now it has paid staff — led by Patrick Lathrop — who coordinate a year-round season, including a lengthy summer repertory, which this year features Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" with the musical "Nunsense."
Ahead of those, they will stage "Bunbury" about literary time-travelers in May, and as fall arrives, producers will offer a Southern comedy, "The Savannah Sipping Society," before "Annie" arrives to warm our hearts before Christmas.
Shaffer said sometimes actors drop out because of a personal crisis like a family death. Inevitably they must be replaced on short notice, meaning lines have to be scribbled on scenery, sets and props. "When you do a musical, you have to cast kids and have understudies in place. During any Christmas show, everybody is a walking petrie dish!"
Once, staging a "whodunit" a dozen years ago, she received phone calls from two actresses both announcing they were expecting. Luckily, one was playing a rotund gentleman, so her bump wasn't a problem. "What are the odds of two women in the same show pregnant at the same time?"
Astor Street (known to the theater crowd as ASOC) operates a playhouse in Astoria with three Vaudeville-style shows a year and bonus productions like Shaffer's "The Birds" sandwiched in between the runs. The original "Shanghaied in Astoria" has been running 35 years, with a 12-year Christmas show, "Scrooged in Astoria," plus a spring Lewis and Clark parody that rewrites the history of the explorers with a distinctly Scandinavian accent. "Robin Hood: The Musical" was this year's children's show.
While stalwart director and writer Judith Niland still helps, today's ASOC backbone is second generation. New casts are recruited for each lengthy run, with actors substituting to allow colleagues to take family vacations or a few nights off. Guests, like now-retired District Attorney Josh Marquis, often appear.
On the Peninsula
Two amateur groups thrive on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, each with a slightly different mission.
The Peninsula Association of Performing Artists stages an annual summer musical at the refurbished theater at Fort Columbia State Park in Chinook.
Last year's lavishly costumed "Beauty and the Beast" was among its most ambitious, though it has staged "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Wizard of Oz" twice each in the last decade. It branched out into straight drama last fall with "Enchanted April," the swan song of director Brooke Flood, who has since moved out of the area. This summer the troupe will stage "Mary Poppins."
The Peninsula Players stage a varying season, featuring a musical and one-act play evenings at its playhouse in downtown Ilwaco. "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" were among recent hits. Members are gearing up for Gilbert and Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore" this spring, with carpenter Andy Tauber building a sailing ship on their tiny stage.
The group's latest incarnation began in 2004 when Wilma Vardsveen encouraged a group to put on skits at the Senior Center, then the group shifted to talent shows led by Rob Lindberg. It became a traveling Peninsula troupe, but eventually found a home in 2010, accepting the old American Legion Hall from River City Arts and Crafts.
"It is a challenge to keep up with the maintenance of owning our own building, but it has been a fun challenge and we have many wonderful volunteers to help," said Rita Smith, board president, who directs or appears in many shows.
Squirming in the seats
Aside from these four groups, the theater scene ebbs and flows.
The River Theatre began in 1997 with "Vita and Virginia" at the college's Performing Arts Center (PAC), then opened its own 90-seat playhouse under the Astoria Bridge a year later. Its productions ran through 2008.
Shakespeare's demand for a large cast didn't daunt producers, with the occasional professional lured in.
Astoria's Mick and Rhonda Alderman appeared in "Macbeth" and a quality version of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." Later successes included "Nine Parts of Desire," a poignant show about Iraqi women that sparked enthusiastic discussion on the political scene while showcasing talents like Patricia Shannon and Carol Newman, who promotes the arts on her KMUN radio show.
Karen Bain recalled playing Virginia Woolf in that first show, and Montgomery's then-husband Tim Hurd plying arriving audience members with samples from the family coffee business. When an actor forgot his lines, Bain tried to get back on track by saying the next line she could recall. Unfortunately, that skipped ahead into the second act — nixing the intermission — and made for an uncomfortable finale.
"The audience was squirming in their seats with coffee up to their eyeballs," Bain said. "I got loads of grief for that. So much so, I thought about making a T-shirt that said, 'I Survived 'Vita and Virginia.'"
When The River folded, Susi Brown, who had been a school drama teacher in Astoria and Knappa, launched Pier Pressure Productions. It enjoyed a run of smaller-scale, cutting-edge offerings that stretched the skills of local thespians, many who were not ASOC regulars or didn't want to make the drive to Cannon Beach.
More drama came to Astoria about four years ago when Partners For The PAC, a coalition of North Coast musical and other groups led by Charlene Larsen, began a campaign to keep the PAC viable. Assisted greatly by the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which made the former Trinity Lutheran Church its headquarters, the effort has produced director Bain's "Waiting for Godot" and Shaffer's "Twelve Angry Jurors."
Brown and Daric Moore, a versatile actor with a construction background, announced late last year they were revamping Pier Pressure Productions, remodeling a storefront at 10th and Commercial in the Astoria Odd Fellows building. Moore described the concept as "a black-box theater with regular shows, as well as a venue for music, art installation space, class space or other performance art."
KALA has also proved a suitable venue for intimate productions, thanks to Dinah Urell, a year-round supporter of the arts who publishes HipFish monthly magazine. Other drama downtown at Astoria's remodeled Liberty Theatre is dreamed up by Sen Incavo, a director who aims high, blending new and old talent for smaller-scale productions.
Alderman draws on professional-technical skills to construct the lighting for multiple productions, as well as directing and acting. He and his father, Jerry, collaborate on sets, most recently a revolving one for the Coaster's "Noises Off."
In 1998, when the college's Arts On Stage program featured Alderman's original play "Road to Nowhere," they built a special rig to hoist a hollowed-out 1987 Chevrolet Spectrum sideways through the narrow lobby of the PAC onto the stage.
"Audience members entering the auditorium were shocked to discover an honest-to-goodness car displayed before them, and were frequently overheard speculating as to how it got there," he said.
The show went on
While that was a notable success story, like the Flood family, who improvised when Cindy broke her knee, actors revel in stories of what went wrong. Acting for The River, Bain recalls a tree toppled over in "All My Sons," causing her to simply toss it offstage. "Without a beat, we resumed the tense scene as if nothing had happened," she said.
James, the director-actor, recalled a frantic phone call from a Portland actress during flooding in the 1990s.
"Is there a possibility we can cancel the matinee?"
"Yeah," I said reluctantly. "What's the problem?"
"Well," she said. "My aunt drove to the store this morning. She got out of the car and fell in a ditch and drowned."
"Oh my God!" I said. "I'm so sorry. Listen. It's up to you."
There was a long, considered pause.
"Well," she said. "She wasn't my favorite aunt. I really didn't like her much. So …"
The show went on.
Patrick Webb is the retired managing editor of The Daily Astorian. As well as writing about the regional theater scene, he has appeared in two theatrical shows at the Performing Arts Center in Astoria and portrayed Malvolio in The River Theatre’s production of "Twelfth Night."