by Lorie Lewis HamIf you enjoy a night at the theater, Fresno and Tulare Counties have much to offer. One of the oldest theater companies in the Valley is the Visalia Community Players, or The Players as they refer to themselves, which has been around since 1957.
The Visalia Community Players was started by a group of Visalians that had a desire to perform for the community. Their first production was Suds In Your Eye, which was performed in the backyard of Visalia resident Bridget Berryman. “The Players have had several homes until finally receiving our current and permanent residence The Ice House Theater located on the corner of Race and Sante Fe in Visalia in 1976,” said Sergio M. Garza, the current Board President of The Players and a frequent performer in the shows.
“I have been involved with The Players for about ten years,” continued Sergio. A friend of his, and current board member, Samantha Muse encouraged him to audition for his first show. “It was something that I had wanted to do for quite a long time. I had always wanted to audition having been involved with theater my entire life. I truly love performing, but always need a little push to audition due to nerves.” After that initial audition, Sergio was cast in his first show with The Players, Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues. He has remained involved ever since, first as a performer and later as a part of the board and helping run the theater. Not long after he joined the board, the position of president came up and he was asked to succeed.
According to Sergio, their theater company stands out from the rest in the Valley because they try to offer more diverse theater options for their patrons. “We try hard to make sure our seasons are both full and extremely diverse. In this way we are sure to offer something that will appeal to all members of our community.” Toward that end, The Players have a small committee of dedicated individuals that read a large number of scripts throughout the year — some presented by people who would like to direct the shows. With other shows they pick, they then seek out a director willing to helm the production. “You name it, our theater has done it. Comedy, drama, musicals, farce, revues. We have done and will continue to do it all.”
Visalia resident Elicia Russell has been a part of The Players since 1995 and has worn many hats including director, stage manager, and assisting her husband with lighting. “Anyone who has not experienced live theater needs to! They don’t know what they are missing!” What she enjoys most about being a part of the shows is watching the actors bring the story to life, and then watching the audience respond to the actors as the stories unfold.
A more recent member of the company, actor Tim Rich, loves feeling the energy of the audience as he performs. “As an actor I really feed off of the crowd.” So far, he has performed in six shows. “My first role was that of Doug the waiter in a local show called Marvel Donagan. I had only 13 lines. Next, I was Michele (pronounced Mikealea) in Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Once again 13 lines. I played Kevin in Dancers and it was my first lead role. Next I played Goeff in Bedside Manners, Patrick in Lafferty’s Wake and finally Adam in The Perfect Prayer.”
The Players season generally runs June through September, though if they are trying to fit in an additional production they may start a little sooner. They hold open auditions for their regular stage shows. Audition information can be found on their website. For most of their seasons, they now also offer smaller, more intimate productions performed in the lobby of their theater. These lobby productions are sometimes pre-cast by the director with people they feel will best embody the role. During the short time in the summer when they don’t have a production they have what they call their Lizzie Awards which is their version of the Tonys.Sergio feels that theater is vital to the community, with its first job being to entertain. “It’s second job and just as important as entertaining is to speak to the people. Open their eyes and minds to new ideas. To let them know of parts of the world that not everybody may get to experience being in what many consider to be a smaller community.”
Attendance for the shows varies a great deal, with musical and more widely known plays bringing in the larger audiences. “Sometimes a lesser known play will not draw in the crowds we would like to see, but we will still always strive to bring a little bit of the unexpected to the Valley,” continued Sergio. Like everyone else, The Players are feeling the effects of the current economy, but they continue to strive to provide the best quality theater that they can.
The current season continues with their tradition of providing a mixture of theater for the community. “We really wanted to have a mix of shows that would be a draw to our audiences and still fit with our philosophy of offering a great mix of shows offering a wide variety of ideas and thoughts. Each of these shows I believe fit that category as well as being highly entertaining and thought provoking,” said Sergio.
Watch our Local Theatre Listings for their lineup, to be added soon!