by Lorie Lewis Ham
KRL tries to cover as many theatre companies in the Valley as possible, this week we interviewed one just a bit further way than usual that has been around for quite some time, Playhouse Merced. We chatted with Shawn Overton, who is their Box Office Associate, and whose duties include running the box office, media communications, and photography. He has also written an original play for Playhouse, and teaches playwriting courses for the Conservatory.
KRL: When did Playhouse Merced first start?
Shawn: It was founded in 1994 as the Merced Center for the Performing Arts and later renamed Playhouse Merced. We are currently nearing the end of our twenty-third season and gearing up for season twenty-four.
KRL: Who started Playhouse Merced? Why and how did it come about?
Shawn: The theatre [company] was founded by Sandra Dinse (along with Noble Dinse and Alan Casalou), who remained the artistic director for the first ten seasons. While none of the original staff are now involved directly with the theatre, we have continued to grow under the artistic directors that came after Sandra. Our current Artistic Director, Robert Hypes, has been with Playhouse Merced for a dozen years, with roughly half that time as artistic director.
KRL: What are some of the accomplishments of Playhouse Merced?
Shawn: Since its founding, Playhouse Merced has mounted more than 250 productions. Over the course of a year, we expect to see roughly 20,000 visitors, with roughly 40 percent from out of town. We also have a strong education department known as The Young Artists Conservatory at Playhouse Merced, which offers afternoon classes during the school year and a variety of summer camps in June and July. Hundreds of students from age 5-18 take classes and participate in Conservatory productions every year. The Conservatory also takes theatre to elementary schools throughout the Central Valley with the Play Anywhere program, which allows students a chance to rehearse and perform a musical at their own school.
KRL: Why do you feel theatre is important to the community?
Shawn: Live theatre isn’t just entertainment, it’s a community event. It provides an outlet for performers who may not have the opportunity or desire to pursue acting professionally but still want to share their artistic abilities. It brings audience and performer face-to-face in a shared experience that can only be had live. It also serves as a cultural exchange, bringing people with various artistic skills and opinions together to create a single, collaborative piece of theatre that can be enjoyed by the community. Having live theatre also helps the other local businesses in the area, helping to bring people to downtown Merced—from both in and out of town—for a bit of entertainment and culture.
KRL: What do you feel your company has to offer that may be unique or different from other local theatre companies?
Shawn: Playhouse Merced is the only full time community theatre in Merced. Our upcoming season has twelve shows, with most of them running three or four weeks. When you add in Conservatory shows and special events, it’s hard to find a weekend when something isn’t happening at Playhouse Merced. We are also consistently ambitious with our productions, mounting Broadway musicals, complete with a live orchestra and casts upwards of forty people.
KRL: Do you hold open auditions for each show?
Shawn: All our shows have open auditions. They generally take place two to three months prior to the opening of the show, with dates and details being publicized at least a month before the auditions. We encourage everyone interested to audition, regardless of experience level.
KRL: Is everyone a volunteer?
Shawn: Playhouse Merced employs roughly a dozen full and part-time employees just to keep the theatre and educational programs running, but relies heavily on volunteers. During our 2016-2017 season, we will have more than 200 volunteers participate, including actors, directors, crew, and ushers just to name a few.
KRL: How do you pick your shows?
Shawn: All shows are selected by the Artistic Director with input from other staff members and the Playhouse Merced Board of Directors. The season is chosen with the hopes of appealing to a range of potential theatre goers, from those looking for traditional musicals to those looking for something new and unfamiliar.
KRL: Do you have shows all year long?
Shawn: There is always something happening at Playhouse, all year long. On the rare weekends that a show isn’t happening, it’s because we’re busy setting up for the next show.
KRL: What type of shows have you done? What are you doing in the future?
Shawn: Most of our shows are well known musicals that have, at some point, played on Broadway. However, we also include more experimental and lesser-known pieces that we feel the community will enjoy and respond to.
KRL: Do you have your own building, if not where do you perform your shows at generally? And if yes, how long at that location?
Shawn: Most shows are performed at the Playhouse Merced’s main stage at 452 W. Main Street, though we occasionally take shows to other venues as well.
KRL: Do you feel you pull people in to see shows from other surrounding communities?
Shawn: The numbers suggest that 30-40 percent of our audience is from out of town, with many of our patrons, including season ticket holders, coming from Fresno and Modesto.
KRL: How do people purchase tickets and what are the prices?
Shawn: Tickets are $20 or $22 depending on the seat, with $10 tickets always available for children and students with a valid student ID. Tickets are available online at www.playhousemerced.com, by calling (209) 725-8587, or in person at the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays noon to six, and one hour prior to each performance.
KRL: What shows do you have coming up still this year and when?
Shawn: We currently have 16 shows scheduled over the next 14 months, with several Conservatory shows that have not yet been selected. In order, they include Wait Until Dark, Madagascar Jr, Ragtime, School of Rock, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Evil Dead: the Musical, The Pillowman, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Live Radio Play, Nevermore: the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Suessical, Next to Normal, Baskerville: a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Jane Eyre, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Sister Act: the Musical.
KRL: Is there anything else you feel would be important to share?
Shawn: We do our best to be a very open, very welcoming community theatre. Anyone who wishes to can drop by and check the place out, or call the box office to discuss what’s going on. We are always looking for new people to get involved either on stage or behind the scenes.
452 W. Main Street
Merced, CA 94350
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