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There’s a stereotype that haunts community theatre—namely, that its productions just aren’t very good.
Well-meaning and warmhearted for sure, but the cast, crew and production are most often amateurs, and everyone is simply in it to have a little fun, perhaps play pretend for a bit.
Deanne Eldridge, the founder and president of Folsom’s non-profit FreeFall Stage, fiercely repudiates that notion—at least when it comes to her own productions. A majority of that ferocity is a result of her formal education (she holds a degree in theatre from the University of California, Santa Barbara), yet its fair to say that her true love is simply the art of the story. “I want patrons to walk out thinking about what the play was about, not thinking ‘that was a pretty good play for community theatre.’ I want to dispel that myth.”
To that end, FreeFall trains all of the actors in its ensemble productions extensively, regardless of role, in creating believable characters. Says Eldridge, “I tell my actors that if after a show, someone tells them they’re a good actor, they bombed. If someone says, to the actor playing a villain for example, ‘I hated you’—that’s when they should be proud.” Everyone is expected to audition for his or her parts, and after being cast, write his or her character a backstory. And while there is no set blocking, actors should be able to explain the “why” behind every hand gesture made or step taken.
For Eldridge, and consequently FreeFall Stage, the bottom line is about being true to the story: It comes down to honoring the years, tears and toil that went into creating that classic novel or gripping play. And because of that overriding philosophy, she refuses to “sillify” any of the plays or novels that FreeFall puts into production.
Fortunately, FreeFall also has the benefit of renting space from a church that supports the arts, allowing them the financial freedom to pursue original, lesser known or faithfully depicted classic plays (although they are actively looking to rent their own space). If Eldridge can’t find a script that she feels rings true to the author’s or playwright’s intent, she’ll simply adapt it herself. Even if it’s a play a patron has seen before somewhere else, people often walk away from FreeFall shows feeling that they’d seen something new or different.
Despite Eldridge’s purist ideology, all of FreeFall’s productions are family-friendly; they’re just devoid of what she sees as an industry-wide habit of “dumbing down.” Take, for instance, FreeFall Stage’s upcoming production of A Charlie Brown Christmas (December 6-21). While many theatre houses employ the use of adult actors to portray the characters in Charles Schulz’s beloved story of Charlie Brown and the gang, FreeFall’s production will consist entirely of children actors, with cast members ranging between the ages of 6-15. Last year, the show received three Elly nominations—for Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (all in the child category).
Eldridge trains her child actors in the same way she does her adult actors; they’re taught things they would learn at college-level courses. In fact, it’s truly the all-inclusive training of the actors that sets FreeFall apart from other area community theatres. Says Eldridge, “Anything you’re going to pursue you have to pursue with excellence.” Indeed, that’s FreeFall’s motto: Community theatre with excellence, quality and integrity.
Visit freefallstage.com for more information.