Monday, July 10, 2006

dinner theater at CenterStage

a follow-up to the review of "The Wacky World of David Ives," at CenterStage through Aug. 25

First of all, my review failed to mention two of the actors: Laura VanDerLinde (who was funniest as part of the foul-mouthed alter ego couple in "English Made Simple" — she and Scott Finlayson were hilarious voicing the _real_ thoughts underlying the social niceties exchanged by two former lovers meeting by chance years later) and Juli Wellman (who brought sexiness and dry humor to her high-priestess role in "Babel's in Arms").

Most of the following was written on Sunday, July 9 — the day before the unfortunate break-in at CenterStage. (I'm not trying to hit them when they're down. Just the reverse: I'd like to keep CenterStage going, particularly its theater. There are better marketing heads than mine at CenterStage — and their director of development and marketing, Connie Sagona, is one of them.) Bobo's just offering the following comments in support of what is, after all, unique around here. With the exception of some Lake City Playhouse/Brix cooperative ventures and Circle Moon Theater up toward Newport, Wash., nobody else (I don't think) is trying to do dinner theater.

To broaden the discussion beyond a review of just one production:
With audiences of only about 20 people each on Thursday and Friday nights at CenterStage, an evaluation may be in order. Is Spokane’s dinner-theater experiment failing? Fine food and thought-provoking theater are both specialized and demanding areas of expertise. Is it really likely that both would be mastered under one roof? People who are passionate about either food or theater will probably seek elsewhere. So far at CenterStage, the cooking is better than the acting.

With ella's performing well, moreover — and financial support coming in from the local jazz community — and the weddings/rehearsals segment of the CenterStage project also doing well, it is reportedly the dinner theater that's being eyed skeptically by management. People may scoff at the entire concept of dinner theater (and I have, it's true, and in print; but I've also tried to be fair).

So far, dinner theater at CenterStage has just been community theater with wood paneling and waiters (and a few bucks for the actors). So consider some new approaches:

Lower ticket prices; serve just dessert and coffee with the theatrics. $39 for dinner and a show is just too much for many people's budgets. And given ticket prices at Actors Rep, Interplayers and CdA Summer Theater, isn't $19 (just for the show) a bit steep for what CenterStage is producing?
Market local college and high school theater instructors and their students hard. Charge 'em $8 — then, no excuses: live theater for the same price as a movie. Well-done farce (with a reasonable-size audience) is simply funnier onstage than it is onscreen. Kids need to experience the interactivity of theater -- what it can do that movies can't.

Concentrate on better production values. Sure, you have two kitchens at CenterStage. And the appetizers and meals at ella's are exquisite -- some of the best food I've had locally. The servers and drinks and ambience are great. But that doesn't mean food should predominate, necessarily. Do folks really want to sit the same seat for three hours? Let 'em eat elsewhere (like up at ella's, for example) and offer 'em dessert at intermission by all means. But shave the food budget and raise the directing-acting-design elements budget.

Alternate jazz and theater: Sometimes jazz is in ella's, sometimes it's on the second floor; same with the acting. Might appeal to different folks.
Feature early-bird dinners at ellas’s and post-play discussions (your first glass of beer or wine is free!) in the auditorium.

Dangle free-drink cards in front of audience members who’ll walk upstairs to ella’s to meet the actors.
Make concerts part of the mix (that is, schedule them in repeat Friday-Saturday slots where the plays have sometimes been), then perform five-minute “theatrical trailers” at the concerts to lure the kinds of audiences that like country or the blues but don’t regularly attend plays.

And so on.


  1. It's also pretty clear that jukebox musicals have done best at CenterStage: *Suds,* *Forever Plaid.*
    Not my favorite genre, but hey — if it means the survival of the theater, do 10 of 'em.
    Tim and Leslie deserve much credit for trying out unconventional-for-dinner-theater choices like *Rocket Man* and the current David Ives show.

  2. Jukebox musicals are also not my favorite, but you need a show with a simple enough plotline you won't lose track if you need to ask for the salt. And dinner theatre needs to be light, light, light. Light food, entertainment and atmosphere. Perhaps Center Stage is taking itself a little too seriously on all counts.

  3. I personally would enjoy Center Stage more without the pre-show speech/flogging for money.