Idaho Arts Quarterly » Central Idaho

Fools' Progress

Hailey's little theater company keeps it real

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Back in the 1990s, when Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were buying up real estate in the town of Hailey, Idaho, refurbishing the Liberty Theater, and entertaining at the Mint Bar and Dynamite Lounge, it seemed as if a hip, new glamour had descended upon us, one which might even compare with the campy heart of Sun Valley up the road. The stars were circling the local Planet Hollywood, and some of the locals started looking almost famous. As one L.A. Weekly journalist put it, "It was like someone had shined a klieg light down a gopher hole."

By the time the dust had settled and the walls around the Mint Bar VIP lounge had come down and Shorty's Diner had begun to look like any other diner, a group of passionate actors and directors from Virginia had taken up residence at the nearby Liberty Theater. They were putting on plays like Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. In the wake of celebrity, and in many ways thanks to it, the theater arts had taken root in Hailey. Ten years after coming to town at the invitation of Bruce Willis, Company Of Fools (COF) has evolved from a troupe of idealistic thespians into an Idaho arts institution with a reach far beyond the Richmond, Virginia, garage where the company began.

"Bruce made it clear from the start that he wouldn't be writing checks," says R.L. Rowsey, who joined the company in 2000 and has seen it grow and expand within the busy arts community of Blaine County. "We had a certain amount of time in order to find out if the community was going to support us or not."

Despite the many challenges facing a non-profit theater group, COF has continued to survive long after Willis and Moore made Hailey a momentary tourist destination. One of Willis' oft-quoted remarks goes: "I'll give you the dime, but you have to make the call." Well, call they did. And the answer has been a resounding, "yes."

Last year, COF had a $500,000 budget, with 45 percent coming from theater ticket sales and classes. The rest came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Idaho Commission on the Arts, regional foundations, corporate sponsors and a long list of donors big and small. To date, over 78,000 people have attended 65 COF productions. In 2005, COF received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, due in large part to its commitment to theater education--acting classes and apprentice programs for youth and adults. One of the COF's signature programs, "Stages of Wonder," reaches every child in grades one through five in Blaine County's five public schools. In 2000, COF became the first theater in Idaho history to receive constituent theater status from the Theater Communications Group, the national organization for professional, nonprofit American theater.

"Theater is vital," says John Glenn, COF core member and co-founder. "A living human presence on stage means we are breathing the same air. Theater takes a leap ahead in terms of community in a world where we are constantly multi-tasking. It is a commitment these days to turn off your cell phone and quiet your mind enough to deal with just one issue."

Rowsey attributes the success of COF to a clear and consistent artistic vision, which began in Rusty Wilson's garage all those years ago. Co-founders Glenn and Denise Simone were there in 1992, when after a year of over-dinner-discussions on the sad state of theater in the area, the fledgling ensemble took over the rambling Hanover Tavern near Richmond for a room-to-room production of Tennessee Williams' one-act plays. Their fly-on-the-wall production at Hanover Tavern showed a passion COF members still have for authentic, "living-on-stage" performances. This passion can be traced back to the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, who passed it on in the United States as the "method-acting" philosophy espoused by Lee Strasburg and his many students, including Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Johnny Depp and more.

Wilson learned from Strasburg student Walt Witcover and brought the "living-on-stage" principles of theater craft to training sessions in his garage and the Hanover Tavern in Richmond and, ultimately, to Hailey where Witcover would teach from time to time in Wilson's absence. Wilson has since moved on to pursue other interests, while Simone, Glenn and Rowsey remain on as core COF members.

The Hanover Tavern show was a sell-out hit and led to further successes in Richmond and to a fortuitous meeting between Willis, who was filming in Virginia, and his old schoolmate Simone. Willis invited the company to move to a little town in Idaho, where he had recently purchased an old movie house.

The fabulously renovated Liberty Theater on Main Street in Hailey has been the home of COF ever since, offering a style of theater that, Rowsey says, "frees the actors to be present in the moment on the stage." Glenn and Rowsey are admittedly "theater geeks" who will see 10 plays in a week in New York City in order to "refuel" after months of teaching, producing, directing and acting at the Liberty and in classrooms around Blaine County.

Last summer, Glenn and Rowsey also attended the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare festival to gather ideas for this summer's July 4 five-week repertory event (three plays running simultaneously) called the Fools' Summer Festival in Hailey. The company is planning to create a communitywide event for theater enthusiasts from around the region, including Boiseans looking for a weekend getaway.

COF's Blaine County audience has always been a bit of a wild card. Ticket holders range from the decidedly ranchy south county folks to the Sun Valley ultra-set. Sooner or later, they all come through Hailey, which is the county seat. "We have some people who are coming to the theater for the first time in their lives at age 30," says Rowsey, "while others are likely to attend a play anywhere in the world at any time. So we aren't always sure what is going to work."

In testing the waters, COF has provided a remarkable diversity of programming over the last decade: Shakespeare and Chekhov, American classics such as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, George Kaufman and Moss Hart, David Mamet and Sam Shepard, and more contemporary voices such as Wendy Wasserstein, Warren Leight and John Patrick Shanley, as well as free readings and a host of community events.

COF was surprised when Anton Chekhov's brooding classic The Seagull sold more tickets in Blaine County than the more contemporary and popular The Sisters Rosenswieg by Wendy Wasserstein. It was of course no surprise in 2001 when True West sold out due to Willis' return to the stage for this Sam Shepard classic. In 2003, the Liberty Theater stage was set with a 5,000 gallon pool of water and 28-foot ladders reaching to the roof for a spectacular production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which had actors entering and leaving the stage through water. One fan was moved to call the company, "The Broadway of the Rockies."

Although most COF productions tend to operate well below the Hollywood radar, there remains good reason for some Tinseltown mystique. Trodding the boards here can lead to work in the big time. Danielle Kennedy was a theater major in college before raising four kids and moving to the Wood River Valley 10 years ago. Her youngest is now 22. After seven years of COF work as an actor and director, she recently finished acting parts in two episodes of Grey's Anatomy and one episode of CSI, in which her character is killed by a close relative. It all started with a small part in Breakfast of Champions shot in Twin Falls and starring Willis.

"The COF is like my family," says Kennedy. "I give them full credit. They prepared me for this in a way that has been a true blessing. I couldn't have asked for a better dream come true in downtown L.A."

Max Kessler was a senior at Wood River High School when he joined COF's "New Voices" play-writing program, scripting a coming-of-age story called Desperation. As a student at Emerson College in Boston two years later, he re-wrote the play into a full-length movie script, raised a few thousand dollars to have it produced and, last summer, screened the film version of his tale at his father Rick Kessler's Magic Lantern Cinemas in Ketchum. The elder Kessler was amazed at the quality of his son's production. "Max wrote his first screenplay when he was 13-years-old and was always doing poetry slams in Boston, so this was no surprise," he says. "But this movie was professionally done from top to bottom." Max continues to act and write while Desperation makes a run in the film festival circuit.

Hailey local Chad Smith began in theater at Wood River High School, performing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. After building sets for awhile at the Liberty for $250 a week and living in a trailer, he landed a few more acting roles, including a role opposite Willis in True West. This led to a part in Tears of the Sun, another film starring Willis.

After three years in Los Angeles, Smith came back to Hailey to get involved in productions at the Liberty while waiting for film roles. He says returning each year to the Liberty stage helps dispel doubts he may have about his career choice. "Whether it's film or theater, you still have to just dig in and get the work done," he says. "But with the COF, the integrity of the process has always been as important as putting the play on."

Smith's latest role involved hanging with Joel Vilinsky from a frozen cliff built over the Liberty stage for K2, written by Patrick Meyers. In the play, the two men are confronted with the choice to live or die under the most extreme conditions. The set was designed and built by rock climber Joe Lavigne, who attended theater studies at Boise State before returning to work at the Liberty.

"During rehearsals, you develop intimate relationships with the other players," says Smith. "You build trust. When you find safety in that kind of home, you are compelled to come back to it. I do still fantasize about big success as an actor. But I also know that if it comes, I will be thinking about how I can help COF continue with their vision."

Company Of Fools at Liberty Theatre, 110 N. Main St., Hailey, ID, 208-788-6520, www.companyoffools.org.