Idaho Arts Quarterly » North Idaho

Strange Bedfellows

A geologist and a politician unite to bring Sirius Idaho Theatre Company to Moscow audiences

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Starting a new private non-profit theater company in the Pullman-Moscow region, already blessed with several community theater groups and two university drama departments, might seem a little risky. But risk is what theater is all about for Moscow thespians Pam Palmer and John Dickinson.

COURTESY SIRIUS IDAHO THEATRE CO.
  • Courtesy Sirius Idaho Theatre Co.

Along with Andriette Pieron, also of Moscow, they formed the Sirius Idaho Theatre Company in 2004. The company completed its second full season in the spring of 2006.

This fall, their first production will be the world premiere of Cow-Tipping and Other Signs of Stress, a farce by Gregory Fletcher, the 2005 winner of the Mark Twain Comedy Playwright award at the American College Theater Festival (ACTF) in Washington, D.C.

Sirius hasn't done any comedies before because, as Dickinson said, "Generally, the comedies we've read weren't funny or very interesting, or if they were funny, they didn't really have any significant point." Cow-Tipping, however, was different.

"We got a copy of the play directly from the playwright and halfway through reading it, I knew we had to do it," Dickinson said. "And then we realized that no one had done it before. That was hard for us to believe."

Fletcher will come to Moscow for the month of September as a sort of playwright-in-residence to help with the production.

"It will be so fun," Palmer said. "Fletcher makes a living as a stage manager, and he'll be available to do playwright workshops, stage managing workshops, directing workshops, and to have conversations about theater life in New York City."

Also on the program for Sirius' 2006-2007 season are Touch by Toni Press-Coffman and Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore. Both are dramas, tragic and suspenseful. The issues in each are characterized as "adult."

"I cried just reading Touch, and I know it'll be much more powerful on stage," Dickinson said.

Why is Sirius so serious? Theater in the area just wasn't offering the kind of challenging plays Palmer wants to see.

"I directed Proof [by David Auburn] for the Moscow Community Theater, and although that was pushing the boundaries for them, for me it was kind of tame," Palmer recalled. "I wanted to go further, to something more edgy, more expressive, more dangerous in terms of topics and also in numbers of actors. Community and university productions are often looking for large casts, but we wanted to do plays with only one or two characters."

Palmer, originally a geologist, went back to graduate school as an adult at the University of Idaho to study theater, after years of working in other fields. After graduating with her directing degree, she directed one play a year while keeping her day job as director of the Latah Trail Foundation.

Then Palmer's sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Coincidentally, the first play Palmer had directed in graduate school was a one-woman show, My Left Breast, written by a cancer survivor.

"Every time we'd get together for that year before she died, she'd ask me when I was going to do what I really loved," Palmer said. "And then I agreed to do Proof, and I realized after that, it was time to do more of what I wanted to do and less of what other people wanted me to do." She quit her job, and teamed up with Dickinson and Pieron to turn her passion into a profession. She is now Sirius' managing artistic director.

Sirius' first production was John Belluso's Pyretown, in October 2004. Palmer directed, but never got to see it, going instead to be with her dying sister five days before opening night.

"She remains my catalyst," Palmer said.

Dickinson knows about risk, too. A computer science professor at the University of Idaho for 29 years, he retired several years ago and decided to run for Moscow's city council. (He got elected.) Dickinson didn't know Palmer at the time, but had been told that he needed someone with "name recognition"--which Palmer had--to be his campaign treasurer.

"Here he's asking me to work on his campaign, and I've never even met the guy. I didn't even know if I'd vote for him. So I gave him an hour to convince me," Palmer said. "I let him talk for an hour but I knew after five minutes I'd do it."

"I tried to make it easy for her and minimize her involvement but after a couple weeks she was working on the campaign 16 hours a day," Dickinson said. "So I asked her what I could do to pay her back. And she said, 'Audition for Proof. So I did." He had never acted before or been involved in theater in any way. Now, as Sirius' producer, he knows how to do almost all of it: building sets, doing lights and acting. He later played Andrey Botvinnik in Sirius' production of Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods.

As Palmer tells it, Dickinson "froze up" badly during the Proof audition, as he never had while on the campaign trail. But she called him back. He "came back from the dead," and got the part. Even so, it took the rest of the cast a while to see that Dickinson and Palmer could make the project work.

"I am a believer in trusting the process, and we stuck with it and it did work in the end. My experience in grad school as a non-traditional student with no background in theater and the struggles I had then confirmed my desire to help other people find their place in theater," Palmer said. "I like taking chances on new actors; it's an acknowledgement that all of us have creative spark. Plus, I like the combination of experienced actors working with new actors, where they learn from each other--although there is some tension sometimes. They all learn that way."

Sirius' season runs during the academic year, with productions in September, February and April. They've also added staged readings to their program, where they rehearse a little bit but the actors don't have to memorize the script.

This year, they plan to do a staged reading entitled The Oldest Profession by Paula Vogel.

"The characters are five women in their 70s and 80s. They are all are actively working prostitutes, and it is a comedy set during the Reagan era. We're hoping to find local women in that age group to read the parts," Dickinson said.

Besides its choice of plays, Sirius sets itself apart from other theaters in the Palouse area by paying its actors, directors, producers, designers and stagehands.

"When you do artsy stuff, people tend to think you do it for free, but we like to eat, too," Palmer said. "So paying and getting paid is an important aspect of what we do. We can't afford to replace anyone's full time job, but the stipend lets people know that we really appreciate the creative skills that artists have."

There's not a single dud in the list of plays Sirius has staged in its two years: Pyretown by John Belluso, Random Acts of Love by Bruce Gooch, The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies, A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing, and Collected Stories, also by Donald Margulies.

"We push for plays that are riveting and have long rehearsal schedules so we can make them meaningful experiences," Dickinson said. "Sure, we could pick more 'popular' plays, that everyone would come out smiling, but we're just not going to do that. Except for Cow-Tipping. Everyone will come out smiling with that one."