Christmas, Smoke on a Mountain and English Farceby Brie Stimson December 4, 2017
The Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado is having a year of anniversaries. It’s been 25 years since they moved into their space on Orange Ave., 46 years since they started their tour company and 100 years since the theater itself was built.
“We’ve been around since 1971,” Robert Smyth, Lamb’s producing artistic director told me over coffee and hot chocolate at the theater’s Encore! Café on a Wednesday afternoon. “We were first a touring company and then we established our first theater over at a little theater in the round over in National City and we were there 17 years. [We] built a countywide audience who’d come down to see us and we knew we had to find somewhere else, so when we found this facility, which was just an old warehouse at the time. It had been built by John Spreckels as a performance space, when we first broke in through there and go to peer back in there I realized you couldn’t find a place like this anywhere else. So we raised $3 million, we totally remodeled it. So it’s very different than it was in its look, but it’s back to its original purpose which is good.”
Also in its 40th year is their Festival of Christmas – all original works written by the inimitable Kerry Meads, who serves a Lamb’s associate artistic director. “This is [Kerry’s] 40th Christmas show,” Smyth told me. “She’s written 15 scripts, but we rotate through them. This year’s a brand new one called “North of Normal: A Fargo Christmas.”
The play follows a small community in North Dakota, trying to figure out what to do with an abandoned church building. “We’re always looking for something that celebrates the season, and it deals with family. It always has a lot of music in it, but it’s not a musical; it’s a play with music. So she’s always working a way that there’s music logically in the piece and that’s been creatively done in a variety of ways over the years. We have people who’ve been coming for 40 years. They started out as young people and now they’re bringing their kids.”
The theatre will also produce the annual “An American Christmas” at the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown. “Everybody does Victorian England Christmas,” Smyth explained. ““A Christmas Carol” is the most produced theater piece in the world, and so we thought what could we do? We thought well, what would an American Christmas be? And so we thought we’ll go back 100 years, and so it has a sense of nostalgia, but it also has a sense of history … It’s always fascinating to parallel where we are now with where we were then. And what makes an American Christmas are a lot of different immigrant voices.”
On Dec. 2, they plan to have an informal community celebration of the building’s 100th anniversary. “This place was built in 1917,” he said. “A few people will talk about [the theater] and explain what the impetus [was]behind building the building by John Spreckels. Somebody might show up as John Spreckels, we don’t know. There will be some music from the time period. Madam Schumann-Heink opened the theater. She was a famous soprano of her day, and she lived in Coronado … We’ll have some champagne and cake and hopefully the city council will be here and some of the [local historians].”
After the New Year, the theater is renewing their hit “Smoke on The Mountain,” about a troupe of family singers at the end of the Great Depression. “I think it just strikes a chord with people, gives them hope,” Smyth said about the show’s popularity. “It’s not hokey. It’s true to these people in that community.”
Following “Smoke on The Mountain” the 2018 season begins with “Camping With Henry and Tom” about a real camping trip that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and President Warren G. Harding took in 1921. “It’s a really fascinating piece, especially considering our current environment,” Smyth explained, “because a lot of the conversation is about what is the American experiment really about and how should it be run and who should run it? Henry Ford actually wanted to be president, and he thought a businessman should run the country. It’s a fascinating conversation between the three guys. It’s very funny, but it’s timely too.”
I asked him if there were any other parallels between then and now. “Well, I don’t want to give it away, but some people thought that Warren G. Harding was a little insane. So here we are,” he laughed.
Next up is “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s classic, which the Lamb’s has never performed before. “A classic, classic English comedy farce, which is actually a satire about English comedy,” Smyth explained. “A lot of people don’t realize it … [It’s] just … one of the funniest comedies … so it’s about time to come to that.”
After “Noises Off,” the theater will showcase “Once,” a musical based on an Irish movie about a vacuum cleaner repairman and a woman who plays the piano. “[The] young woman … wants her vacuum cleaner fixed, but doesn’t have any money, but she’ll play something for him. And she’s a beautiful pianist. And so they develop this relationship that in a Hollywood movie would go romantic and doesn’t because she’s married to a guy back in Prague. It’s a fascinating thing about love and about music and about art and a commitment to it and how much you give and what kind of support where you get that,” Smyth said. “Once” had a run on Broadway from 2012-2015.
At the end of the summer the theater will produce “A Jewel in the Crown,” “which is this retrospective of over 25 years in Coronado that we’re doing,” Smyth told me. “So it’s a big variety show … It’s got a lot of music and a lot of old time people who are coming back to be with us for that.” In 1971, a friend who had helped Smyth find the location for the theater turned to Smyth and said, “I hope you realize you’ve got one of the best theater locations in the country. We hadn’t even really thought about that,” Smyth said.
The season will end with the Southern California premiere of a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
Smyth and his wife, Deborah, have lived above the theater for 25 years now. “I turned to Deb and I said ‘what if we were to rent here for a year and just oversee the project and get to know the community and we’ll stay for a year? And we thought well we’ll stay for two years and that was 25 years ago,” he laughed.
It hasn’t all been champagne and cake though – the theater has had its share of difficult times. “It’s a tough business,” he admitted. “You know if you’re not an institution like the Globe or the Playhouse or you’re not run by a city … or if you’re not independently wealthy … then it’s a real challenge to keep the doors open. So the fact that we’ve been here for [more than] 40 years, I’m grateful and amazed because we’ve had some rough years so I think we’ve grown as artists.”
Five of the artists have been together since the beginning. Smyth and his wife, Deborah, Kerry Meads, art director Chris Turner and production director Nate Pierson.
Smyth said they noticed a heavy drop in their season tickets holders, which they rely heavily on, about five years ago mostly because the people who had discovered the theater in middle age are now getting older. The theater went through a difficult time, but they survived and are now finding ways to reach younger generations.
“We do a variety of things,” Smyth told me. “We have an under 35 club, in which we offer half priced tickets to people under 35, and we do a thing that we call ‘It’s Live…Live,’ which is bringing in middle school and high school kids in a group to experience theater. We’re especially looking for people who don’t get access to the theater very often … People go ‘why can’t we get the 20-year-olds? And I go ‘you’re not going to get the 20-year-olds. 20-year-olds have a different thing, and 30-year-olds are raising a family, but if you’ve gotten them young and you’ve gotten them to come on occasion so they feel comfortable with it … when they start to get into their 40s that’s when you get them back. So that’s kind of the hard work we’re doing.”
And the hard work seems to be paying off as Lamb’s heads into its 25th season kitty- corner from the Del.