Almanac

Arts & Entertainment - February 2, 2011

Local theater company desperately seeks new stage

by Renee Batti

To be or not to be — that is the question being nervously pondered by leaders and supporters of the Festival Theatre Ensemble, which has staged free outdoor theater at a Menlo Park high school each June for nine years.

This year, the troupe finds itself unexpectedly scrambling to dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that could spell its doom: The back lot of Mid-Peninsula High School on Willow Road — which over the years has hosted the likes of Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Kate and Petruchio — will be torn apart in June as the Hetch Hetchy water pipe restoration project chews its way across the Peninsula and lingers for a while on that eastern Menlo Park site.

The Festival Theatre Ensemble, which had planned to stage "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night," and the comedy "Charley's Aunt" by Brandon Thomas in June, is now desperately seeking a stage.

Jennifer Selden, a longtime member and producer of the theater company, told The Almanac that the group is looking for a site that could be as small as 80-by-100 feet, which could accommodate a stage, backstage area, lighting rig, and audience area. "We provide fencing for security when not performing," she said in an e-mail.

The space would be needed from May 1 through June 30, she said. "This space can be grass, dirt, empty parking lot, really whatever we can find. A park would be ideal."

Ms. Selden said company members are trying to stress the importance to the community — and to nearby businesses — of the presence of live theater, especially when it's presented at no cost to the audience. "We can't let this free Shakespeare experience disappear in the community," she said.

The company has typically staged two Shakespearian plays and one other work each year, alternating the performances Fridays through Sundays for four weeks.

Ensemble members fear that losing the local venue for their productions could cause them to fold up their tent entirely, even though they perform the same plays in July and August at the Los Gatos Shakespeare Festival, which charges admission. The reason: the company works on its set, stages rehearsals, works out lighting and sound, and fine-tunes its performances at the high school site well in advance of opening night.

"The time it takes to do that is not available in Los Gatos," she said.

The ensemble is hoping that someone in Menlo Park or another Midpeninsula town has a site, perhaps a vacant commercial building or vacant land, for its 2011 season. "We are very respectful of our landlords," she said. "Since we are a ... not-for-profit theater company, any donation of space would be tax-deductible as permitted by law."

If anyone would like to donate space, or has a lead on someone who might, Ms. Selden would welcome an e-mail at FTEShakes@gmail.com.

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