Joe Schmitt writes a weekly blog called The Good Life, featuring information about the region’s history, culture, climate and economy. The blog also showcases new residents, clubs and organizations, outdoor recreational opportunities and local events.
Self-described as intrepid, resolute, and determined Yakima’s community theater groups are at the heart of the Valley’s dedication to the arts. When you think about the Yakima Valley arts scene, The Capitol Theatre and Seasons Performance Hall may first come to mind. Along with local galleries and studios that showcase the talents of Northwest artists, these world-class performing arts venues create the sort of rich cultural experiences you expect to find in communities far larger than ours. Along-side Broadway shows and world musicians, though, community theater has evolved over the last 60 years to become a thriving tradition in the Yakima Valley.
Against All Odds With many stories to tell, a small group of friends who shared a love of the stage brought community theater to life in the Yakima Valley in 1947. On a shoestring, The Little Theatre of Yakima’s first productions took place wherever they found a host, “with no stage, no curtains, no sets, no seats.” Finally, in the 1950s, the group found a permanent home when local orchardist Elton Gilbert donated a fruit warehouse they would transform into a theater. Eventually becoming the Warehouse Theatre Company (WTC), they still call the converted warehouse home and have produced a five-show season there for the last 20 years. Always finding humor in the little challenges that came with the space—the swamp cooler that served as an air conditioner, outhouses for restrooms, and set malfunctions—today, the WTC enjoys performing in a modern theater complete with computerized lighting. Auditions are open to all and the group encourages newcomers from throughout the Valley to share the experience on stage and behind the scenes, says Melissa Labberton, of the WTC. Behind the theatre’s success is the dedication of a core group of volunteers and a wealth of local talent. “We especially love to see families participate together,” says Labberton. In fact, long-time WTC performer, Kathy McLaughlin, shared a love of theater with her son, Kyle McLaughlin of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”
Theater for Everyone Conversation among friends at a birthday celebration in 1960 led to the creation of the Lower Valley Musical Comedy Company Inc. in Sunnyside. “It blossomed out of the love of doing live theater,” says Paul Brooks, President of what is now the Valley Theater Company (VTC). “It was a great success and now we’re celebrating our 50th Anniversary.” Today, the company produces four shows a year, featuring talent from Naches to the Tri Cities. “People come from all over the valley to audition,” says Brooks, sharing that there’s a place for everyone to be involved. “We’ve had a couple groups form from the theater—Over The Hill Theatrics for 45 and older and the Prosser Conservatory Theater for Children.” For those who aren’t quite ready to take the stage, there’s always a way to be involved. “We always need people to hammer, nail and saw—they can get their hands dirty and feel the pulse of the stage. If you see 20 people on stage, there are at least 20 people backstage making it happen,” says Brooks. Originally performing in Sunnyside schools, the VTC recently found a new home at the historic Princess Theatre in Prosser. “Being at the Princess Theatre allows us to do more shows each year,” says Brooks. Hoping to purchase the theater, the VTC welcomes support from the community.
Family TraditionsTwo years ago, the newest addition to Yakima’s community theater scene, the Akin Center Theatre (ACT), opened its doors. Owner, Tony Akin, also operates Melody Lane Performing Arts Academy, which he purchased from his mother. Since 1981, Melody Lane has grown from a small performing group into a multi-faceted company celebrating a love of the performing arts with about 300 students taking classes in everything from ballet and hip hop to guitar and singing. As parents gear up for summer, check out the summer camp series at Melody Lane, featuring week-long sessions with themes including Disney princes dance, Broadway musical theater, sing and dance like Justin Bieber, American Idol vocal workshop, and Fractured Fairy Tale drama. They will also offer a drama week geared toward children with autism from June 27 to July 1. “This will be a class where kids can practice acting out correct social behavior in a safe learning environment,” says Akin. “This is the first time we have tried a class like this, so we are excited about it. We have a son with autism ourselves, and know how trying the world can be to these little guys.”