Sets are up, lights and sound are ready and actors are eager to hit the stage in “Vintage Hitchcock,” Magenta Theater’s spring return to live performance after several long, suspenseful pandemic waits.
The only suspense remaining is: Will theatergoers return to the playhouse?
Across 20 years, Vancouver’s homegrown Magenta Theater has endured various growing pains and difficult stretches — from no stage to call home to major budget challenges to the sudden, startling departure of its visionary founder and leader.
But no challenge has been as difficult as keeping Magenta alive during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, according to several people who labored to keep the community connected and active even while doors were closed and the stage was dark.
Teamwork and creativity — including remote performances by video, marquee-message sales and applying for every pandemic-aid grant possible — kept Magenta going despite two years of uncertainty and two lengthy closures, according to executive director David Roberts.
Now, Magenta is ready to welcome its audience back for real live theater at a transitional time when masks are optional, not mandatory, but proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is still required to come inside.
“We’re in good shape,” Roberts said. “We’ve had good support and great donors keeping things going all along. Now I’m more concerned with filling our theater seats.”
Magenta Theater was launched 20 years ago by Jaynie Roberts, a British woman who attended college in the U.S. and wound up raising her family in Clark County. (Jaynie Roberts is no relation to David Roberts, Magenta’s current executive director.)
An irrepressible theater lover, actor, writer and organizer, Jaynie Roberts started Magenta as a hobby and was gratified and encouraged by the sizable, supportive local response.
Vancouver has a long history of theater companies that come and go. David Roberts recalled that his own attempt to guide a company called Vancouver On Stage, which was based at the former Columbia Arts Center, a repurposed downtown church, didn’t last long.
David Roberts met Jaynie Roberts along the way, and eventually he auditioned into a Magenta play.
“Magenta was mostly kid-oriented and it hopped from church to church,” David Roberts remembered. “In those days we had to set things up and take them down every weekend in time for Sunday service. And then put them back up again.”
Magenta eventually settled into its own rented storefront near the bottom of Main Street. The location wasn’t ideal and neither was the long, narrow shoebox theater, but Magenta’s energetic team squeezed in shows — and appreciative audiences — for years.
“I did a lot of set design and that was the challenge: How do you squeeze a set onto a stage that’s only 12 feet deep but 30 feet long?” David Roberts remembered. That tightness sure promoted intimacy between performer and audience, he added with a laugh.
Magenta kept picking up speed as it crammed comedies, dramas, musicals, improv and variety shows onto its oblong, awkward stage. Guided by Jaynie Roberts, Magenta also became a nonprofit corporation and got seriously organized, with different volunteer departments building sets, sewing costumes, managing the box office and more.
“There’s an incredible volunteer base and a framework here,” said K.C. Cooper, a long-standing Magenta actor, comedy improviser and behind-the-scenes volunteer. It’s not uncommon to find community theaters tightly controlled by individuals or cliques, she said, but Magenta was never like that.
Other theaters are closer to Cooper’s home south of Portland, but she travels to Vancouver to participate at Magenta.
“These are the people I love. There are no divas here, and it’s not cliquish,” Cooper said.
“Personally I have found it a very supportive group,” said long-standing Magenta figure Tony Provenzola, an actor, improviser and board member. “It’s like a family.”
Cooper called Magenta a “teaching theater.” Whatever stage-related skill you’d like to learn, she said, you’ll be welcomed and encouraged. Cooper said she’s come to love designing stage sound at Magenta, while Provenzola has learned lighting design.
Backstage volunteers are never treated as secondary to actors at Magenta, Cooper said. “We all get to know each other and we rely on each other. What I love the most is seeing new people start to bloom.”
In 2016, Magenta outgrew its oblong box and moved up in the world (but not far up the street) as it took over a spacious former dance studio at 1108 Main St. Sound and lighting systems, risers and 150 seats were installed.
It was a signature of the close-knit Magenta community that the group made the move as a unit, marching joyfully up Main Street one night from old digs to new.
Magenta’s cohesion ran into profound challenges in spring and summer 2020. First came the coronavirus, which forced the theater to close its doors just before its latest offering was rehearsed up and ready to go.
Next, after allegations of racial bias erupted, founder Jaynie Roberts abruptly quit the theater company she created and led for so long. While Magenta’s board of directors had only asked her to take racial sensitivity training, Roberts told The Columbian that “stepping aside to allow new leadership was the ethical thing to do.”
Many wondered whether Magenta could survive these two unexpected blows.
“We were all taken aback,” Cooper said.
“At that time, everything was negative. There was no positive,” Provenzola said. “We didn’t have our own identity and we didn’t know what to do.”
But the way Jaynie Roberts had structured Magenta made it strong enough to outlast her, Cooper said. “I think she did a fantastic job of setting up systems.”
While the matter was controversial and painful, Magenta managed to move forward with racial sensitivity training sessions for everyone involved — board members and all volunteers — and select a new leadership team in executive director David Roberts and artistic director Gina George.
“I couldn’t let the whole place collapse,” David Roberts said. “Jaynie started a wonderful theater company that we continue to advance now, with new direction and new focus.”
But, he admitted, waiting out the coronavirus pandemic and getting everything back in gear for live performance has back-burnered the effort to diversify the company and its offerings, which have usually leaned toward mainstream, crowd-pleasing fare.
“Obviously the pandemic messed up a lot of things. We were just trying to survive,” he said. “Our goals of trying to do diversity and outreach — there hasn’t been a lot of time on that. We still need to cast a wider net.”
George said that work is underway.
“We have formed two play selection committees, one for plays and one to choose a musical, for our 2023 season with diversity and inclusion criteria so we can really pay attention to who wrote the play and who the characters are in the play in relation to underrepresented groups,” George said by email.
“We are also forming our first diversity and inclusion committee and we are looking for members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities to join but all are welcome,” she wrote.
Today, Magenta remains Clark County’s leading community theater for adults.
“We are still a community theater but I think we’re moving toward more pro-quality work,” Roberts said. “Having two people on the executive team gives us the ability to bounce things back and forth. Working with our board makes it a very collaborative effort.
“No one person drives this theater,” he said.
While David Roberts joked about the need to branch out and start performing plays that don’t feature upper-crust British accents, the King’s English (as mimicked by Americans) is precisely what you’ll hear when Magenta reopens its doors starting Friday night.
“Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play” is even older-fashioned than Magenta audiences have come to expect over the years. It’s a trilogy of short tales based on early works by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of film suspense, translated into Golden Age of Radio style complete with an onstage Foley artist creating sound illusions like chugging trains, the ominous presence of a murderer and, of course, big explosions.
Packed into this one show are three Hitchcock thrillers: “The 39 Steps,” “The Lodger” and “Sabotage.”
Next up for Magenta: “Same Time Next Year” in June and, in August, an original play by local playwright David Bareford called “Don Quixote De La Center.”