This profile of Susan Sluka (Gutierrez), founder and original artistic director of the Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Company, is the result of an interview with her at her new home in Rancho Cucamonga, California, in July 2004.
When did you first become interested in theatre?
I think I've been interested in theatre, all of my life. Even as a young child, I knew all I wanted was to "do plays". I wrote them, directed them and starred in them, (casting my three sisters, or the neighbor kids, or my classmates in the supporting roles, of course.) When a "real" play at school or the community theatre came along, I would be there anxiously seeking a part. When I was a child, my parents, Sherald and Mary Ellen Sluka were very involved in the Visalia Community Players (VCP). They performed in many, many plays and musicals and I loved going to see them. They also directed several productions, which to a child, was very impressive. In addition, they were very involved in the running of the theatre company. Both my parents served multiple terms as president or other board positions. (My father is once again president of that same organization as of this interview).
What was your theatre experience and involvement prior to starting the Enchanted Playhouse?I couldn't wait until I was old enough to get into "real" plays, like at the Visalia Players. As soon as I was in high school my parents allowed me to audition for "real" plays and I've never stopped. I went from one production to the next and when I wasn't in a show, I was reading plays and looking for the next audition. I acted, sang and danced in dozens of local productions starting in high school and for many years to follow primarily with the VCP, The Cabaret Dinner Theatre and The Fourth Wall theatre companies. While attending COS after high school I also took every theatre course offered, and enjoyed featured roles in three COS musicals Kismet, Sweet Charity and Me and My Girl - and what fun they were! Over the years, I worked with wonderful directors and co-actors who, through their vision, dedication, patience or skill, helped me develop my own talent.
As I became an adult and young wife, I continued my passion in the theatre. At age eighteen I married a fellow COS Theatre student, Gary Long, and together we were acting, singing and dancing in productions with the VCP, COS Music Theatre, The Fourth Wall and The Cabaret Dinner Theatre. I even starred as "Emily" in a production of Our Town at the VCP while five months pregnant with my son, Adam. I was back on stage as "Maria" in The Sound of Music at the Cabaret Dinner Theatre before Adam's first birthday. Theatre was obviously in my blood and I loved being on stage.
In 1985, John Leffingwell hired me as the Theatre Director (a generous term for the sole theatre instructor) of the Creative Center, an art school for students who are physically and mentally challenged. At the time, John was the Executive Director of the Center, but also a friend, director, mentor and co-performer. I enjoyed three years working in that position, which allowed me the freedom to be creative, theatrical and realistic. Along with my Center "partners-in-crime" Gary DeFoe (Music Director) and Sylvia Howard (Dance Director), we created musicals and theatrical productions for the Center students to perform. It was quite a challenge. It was also my first professional position in theatre - and I loved it!
During that time, I also taught acting classes to children for the City of Visalia Leisure Services (at that time "leisure" wasn't a bad word in government services). When a position in Youth Programs became available in 1988, I applied and was hired to work for the City of Visalia as a Recreation Assistant. My duties shifted from teaching theatre to youth to after school programs and day camps, but I always had the opportunity to express my creativity and vision for successful programming for kids. And of course during all this time, I still did plays whenever I could.
Even after the Enchanted Playhouse was a reality, I was still employed by the City of Visalia. Over those years, while enjoying the growth of the Playhouse, I had the great opportunity to create, develop and supervised exciting programs for the City. This included creating and supervising the City's first council-appointed Youth Committee; co-writing the City's Youth Policy; co-hosting the weekly "Visalia Today" cable show; creating the teen cable show "Age Limit" with friends and co-workers Trish Chambers and Rick Soper; helping to establish the Visalia Community Foundation; and, organizing theatre and arts excursions to LA and San Francisco.
Why and when did you start the Enchanted Playhouse?
Life went on. Play after play passed. When my son Adam was about 8 years old, he began asking me where I went at night and what I did at "rehearsals". He was very curious and intelligent, but it was hard to explain. I wanted to share my love of theatre with my son, and show him what Mommy loves to do, but he was much to young to see the plays that I was in. I thought to myself, " Gee, there should be theatre for kids to go see." Now, this wasn't a major revelation in the theatre world, but it was the beginning of a life changing experience for me. I decided I wanted to start a company that would create and present theatre - good, respectable, quality theatre, performed by adults but designed for young audiences, yet sophisticated enough to appeal to the parents as well. Adam even helped me come up with the name, The Enchanted Playhouse, when we were brainstorming names one day.
In 1991, I was a full-time Recreation Coordinator in Youth Programs for the City of Visalia. I approached my supervisors, Eunice Riso and Donna Bailey, heads of management at that time of the City's Leisure Services Department, for first year funding to help me create The Enchanted Playhouse. Thanks to their support, the Enchanted Playhouse operated under City sponsorship during its first year.
Eunice and Donna were always very supportive of the Playhouse and recognized its value to our community, so for the next 10 years I served as both Artistic & Managing Director for the Playhouse and Recreation Coordinator for the City. Although it was difficult sharing my energy and passion between the two organizations, the support from the City allowed me the flexibility to wear both hats.
Who were the founding artistic team and board members?
When I decided to go forward with the idea, I knew instantly who I wanted to invite to be part of this creative team. While I had worked at The Creative Center, I had a great time working with such wonderful artists there, including Gary DeFoe, John Sundstrom and Connie Nieburgs (Tippett). I approached them to see if they would be interested in helping create The Enchanted Playhouse. They all agreed, along with my friend an co-performer Steve LaMar (also the Technical Director at COS), to a one-year commitment to get the company started. This was the founding production team: Gary, original music; John, set design/scenic artistry; Steve, set builder/technical advisor; Connie, costumes; and me as Artistic & Stage Director. We spent a year in the planning, meeting monthly, selecting plays, establishing budgets, timelines, seeking venues and materials, and preparing our plan of action. Bill Gutierrez, my husband at the time, was a tremendous help in marketing the Playhouse. He created our logo, marketing pieces, ads, show artwork, programs, posters and everything to be printed. I had a talented team of artists and was honored they all were willing to commit their time and creativity for this venture.
In February 1992, the Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Company presented its first production, Rumpelstiltskin at The Rotary Theatre. This facility eventually became our unofficial theatre home for the first five years of the company's existence. I directed that first production, which starred Larry Lyons, Marla Alberstein and the dear, John Holden, (three theatre icons in Visalia at the time) among others. Also, in the first production were Candy Caine (yes, that was her real name), Kevin Downes, Rick Lotenero, Stanley Pratt, and Kevin Chu. Although not a full musical, the production had a few songs and wonderful music written by Gary DeFoe. The set was designed with scenic artistry by John Sundstrom, built by Steve LaMar, and costumes beautifully crafted by Connie Nieburgs (Tippett).
The rest of the season was so enjoyable to present and work on. Our second production was The Secret Garden, followed by Merlin's Tale of Arthur's Magic Sword (in which I got to play the scheming "Morgan Le Fey") and concluding with Beauty and the Beast, starring a very young but commanding Chris Mangels as our "Beast".
Within that first year of 1992, we also incorporated as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. Our original board of directors included Steve LaMar, Sherald Sluka, George Pilling, Lois Norman, Debbie Williams, Margie Davidian, Jim Mangus and me.
What were the early years of creating the Playhouse like?
So exciting, so wonderful, and so much work! It was difficult because we had no home base and began to have issues with storage, rehearsal space, building space, and the like. Without a home base, we rehearsed where we could. During the first couple of years, we rehearsed in the City community centers in the evenings, whenever a space was available. I handled all the creative and financial business at home, while working full time for the City of Visalia Community Services as a Recreation Coordinator for Youth Programs. The rest of our volunteer staff and board members also worked full time jobs, had families, homes and other responsibilities, but we found a way to make it work.
As we forged ahead we attracted very talented people. Chris Mangels shed his "Beast" costume and directed our second season production of Alice in Wonderland where he asked a theatre newcomer Nancy McGinnis to costume his fantastical production, and boy did she ever! Nancy became a major creative contributor to the Playhouse over the following years, costuming dozens of plays. It was also this production where we first saw TJ Baker, playing the "Gryphon". And, when loading the lifeless and "beige" wonderland set into the theatre four days before opening, an unassuming Bonnie Wolfe, whose little daughter Betsy, was playing the "Door Mouse" in the production came up to me and said, "I paint a little." Bonnie's magic brush colorized that set as well as several seasons of sets from that day forward, with her fabulous artistry. Ray Contreras, who quickly became a comical favorite of Playhouse audiences and remains so today, joined us in our second season in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Over the years, Playhouse productions featured wonderful, talented, established performers including Larry Lyons, Paul Jones, Susan Matthews, Clint Showalter, Sean McMichael, Noble Johnson, Ken Parks, Ginger Barszcz, Tom Nance, Mary Kay Akin, Stephen Hulsey, and many others including my father, Sherald Sluka. Over the years, many young performers literally grew up on our stage, starting with my own talented kid, Adam Long who has composed and orchestrated original musical scores for many EPTC productions. These would include Jon Kendall, Betsy and Katie Wolfe, Nick, Matt and Chris Terry, Becky Jordan, Shawn Mollenhauer, Brian Cearley, Kendall Lewis, Serena Salinas, and Duncan Needham, to name a few. I had a blast working with all of them!
What were the greatest challenges in creating and producing productions for the Playhouse?
There were many, but most were achievable with time and planning and lots of trial and error. The first six and a half years, we mainly performed at the Rotary Theatre, which provided some artistic challenges. We would move in on a Saturday morning and open our production 4 days later, on Wednesday night. During those years, in order to maximize our one-week rental period, we ran our performances Wednesday through Saturday nights, with a matinee on Saturday afternoon, and back-to-back school performances on Thursday and Friday mornings. We had a short time to mount the show in the theatre, then pack in eight performances in four days. On Sunday afternoon, we would load-out and store away our costumes and materials. It made for a tough week! Fun, but stressful and exhausting at the same time.
In the summer of 1997, we moved into the Main Street Theatre (mid-season, no less!). We finally had the space and time to really develop our artistic and technical abilities, which in itself presented a challenge. A rental facility comes equipped with technicians. Our empty, retrofitted movie theatre did not. Along came Sean Kelly, a talented theatre designer and technician who took our sets and technical aspects to the next level. A bigger stage meant bigger sets, more lights, more sound, more everything. It was a new challenge for our company, but an exciting one. It was a financial challenge as well. We went from a theatre company whose total focus was to create productions, to a theatre company with a four-show season and a full-time theatre facility to operate, maintain, equip, clean, cool, heat and program all uses, including rentals. Although it was clearly the next step for our company at the time, it was our biggest challenge. Although I have been gone for almost three years now, I expect it is still the biggest challenge for the current board members who run the Enchanted Playhouse, now.
What are you doing now?
In November 2001, I was offered a full-time position as the Cultural Arts Coordinator for the City of Rancho Cucamonga, in Southern California. With an arts-supportive City seeking someone to create theatre and performing arts programs for the community as well as present and produce productions and manage a new theatre to be built in the near future, the opportunity was too attractive to turn down and a perfect fit for me. Leaving my family, The Enchanted Playhouse, and Visalia was the hardest and most heart-wrenching thing I've ever done. The Enchanted Playhouse was a huge part of my life for over eleven years, and I'd never lived anywhere but Visalia my entire life -- near my parents, my son, my friends and my theatre. But it was time for a change, the next challenge and a new chapter in my life.
Now, I love working for the City of Rancho Cucamonga. My partner and best friend, Sean Kelly, and I (along with former "theatre-dog" Heidi) live in a small but lovely home in Rancho, less than one mile from where the new Cultural Center is being built. Sean works as Master Carpenter in the theatre department at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut and loves his work there (and the regular hours he now keeps!). Our new Victoria Gardens Cultural Center is being built in the heart of a new "downtown" here in Rancho, and will be completed in the spring of 2006. When completed, it will consist of a 540-seat state-of-the-art theatre, a multi-use Celebration Hall and branch library. My supervisors and I have been meeting with a variety of professional theatre companies throughout California and around the country to plan for a professional, resident company who will present a theatre season designed primarily for families and young audiences. The people I have met and places I have visited over the past two years, preparing for the cultural center, have been a dream of a lifetime!
Additionally, on a community level, I have coordinated and produced six Broadway-style musicals for our community theatre program, contracting with local theatre artists to direct and teach. In the spring of 2005, I will start a Theatre Arts Academy for the City. Using the Visalia Arts Consortium as a model, we have started the Inland Empire Arts Association, comprised of the arts organizations of the area cities and counties.
Sean and I are now happy that we made the difficult choice to leave, although with both our families, my son Adam and girlfriend Janae, and old and new friends still in Visalia our visits are quite frequent and very full. We love our new life, but Visalia will always be considered "home".
Is there anything you'd like to say, in closing?
As time passes, things change. I believe change is a good thing and brings new experiences to each one of us. It's up to us to recognize the potential of those experiences, and chose to see them as positive or negative. I am very thankful to the current board members of the Enchanted Playhouse, particularly Don Williams, Debbie Terry, George Loeb, Laurel Barton, Debbie Hardin and Kay Whistler who worked with me during both thrilling and trying times in the year or two prior to my leaving, who have carried the torch since my departure. I am grateful to these people as well as all the many performers that The Enchanted Playhouse lives on.
Since the Enchanted Playhouse began, many people contributed an enormous amount of time, talent, expertise, money and yes, lots of blood, sweat and tears to develop an idea into a reputable, creative, established community asset. So their contribution to the Enchanted Playhouse's existence will not be forgotten, the History of Board Members, as well as a History of Past Productions and directors, whose vision formed the Enchanted Playhouse will soon be available here. Yet, with all those who contributed towards the company's development, no one surpasses my parents, Sherald & Mary Ellen for over eleven years of devoted service to the company. My mother still works hard coordinating school performances with the many school districts that attend the morning performances.
I personally want to thank everyone who has participated in the Enchanted Playhouse, on stage, backstage, in the lobby or in the audience. With your support, the Enchanted Playhouse will continue to fulfill its original mission to "enchant surprise, excite and amuse audiences, young and old."
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Artist in the Spotlight
Karen Kirkpatrick and James McDonnell
by Donald E. Williams
Where do artists come from? Is there some special gene that predisposes a newborn baby to grow up to be a painter, musician or actor? Or is it possible that, given the right opportunities, nurtured and worked at, anybody can become an artist? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, artists do come from all walks of life. They can be teachers and engineers. They can be accountants, veterinarians and clerks, but they all have one thing in common. They share a desire to use their artistic talents to make the world a more colorful, energetic and thought-provoking place.
The Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Company is pleased to have two such individuals at the helm as directors of its next production “The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf.” Directors Karen Kirkpatrick and James McDonnell have been involved with the Enchanted Playhouse for several years now. While McDonnell is no stranger to the position of director, this will be Kirkpatrick’s directing debut.
Kirkpatrick is a Visalia native having attended local schools before graduating from Mt. Whitney High School and later College of the Sequoias. During her time at COS, she became a volunteer and then intern for The Nature Conservancy, which then owned the Kaweah Oaks Preserve east of Visalia and the Creighton Ranch Preserve near Corcoran. She then transferred to California State University Fresno where she earned her degree in Environmental Biology. After graduation, she spent several years working for the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Water Resources and Hansen’s Biological Consulting doing field-work conducting surveys for rare and endangered plants and animals.
How then did Kirkpatrick get drawn into the world of acting? In the third grade, she had her acting debut in a dual role as a dancing fairy and as Tweedledee in a local production of “Babes in Toyland.” At the age of twelve, upon the recommendation of a former teacher, she began private art lessons every week for over a year. But it was not until recently, at the age of 37, that the artistic bug really took over. On a dare from her two daughters, she auditioned for and won a role in the EPTC production of “My Emperor’s New Clothes.” Already a member of the board of directors at that time this first stage appearance of her adult life led to a number of other appearances in roles such as Aunt Sponge in “James and the Giant Peach” and Dirty Meg Scathelocke in “Robin Hood.” She has also appeared in the COS student charity production of “The Vagina Monologues” for the past two years, and was most recently seen in the Visalia Community Players’ production of “The Crucible” as Ann Putnam and Sarah Good.
Married to Greg Kirkpatrick for 15 years with two daughters, Zoe, 14 and Sophie, 11, she has been employed full-time at COS for the last 6 years as the Biology Department’s Laboratory Technician. Yet, Kirkpatrick still has a heart for volunteer work (having sat on the city’s Visalia Beautification Committee for over 4 years) and theatre. Her recent stage performances have served to whet her appetite for greater involvement in theatre productions. After expressing a desire to direct, the Enchanted Playhouse was happy to be able to accommodate and develop such talent.
James McDonnell, having had a more formal background in theatre, is the second half of this directing duo. McDonnell holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in acting and directing from DeSales University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatre design and technology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His professional credits include having worked as costume designer for the Kern Shakespeare Festival on “Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth” and working as assistant costume designer with the Missouri Reparatory Theatre for “Comedy of Errors” and “The Seagull.” McDonnell also served as wig stylist for the national tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and the national tour of “Miss Saigon” in addition to serving as the key costumer for the Ang Lee film “Ride With The Devil.”
Before coming to Visalia, McDonnell worked extensively at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Mac-Haydn Theatre, Heart of American Shakespeare, The Coterie Theatre, and the UMKC Opera Conservatory. We are fortunate that all of this talent and experience has been brought to College of the Sequoias where McDonnell is currently the sole Theatre Department faculty member. McDonnell teaches classes in acting, musical theatre, costumes, make-up and cinema. He recently directed the college’s productions of “Noises Off”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “Quilters.” In addition to directing, McDonnell is the resident costume designer at College of the Sequoias designing costumes for productions such as “Beauty and the Beast”, “Richard III”, “Guys and Dolls” and “Big River.” Fortunately, McDonnell does not hoard all of his talents at COS. He has directed for the Enchanted Playhouse Theatre’s productions of “James and the Giant Peach”, “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland.” He has also appeared on stage as Pesudolus in the Fourth Wall Theatre’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and as Samuel Byck in “Assassins”, and his costume designs have been seen in the Tulare County Office of Education’s summer musical productions of “The King and I”, “Westside Story” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
But directing for both of these individuals is about more than just fulfilling a desire to produce a show that the community can enjoy; although, that is certainly an important reason behind the drive and effort McDonnell and Kirkpatrick are putting into the production of “Trial of the Big Bad Wolf.” The two have carefully scripted multiple layers of humor into the production on both the visual and auditory levels, some of which will only be recognized by “older” theatre patrons, in the hopes that the show will be just as entertaining for adults as it will be for the children attending.
Kirkpatrick also considers this a “wonderful learning experience for myself. Working with James gives me the opportunity to pick his brain for some great pointers to help me in my directing debut.” And both share the desire to see the members of their cast learn from this experience as well. “It’s more than just having a good time and strutting your stuff across the stage,” emphasized McDonnell. “That’s right,” agreed Kirkpatrick. “With 22 cast members, almost all of which are on stage during the entire performance, there is a need for great discipline and focus among the cast members. They have to be able to control their physical movements, remain in character and follow closely all of the dialogue being exchanged so as to react properly at all times. This can be difficult even for adults. Developing such discipline will be of great benefit to the younger cast members as they continue to grow and mature.”
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