By Ellis E. Conklin
Sometimes it is judicious to look back on something, ponder its modest roots, and celebrate the upward journey, before moving forward.
Riverbend Players Community Theater began over scones and coffee some 20 years ago at Jane Knapp’s dining-room table in Wheeler and next month will spread its wings when the curtain rises at the North County Recreation District’s Performing Arts Center for Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
As the iconic marketing message for Virginia Slims cigarettes once enthused: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
“I remember long ago that Ron Cohen, a fitness club member, asked if we couldn’t do a play or have a reading group – anything,” recounts Knapp, who, for the past 17 years has served as activities director at NCRD.
The name Riverbend Players, adds Knapp, came courtesy of Phyllis Sanderson, a New York actress and a one-time mainstay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who had moved to the area to teach.
The very first performances, remembers Linda Makohon, a Friends of NCRD and Riverbend Players board member, were held inside the current Fireside Room, previously known as the Riverbend Room.
In essence, Riverbend Players began as Readers Theater, where a rag-tag assemblage of actors performed without props or costumes, often sans stage or set!
The very first show, Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, was a collection of short free-verse poems, many composed in 1915, that shatter the myth that small-town America is a vast depository of virtue.
Spoon River’s director was Ms. Sanderson, and Jane Knapp, her memories of early Riverbend Players lore deeply engraved, can still recall the wondrous Readers Theater performances of actress Jaye O’Neal, a ginger-haired spitfire.
Knapp says 40 chairs were arranged in the Fireside Room to accommodate the earliest
theatergoers. Sometimes the room was crammed with as many as 75 to 80 chairs. “We were over fire code at times,” she says with a chuckle. “We did Robert Service poems, Dorothy Parker readings, and Mr. Barry’s Etchings.”
THE PRESENT-DAY 193-seat theater, marvels Knapp, once served as the old auditorium for the rambunctious kids at Nehalem Elementary School. “When we started [Riverbend Players] it was still a theater, but it had become a junk room. Truck after truck had to come to remove the stuff. We borrowed lights from Coaster Theatre, and the curtain was a hand-me-down.”
It was Tom Cocklin, current board president of Riverbend Players, who in 2016 “encouraged us to organize ourselves as a non-profit,” says Makohon.
After nearly $200,000 worth of work: new lighting, padded seats, railing, and a remodeled stage, the theater now has a classic, regal feel. “It went from a really uncomfortable place to becoming a fantastic venue,” says Cocklin.
Riverbend Players’ inaugural production at the revamped theater, in 2016, was Neil Simon’s comedic classic, The Odd Couple.
With nearly a decade of stage productions under its belt and a fully remodeled facility at the recreation center in Nehalem, Riverbend Players has hit its stride.
Through 2022, the community theater group has staged 48 productions, with 17 different directors. This past year Riverbend Players broke many attendance records including in December with the Frank Squillo-directed It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play.
Its original base of volunteers has surged from five to nearly 40. The group also has a contract with NCRD to house its theater troupe, and patrons now have the ability to purchase tickets and select their seats online at their website.
Without question, Riverbend Players is taking the Tillamook County community theater scene by storm and is proud to announce its performance lineup for 2023.
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS (March 18 – April 2) By Neil Simon
Directed by Vicki Haker
Set in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, New York in September 1937 during The Great Depression, this coming-of-age comedy focuses on Eugene Morris Jerome, a Polish-Jewish American teenager who experiences puberty, sexual awakening, and a search for identity as he tries to deal with his family, including his older brother Stanley, his parents Kate and Jack, Kate’s sister Blanche, and her two daughters.
Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical series, portrays an extended family crowded together by circumstances that still exist today. Unemployment, war, and prejudice depress the adults, while the young people dream about their futures.
12 ANGRY JURORS (June 2 – June 18)
By Reginald Rose
Directed by Frank Squillo
12 Angry Jurors is a courtroom drama based in New York City that gives the audience an inside look at how jury deliberations occur during a murder trial. 12 Angry Men was initially broadcast as a television play in 1954 and proved so popular that it was adapted for the stage. The acclaimed Hollywood director Sidney Lumet later directed a screen adaptation of 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda in 1957.
A 19-year-old man has just stood trial for the fatal stabbing of his father. “He doesn’t stand a chance,” mutters the guard as the 12 jurors are taken into the bleak jury room. It looks like an open-and-shut case – until one of the jurors begins opening the others’ eyes to the facts. Tempers flare, arguments grow heated, and the jurors become 12 angry jurors!
The juror’s final verdict and how they reach it, intense scenes that electrify audiences and keep them on the edge of their seats, add up to a fine, mature piece of dramatic literature.
FRANKENSTEIN: THE RADIO PLAY (October 21 – 29)
Adapted by Philip Grecian
Directed by Julee Ward
Remember the good old days of radio when people had to use their imagination? When the mind was a stage? Those days are back – only better!
This smart and well-crafted adaptation remains very true to Mary Shelley’s classic novel.
Captain Walton is on an Arctic expedition when he finds and rescues Victor Frankenstein from the harsh terrain. Frankenstein had been pursuing the “Creature,” he created and brought to life. Having told the captain his travails before dying, it is now up to Walton to narrate the tale of the monster’s inception and the resulting mayhem as the story comes alive onstage.
This thrilling stage adaptation by award-winning playwright Philip Grecian retains all the dread, anguish, and heart of the original.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (December 1 – 17)
By Philip Grecian
Humorist Jean Shepherd’s memoir of growing up in the Midwest in the 1940s follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker in his quest to get a genuine Red Ryder BB gun under the tree for Christmas.
Ralphie pleads his case before his mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus at Higbee’s Department Store. The consistent response: You’ll shoot your eye out!”
All the elements from the beloved motion picture are here, including the family’s temperamental exploding furnace; Scut Farkas, the school bully; the boys’ experiment with a wet tongue on a cold lamppost; the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin; Ralphie’s father winning a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg in a net stocking; Ralphie’s fantasy scenarios, and more!
All shows will be held at the NCRD Performing Arts Center located at 36155 9th St. in Nehalem, OR
Theater patrons can purchase reserved seating for $20 or $25.
Tickets are also available at the door, along with special $5 tickets for K-12 students.
For tickets and details visit www.riverbendplayers.org.
Riverbend Players Community Theater sits empty, awaiting the curtain to rise for Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Photo Copyright: Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography.