A headless husband, daycare shenanigans among new plays hitting Salem’s summer stage

Theatrical speed dating is coming to the Salem stage.

Willamette University’s Theatre 33 is trying something new for its 11th summer season, mounting a pop-up performance of six short plays, all performed simultaneously at Hopewell Hub in rural Polk County.

The shows on July 27 and 28 will be a collaboration with Portland-based Northwest Theater Workshop. Each piece runs 10 to 15 minutes and audience members can cycle through to catch all six shows in about an hour and a half. 

It’s part of the new play development company’s efforts to make Salem’s theater scene a regional draw.

“Everybody in Salem goes up to Portland to see theater. Well, we’d like to reverse that a little bit,” said executive director Thomas Nabhan. 

Theatre 33 just announced its 2024 season, which includes a lineup of six other productions between May and July. Three are fully staged, and three are pop-up readings. All are works by Northwest playwrights that are in development.

The lineup spans comedy, suspense, drama and history, with works touching on segregation, daycare, grief, parenthood and inheritance.

The final summer production, “Wife of Headless Man Investigates Her Own Disappearance,” is by Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi. The pop-up reading runs Aug. 3-4, with the plot centering on a woman who believes she was drugged during an interview with a tech mogul — which would explain the headless but still very much alive husband she returns home to.

It’s “an imaginative and wacky journey that we would never be able to produce in our tiny space but we want that play to be heard and seen,” said Susan Coromel, Theatre 33’s artistic director.

Most performances will be on the Willamette campus, but another off-campus event is returning: a reading at the Capitol Subaru dealership in north Salem.

The auto seller has been a longtime sponsor of Theatre 33, and several years ago began hosting one of the pop-up readings in their outdoor pavilion on the dealership campus.

“It brought people here that might not have normally come to a dealership,” said Carrie Casebeer, director of marketing. Capitol Subaru turns it into an event with wine tasting and appetizers, advertising on their social media pages.

A Theatre 33 pop-up play reading at Capitol Subaru is returning for the summer of 2024 (Courtesy/Theatre 33)

“It’s a little out of the box for a car dealership to do. People really come down and have a wonderful time,” Casebeer said. This summer’s Capitol pop-up is “Red Line” by Barbara Hume, a historical play about the impact of segregation on two young men, one white and one Black, who share backyards in St. Louis in the 1940s.

Theatre 33 is gearing up for an even larger expansion next summer, mounting its first regional festival — a sort of Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the Willamette Valley, where all six new plays from the summer season will be reprised over a single week, allowing visitors to see every show.

This summer’s schedule shifted a month earlier, leaving August free. Next August will kick off the festival.

With the expansion comes a fundraising push. This season will cost about $100,000 to produce, and they’re aiming to raise at least $150,000 for the 2025 festival and season.

Nabhan said Theatre 33 offers a unique draw because the audience has a chance to engage with the playwright, who works with the cast and crew on script revisions during rehearsal and participates in feedback sessions after each performance.

Sometimes, audience suggestions get implemented live the following night.

“When you come to our play it’s just different than going to a theater and sitting down and seeing a play you’ve seen five times before,” Nabhan said. “There’s kind of an energy and electricity to it and you know that you have a chance of being part of the creative process.”

Tickets to Theatre 33 shows are by donation, with a suggested $15 per ticket. View the full 2024 summer schedule and reserve tickets on the theater website here.

Auditions for the 2024 shows will be held Saturday, April 13 from 1-4 p.m. More information is here.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.