A scene from Theatre 33's December 2021 production "The Christmas Gift" featuring actors Jeff Sanders, left, Ed Schoaps, right, and Allison Saucy and Erica Towe, back. (Courtesy/Theatre 33)

When the actors at Theatre 33 took to the stage in mid-December for their holiday production of “The Christmas Gift,” it marked the first time in two years that the group has been able to perform a show in front of a live, in-person audience.

The Salem company plucks nearly-polished scripts from their playwrights and then works with the playwright to tweak and refine, bringing the contents of the page to life onstage and inviting the audience to make their own suggestions. In that way, Theatre 33 is unique among the Pacific Northwest drama scene.

But when it comes to responding to the Covid pandemic, they’ve been in the same boat as the rest of the live arts community, grappling with a switch to remote performing in a format that thrives on face-to-face connection.

“We didn’t have the kind of rehearsal process that we typically have,” said Susan Coromel, Theatre 33’s artistic director. “There were some tricks that we learned acting on Zoom, but honestly don’t ever really want to go back.”

However, the hiatus overlapped with a period of enormous growth for the plucky production company.

From behind the curtain, the biggest change is that Theatre 33 is no longer an independent program. While the company used to rent its performing space from Willamette University, they officially joined the college’s theater department in early 2020. Their absorption gives them more behind-the-scenes support, like access to Willamette’s grant writing department.

Coromel called the process “a really smooth transition.”

“We had been working in residence at Willamette prior to officially joining, so a lot of the systems that we had in place - they changed in the sense that we work with different departments on campus to help structural elements of the company,” Coromel said.

Thomas Nabhan, Theatre 33’s executive director, said the program has its sights set even higher in the coming years. With the help of his team, he said, he’s working to develop a new summer festival that he hopes will become a destination event for live theater enthusiasts across Oregon.

Currently, the company puts on three plays during its summer season - one in June, one in July and one in August. Nabhan wants the company to condense its season, so it can perform the three full productions over the course of a festival.

He’s also planning to incorporate three live “pop-up” readings, with actors performing from fresh scripts in front of a live audience without the full production element of a traditional show.

“In addition to that, we’re going to have authors and playwrights in residence on campus developing their plays,” Nabhan said.

The eventual goal is that festival attendees will be able to come into town for just a few days and catch a full show or two, attend a couple pop-up readings and chat with a handful of playwrights.

This summer, Nabhan added, Theatre 33 will still be “taking our baby steps.” But he’s confident that the festival could become a major regional destination in the next five years with some word-of-mouth buzz and an expanded marketing budget.

“We think this can really be successful and grow into something that has a really big impact for not only Salem, but the hospitality industry and the wine country surrounding Salem as well,” Nabhan said. “Look what Oregon Shakespeare did in Ashland.”

Finding scripts in “the sweet spot”

Theatre 33 occupies an unusual space in the region’s live theater ecosystem.

There are writer collectives and workshops that will help a budding playwright develop a new script. There are theater companies willing to take on a promising or proven script that’s already ready for the stage.

But what about bridging that gap in the middle?

According to Nabhan, Theatre 33 looks for scripts in “the sweet spot.”

“We look for plays that could really benefit the playwright most. If the play is too raw, too new, we shy away from that,” he explained.

Playwrights submit their scripts to the company, who then decide which productions to take on. The actors work alongside the author to bring the script to life, allowing the playwright to identify anything that still needs revising.

Once the play debuts, the writer can then participate in a live Q&A with the audience, gaining even more valuable feedback. Rich Ruben, a Portland-based playwright who worked with Theatre 33 to produce his script during the remote 2020 season, said the process proved illuminating.

“The feedback that we seemed to get was really good, but the project itself was just, for me, an absolutely and totally joyful and productive experience, despite the challenge of doing something long distance,” Ruben said. “We really produced something, at the end. We accomplished something.”

He did end up making changes to his script, which was written from the perspective of a group of goofy Russian screwballs who worked for a company that interfered in the 2016 American election. One member of the Theatre 33 team was actually Russian, Ruben said, and was able him sharpen his dialogue.

“Playwrighting, it's really fascinating for me,” Ruben said. “At some point, this very solitary process becomes this very social and communal process. It’s different from people who write novels. If you’re lucky, this very solitary process becomes this wonderful, transcendent activity.”

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