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Madera Theatre Project opens with big dreams (and easy Highway 99 access)

I know what you’re thinking. There’s a new community theater company in Madera that kicks off tonight with a lively production of “Beauty and the Beast” (Thursday, June 16), and it has big plans, a beautiful new stage and an impressive roster of people involved.

But it’s in Madera, which means that for people in Fresno and the south valley, it’s a major trek. You don’t know if you want to make the effort. It’s too far!


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I’ve run into similar sentiments when talking up the great theater stuff going on at Selma Arts Center – even though it takes me about five minutes longer to drive to downtown Selma from central Fresno compared to navigating my way to Shaghoian Hall on the other side of town. I don’t know the cause of this psychological block – I swear that sometimes people revert to frontier days and think they’re driving a horse-and-wagon to see a play – but it’s real.

So, to cut all this off at the pass, I present to you Brad Myers, the noted Fresno State theater professor and director, who is directing a production of “All My Sons” for the inaugural season of the Madera Theatre Project. (It’s the third show in the lineup, running July 28-Aug. 6.)

I ask him: How long does it take for him to get to the beautiful new Matilda Torres High School Performing Arts Center?

“I live in northwest Fresno, so Madera is a quick hop up the 99, taking me 20 minutes max, less time than it takes me to drive to the Tower District or Fresno City College. A few years ago I did a show which rehearsed and performed at Fresno Pacific, which was a much longer drive. Also, the Torres theater is easily accessible from Highway 99.”

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Those sentiments are echoed by Jacob Sherwood, who is directing the first show of the season, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” (It opens Thursday, June 16, and plays for six performances through June 25.)

Now that word about the quality of Selma’s productions has gotten around, people are more likely to make the drive, he says. He thinks the same thing will happen in Madera.

“Once people become more familiar with it, if they’re tempted enough by our season to make the drive, when they do it once, they’ll say, that was actually really easy,” he says.

Madera Theatre Project is a partnership between Madera Unified School District and Madera County Arts Council. Essential to its founding are Ginger Latimer, a noted theater educator at Madera South High School for decades; and Jim Kocher, executive director of the arts council.

Latimer, who is artistic director of the new company, directed more than 100 shows at Madera South High School and built the program into a powerhouse. She retired last year from teaching.

“There was a common interest in trying to bring more theater to our community in our county,” she says of the arts council partnership. “We decided to just kind of jump in with both feet and plan a three-show summer. We tossed it out for people to submit what they’d like to direct.”

Sherwood, a Fresno State theater graduate who directed a couple of Woodward Shakespeare Festival productions before getting a job teaching theater at Madera South High School, pitched “Beauty and the Beast” as a family-friendly way to start things off.

“And someone has to go first,” he says with a laugh.

The second production of the inaugural season is Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “Harvest Moon,” a story chronicling four generations of a Mexican-American farmworker family. Elena Navarrette directs the show, which runs July 7-16.

Latimer is particularly excited about the third show, “All My Sons,” and the fact that she enticed Myers, whom she describes as bringing “a huge following” to the table, to make the drive to Madera.

It was great timing for Myers.

“I had recently seen an impressive community theater production in Fresno, and I remember saying to a friend that I wish I could direct in the community again,” Myers says. “So it seemed more than coincidental when a couple of weeks later Ginger reached out to me about possibly directing. As we explored the possibility, I became increasingly impressed with the organization and passion that both Ginger and Jim Kocher had brought to the company. They’re both very on top of their game and I wanted to be a part of something new and exciting.”

A major incentive is the theater space itself. It seats about 280 and is a state-of-the-art, proscenium-style stage suitable both for large-cast shows and intimate pieces. “Beauty and the Beast” will be using a video feed (rented through the publisher, MTI) and using a new projector.

Myers describes the theater as one of the best facilities in which a local community theater could perform.

“I had not seen the theater prior to signing on to direct, and when I walked into the space I couldn’t have been more impressed,” he says.

Latimer hopes audiences will be impressed this first season as well – and that they spread the word.

“We’ll see if we can catch fire,” she says, “and create a permanent theater in our community.”


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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