Just days before Theatre Convivio's first-ever opening, workers are running wire for the sound system in the theater's home at the Bellview Grange in Ashland.
Ladders stand here and there. Tools lay about. The cables snaking under the stage will connect the big, new JBL speakers installed on either side of the stage to a new mixing booth for lights and sound.
"We like to think of ourselves as the in-house theater company," says Convivio Artistic Director Richard Heller. "We're kind of like honored guests. We're lucky to be here."
The Tolman Creek Road building, which was last used as a performance space by Ashland Contemporary Theatre, has been outfitted with new lights, light tracks and dimmers, as well as curtains, a sound board, a pre-set board for controlling lights and a thrust stage.
Theatre Convivio, which formed earlier this year, is readying its first production, "The Fantasticks," with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, for its opening, which was Thursday.
Heller says the new company plans to present work by playwrights ranging from Neil Simon to Bertolt Brecht. He lists Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and David Mamet's "Speed the Plow" as plays he'd like to present, but he says offerings will also include family fare such as "The Fantasticks."
"It's not prop-heavy, it's not cast-heavy," he says. "It's a great story. What's not to like?"
"The Fantasticks" was the world's longest-running musical, playing off-Broadway for 42 years and 17,162 performances. It's about two fathers who try to trick their children into falling in love, but the children discover the plot and go individually out into the world.
With a small cast and a small orchestra, the show is produced hundreds of times every year in countries around the world.
Theatre Convivio's production of "The Fantasticks" will feature a live pianist and harpist. Heller will play El Gallo, the narrator. The production will also see the return of David Dials, a popular local actor, as Henry. Peter Quince will play Huckleby, Douglas Young will play Bellomy, and the kids will be played by Jordan Lawhorn and Iris Young.
The show's best-known song is "Try to Remember." It's also known for "Rape Ballet," a song that became somewhat controversial. The character El Gallo refers to a staged kidnapping as a "rape" in the word's original sense of an abduction, but the word sparked concerns, and in 1990 the authors wrote an optional replacement called "Abductions" to the music of the "Rape Ballet." Heller says Convivio will go with a hybrid version.
"We're using most of the rape song, but we're using the word abduction," he says.
Heller, 59, of Talent, has more than 30 years in the theater, much of it in community theater in Sonoma County and Sebastopol, Calif. He has acted, written and directed, and he has taught children's theater. He's worked in Oregon with Stardust Repertory Theatre, Rogue Music Theatre, Oregon Stage Works and Camelot Theatre. He earned a theater degree from Southern Oregon University in 2012.
Convivio's technical director is Gabriel Ash. Douglas Young is associate producer.
Heller says he started talking in October about modifying the space for a new theater with officers of the Grange, of which he is the steward, whose duties include maintaining the building.
"It's just this jewel-like space," he says.
Is there a conflict of interest in representing both the Grange and the theater company?
"I hope not," he says, explaining that he could be overruled at the Grange.
"The steward has a voice in who uses the space, but the majority rules. Everybody's vote counts the same."
He says the group plans to produce director Evalyn Hansen's adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" for the holidays and "Love Letters," with actor Jon Cypher, the former "Hill Street Blues" star with a long resume on Broadway and in Hollywood, in 2014.
The theater's name comes from a word applied to the Buenos Aires theater scene in Argentina. Heller says the company stresses the idea of the "pure here and now" of live theater.
Theatre Convivio will seat about 100. Heller says a new touch will be to add vintage seat cushions that were stored at the Grange to soften the folding chairs that will provide most of the seating. For more, see www.facebook.com/theatreconvivio.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.