As fires burn and crises bubble, a tiny theater in a speck of a California town rekindles joy

Haley Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

“Our life away from life,” Estes cut in, satisfied as he found the perfect line.

The all-volunteer theater began in 1974. Shows take place in the outdoor amphitheater and, across the street, the Cobblestone Theatre built in 1856. With just 35 chairs, it is reputedly the smallest fixed-seat theater in California.

“We’re such a small county, and we don’t have a massive amount of art,” said Savannah Mulderrig, a 32-year-old actress. “It’s just important for people to experience live theater. If you don’t go here, you’re going to Sacramento.”

Mulderrig — whose bio in the “Hay Fever” program says she was “born in a car right up the road in Pioneer” — was acting in her first production for the Volcano Theatre Company.

She had tried out there in January 2020 and started rehearsals. The set was built. Her lines were memorized. The show never happened.

This year, “you don’t know, day to day, whether there’s going to be a big outbreak of the delta variant or if the smoke and the air is going to be OK,” she said as she powdered her face on a picnic table near the stage. “You’re just waiting, hour to hour, wondering, ‘What’s the call going to be?’ So it’s — exciting?”


As he waited to get his stage makeup done, James Dove, a blue-eyed thespian nicknamed Stud by his castmates, said opening night was like a return to normality.

Dove, 41, of Sutter Creek, owns a house cleaning company, which saw its work cut in half during the pandemic because people did not want outsiders in their homes. He could barely keep his employees paid, and he took a second job as an assistant manager at a pizza restaurant in Jackson.

Eventually, people realized their houses wouldn’t clean themselves and called his cleaners back. There’s so much work now that he couldn’t keep the second job.

But without the theater, Dove was going stir-crazy.


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