Catchier title: Behold This Dreamer or Nude with Pineapple? For the members of the Conejo Players Theater, it is the latter. It is as true today as it was 50 years ago, when founder Dwight Hauser chose the play as the group’s inaugural production and decided to switch its original name — the former — to the more provocative one evoking images of fruit and nakedness, even though neither factor into the story itself. As far as director Marjorie Berg is aware, Conejo Players is the only theater collective in the country to alter the title. And as such, they’re keeping it for the company’s upcoming Golden Anniversary production of the 1927 comedy about a social outcast who discovers a love of art after being thrown into a mental institution.
“It deals with a young man who is a dreamer, and the name it was published under was Behold This Dreamer,” Berg says. “But the founder decided it didn’t have enough punch, so he changed to Nude with Pineapple, the subject of one of the pictures the young man is drawing.”
“Dreamer” — a phrase that could apply to the five couples that, at a dinner party in 1957, came to the conclusion that what the growing community of Thousand Oaks needed was its own theater. Collecting $50 among them, the group debuted Nude with Pineapple inside a 75-capacity barn on Skyline Drive. Seven years later, with the help of the Janss Corporation, the investment firm developing the Conejo Valley at the time, the Players built and moved into the theater in which they still reside, at 351 S. Moorpark Road. In 1974, the company finally paid off the $18,000 noninterest loan it took out to get the place constructed; according to 35-year Players member, current executive director and resident historian Dick Johnson, Florence Janss herself showed up to collect the final payment, and afterward the group had a “mortgage burning party.” Improvements have been made over the decades — seating is up to 185, an orchestra pit was installed in 2000; and, perhaps most importantly, the restrooms have been expanded (“Sometimes, we couldn’t start Act 2 on time because the line to the ladies room would be filling up the lobby,” Johnson says) — and notable future stars, such as Kurt Russell and Amanda Bynes, have performed on their stage, but the theater still maintains the independent, “let’s put on a show” attitude that launched the company half a century ago.
Actually, make that two shows. In addition to the main stage productions, the Players also simultaneously produce afternoon performances aimed at children. Running along with Nude with Pineapple through April and May is Agatha Christie Takes Manhattan, a whodunit featuring the famed titular mystery writer as the director of a Broadway play. Working two plays at the same time in such a small area requires some ingenuity: the set for Nude with Pineapple, for example, sits off stage, with side painted black to represent the empty theater that serves as the setting for Agatha Christie, says Johnson, who designed the sets.
“It’s one of those things where we all roll up our sleeves, dig in and do whatever it takes to get the production done,” says Deidre Parmenter, the theater’s business adviser who, in her five years with the company, has also served as an actress, producer, director and, with Agatha Christie, stage manager.
But putting on two plays at once does present more difficult problems, namely rehearsal space. “One thing we’ve needed from day one is a rehearsal hall,” Johnson says. “We rehearse in hallways, in the lobby, on the front porch — anywhere and everywhere we can get people who hear each other, look at each other and memorize lines. A rehearsal hall is needed on the premise that it would help tremendously for the amount of shows we do.”
So as the Players ready to start its 51st year, the group is launching another fundraising effort, this time to get that rehearsal hall built. It is the natural continuation of a 50-year-old dream, one that, no matter how much the area changes, is crucial to the county art scene.
“It’s so valuable, it’s hard to speak to,” Berg says. “It gives very young people the opportunity to do something, to explore their abilities, their talents, their needs and their desires. It teaches discipline, patience, responsibility and teamwork, because you can’t do this by yourself. For a young person that’s the most important thing to learn and know about. And it doesn’t cost anything to become involved and make friends and offer this to the rest of the community.”
Adds Johnson, “It’s why we’ve been here 50 years, and why we’ll continue to be here another 50 years.”
Nude with Pineapple opens April 19 and runs through May 10 at the Conejo Players Theater (351 S. Moorpark Rd., Thousand Oaks, 495-3715). For show times, visit www.conejoplayers.org.