Into the Woods

An outdoor theatre in a lovely storybook setting is much closer than most people know.

Director Roger Westberg stood at stage right, intently watching his actors perform The Wizard of Oz at Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater. He heard a sudden thumping noise. Looking around, he finally spotted a frantic rabbit running for dear life along the trail. It rounded the concession stand and hopped onstage, dashing right through the scene in the middle of a song. The rabbit was fleeing from a hungry mink.

“The mink followed the rabbit across the stage and off the other side,” Westberg said. “The rabbit ran up the trail and disappeared, the undulating body of the mink right behind it.”

After the performance ended, Westberg asked the actors and the audience if they had seen the unscripted hunting scene. Practically nobody had noticed. That concentration by actors and audience, Westberg says, testifies to the riveting quality of productions staged each summer in the open-air amphitheater eleven miles from downtown Bellevue between Fall City and Snoqualmie Falls.

Forest Theater celebrates its forty-third season this summer with South Pacific, which happens to be the hottest show in America right now, thanks to Seattle director Bart Sher’s New York revival. In a venue more verdant than any on Broadway, the local production of the show runs each weekend from July 19 to August 31 with an acclaimed local cast that includes Seattle’s Jenny McMurry, Puyallup’s Vince Wingerter, and Paul Linnes of Renton.

Forest Theater shows are a cut above typical community theater. Westberg has been directing them for more than two decades, paying a wage well above the norm. And the setting is a show in itself. The grounds include ninety-five acres of meadow, trees and trails. The venue is a two-to-three-minute hike from the free parking area, with a free shuttle. Nestled in a hillside, the amphitheater is filled with dappled sunlight filtered through the towering firs. The evergreens provide welcome shade at hot afternoon matinees; on clear nights, stars twinkle overhead. The rows of benches are raked so that there isn’t a bad view in the 220-seat house.

After the matinees, the scent of barbecued food entices playgoers to the picnic shelter. On weekends, guest chefs from eminent Northwest restaurants volunteer their time to create specialty sauces and help with the grilling.  “We’re not a dinner theatre in that you don’t watch the show while you eat,” says Westberg. It’s more that the guest chefs constitute a second show all their own.

The theatre started out around 1959 with the Easter tableaux and passion plays of the Fall City United Methodist Church Christian Players. Forest Theater board president Larry Shaw met his wife, Cheri Higley, at a party at the theatre. Cheri’s grandmother had been one of the Christian Players, and Cheri remembers being cast to sit in Jesus’s lap in plays in the late ’60s.

The religious plays have long since disappeared from the playbill. Since it opened four decades ago, the theatre has staged everything from comedy to musical theatre to Shakespeare. Says Shaw, “Our big emphasis is to make the theatre family friendly. We want to encourage families with kids to come enjoy the park and the setting.” It’s the kind of setting where, when Maria in The Sound of Music observes that the hills are alive, kids and adults in the audience are welcome to sing along and make the hills livelier still. “We encourage that,” says Shaw. “We want the community involved in this unique theatre experience.”

Annual membership costs $75, but you’re paying for more than a summer season of shows. You’re supporting performing arts and the preservation of a forest containing a recently restored salmon stream and no RVs whatsoever. Members get year-round access to hiking trails, a sandy beach on the Snoqualmie River and Christmas tree hunts and wreath-making parties in winter.

Westberg first worked at the theatre in the ’70s, left for grad school, and came back to a place in disarray. Bills were soaring, quality plummeting, board members dying off. “It wasn’t good,” Westberg says. “Actually, I went, oh my god, what happened? I went to the board and said, if you don’t want this to become condominiums or a shopping mall, you’re going to have to do something.”

Competition was heating up. “When I first got involved, there were just a small number of theatres in the area,” Westberg says. “Now there are, what, five hundred, in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties?”

So the Forest Theater had to find family plays that would pack in the crowds. Shakespeare had been a mainstay, but suddenly there were five or six companies giving Shakespeare shows in area parks. “They were free shows,” Westberg says. “We couldn’t compete with that.”

Musicals, he said, can be the moneymakers that keep theatres afloat. But if a bigtime production company decides to take a popular musical on national tour, local theatres that may already be in rehearsals for the same show will suddenly have the rights yanked. “It happened to a theatre in Oregon three or four years ago — we had talked about doing Annie that summer but were able to change.” This summer’s South Pacific could have gone either way. A new production had a successful run at the Kennedy Center. The producers could have taken it on national tour. Sher inadvertently saved the Forest Theater’s production by staging it on Broadway, scuttling the national tour. “We’re lucky this time,” Westberg says. “But who knew?”

Besides all the things that can go wrong in any theatre, Westberg faces unique risks: minks with rabbit murder on their minds, rain two weekends in a row. Yet there are magical moments when everything clicks. “Every once in a while you’ll have a dream cast,” Westberg said. “The last time we did Annie, the seven children in the play bonded so much they still see one another and have sleepovers.”

Given the camping rights that go with a Forest Theater membership, the entire community is eligible for sleepovers in the vicinity. Westberg is determined to swell his vast cast of participatory playgoers. “People who live on the Eastside will come up to me after a show and say they had no idea the theatre was here. After forty-three years, that’s not right,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do to get people out here.”

Story by Sherry Grindeland. Photo by Lauren Hartman.