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31 July 2005

My latest feature article traced the history of Acme Theatre Company.  I love the article, so I'm going to reprint it here.  Writing this article was a labor of could easily have been twice as long.

Acme Theater Company celebrates its 25th anniversary with the appropriately-named "Once in a Lifetime," by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. This comedy deals with the early years of the motion picture industry, but the title couldn’t be more appropriate for Acme’s milestone anniversary.

Acme Theater Company, Davis’ unique, independent, self-sustaining community theater group for young artists of high school age may not be the only one of its kind in the country, but its peers are few and far between.

That Acme exists at all is the result of all the planets and stars being in alignment at the right time--perhaps a once in a lifetime event. Founder Dave Burmester had done a bit of theater in his youth with the Ross Valley Theater and dabbled in theater at the College of Marin, but marriage to wife Libby, establishing a career and raising a family took precedence. By the late 1970s, he was teaching English at Davis High School and had settled into the community.

In 1980 Davis High School drama teacher Evelyn Dewsnup was experiencing family problems and needed to cut back on her duties. Burmester was asked if he would step in to direct the high school fall show. Burmester said he’d love to. "I’d never done anything like that before," he says, "but I said I’d try."

A Thurber Chronicle was a small cast show, just 10 actors and 3 on-stage technicians, but everybody and everything just clicked.

"We sat around at rehearsal and talked about how much fun it would be to do more of this," he recalls. Talks got more serious when Dewsnup returned to her position and by the spring of 1981, the decision had been made to start a young people’s theater separate from the high school.

Naming the fledgling company was the first challenge. The founders emphatically did not want to be "The Teen Theater." Burmester joked that they could be "The Pimple Players," or "Acne Theater." "...and then there just was sort of a moment where there was an epiphany," he remembers. "We crossed out the "N" and put the "M" up there and we became the Acme Theater Company."

Things began to snowball, with the backing of the entire town.. A fund drive, headed by Burmester’s assistant director Kathy Riker, raised $250 from Davis downtown merchants. The Civics Arts Commission offered a special rate at the Veterans Memorial Theater, which normally stood empty during the summertime, and the company produced its first official show, a series of one-act plays under the umbrella title of Bare Stage Blue Jeans ("because we didn’t have any sets and we didn’t have any costumes!") Two performances were given and admission was $1.

Burmester then received a $600 grant from the Civic Arts commission, which allowed them to put on Whose Life is it Anyway? and also to write an original children’s play, The Most Marvelous Machine of Matilda McFuzzle, which toured around to Davis grammar schools. There was a solid foundation in place for the company to continue.

"I have searched the Internet looking for anything like Acme," says Burmester, "and I haven't found anything that quite fits the mold. The few groups that do exist seem to be offshoots of an adult company. Most of these groups are children's theater groups, and most of them seem to have large groups of adults running the show -- building sets, costumes, etc., while the kids get to act. Period."

The goal of Acme has always been to present plays of high literary quality while providing opportunities for young people to learn various acting and technical skills. The choice of the repertory is a combination of a lot of things--Burmester’s desire to do quality literature, "because that’s my profession," and also because they have chosen to do shows that make statements. "It’s not political theater," Burmester assures me.

While not doing political theater per se, Acme has never shied away from controversial subjects. ("I felt it was important to address issues that are important to our community," Burmester explains.)

Water Children, a play about abortion, was a particularly intense experience. "I’ve never spent such a period of time with a group of people and have them go through a really important issue that affects us all in this world right now," Burmester remembered. He held weekly dinner meetings with the cast to discuss the abortion issue from different perspectives. "When we finished the show I don’t think everybody was on the same page, but they sure as heck knew a whole lot more about the issue than they did before. I think the kids who were in that show are much more responsible adults."

Emma's Child dealt with a childless couple arranging to adopt a child from a young pregnant woman. The complication comes when the child is born hydrocephalic, with no real chance to live. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the adoptive mother establishes a bond with the infant which threatens to destroy her marriage. That production was followed two years later with Joined at the Head, which explored the relationship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer.

Burmester was particularly proud of The Laramie Project. "It is an important play, and I was really pleased with the production -- much different from most because it had a huge cast instead of a small cast playing many roles. The candle-light vigil for Matthew Shepard encircled the entire audience. It gives me goose bumps just remembering it."

Acme is run entirely by the young people themselves, under the direction of a small cadre of adult mentors. This is one of the things that has made it so special for those who are involved.

Betsy Raymond, who will graduate from DHS this year ("It’s my last show; I’m feeling a bit wistful.") is the production manager for Once in a Lifetime. She recounted her growth during her years with the company. "When I walked into Acme the first time, I was awed by the fact that I was with a group of people who were my age and they were doing real things. For the first time I was in a group where we had real responsibilities and there weren’t any adults hanging over us making sure we did things right. It was up to us to do it. I felt empowered and it made me determined to do what I could to take full advantage of this opportunity. It gave me a focus that I never would have had otherwise."

Jessica Cox, who was a member in the 1980s, boasts that she is the only member of Acme to ever receive an award as "most valuable member" without ever setting foot on the Acme stage. Jessica spent her time with the company working backstage, doing sets and lights, and then, upon graduation, stayed around to work for awhile as Burmester’s assistant director.

Ned Sykes, who now works as a producer on radio station 93.7 in Sacramento, was another Acme alum who never set foot on stage, and learned early on how to be creative. "We did Shakespeare at the Pence Gallery outdoor theater before they installed permanent lighting bars so we had to build a scaffold tower against the wall of Discoveries. Another time we built a catwalk on the roof of Discoveries. Spending afternoons climbing around the downtown rooftops, hanging lights and running power so people could enjoy an evening of Shakespeare outdoors, was always a satisfying experience."

Jeri Sykes who designs lights for theatres in the Boston area and teaches lighting to high school students, appreciates the trust that is placed in Acme members. "Where I work there's a general assumption that the kids can't handle the production end, so they're never given the chance. I think so often kids never get to develop that sense of responsibility, because everything is done for them. It drives me nuts to watch it, because I know from Acme that kids can do great things if you trust them. After 5 years I've finally started to develop my lighting posse, a bunch of gung-ho 9th graders who will do anything you ask."

For Dara Yazdani, who was home schooled, Acme became his social life. "What was great about it was that they were mature people because they had so many responsibilities. This was a bunch of people I looked up to. I was working with my idols. Acme was my circle of friends, but at the same time this group had a common goal they were always working towards putting on a show." (Yazdani, who will graduate in a year, plans to attend San Francisco State and major in drama.)

"The pride of ownership that students can take in the company, and the fun that they are having, come through in their performances," says Sarah Cohen, a graduate of Acme who has gone on to do professional theater. (Her one-person show, Shakespeare on Request is currently running at the Thistle Dew Theater in Sacramento and will be presented in Davis on August 3, as part of Ghost Light Theater Festival.) "The love of good theater that Acme gave me, and the confidence to attempt it, has stayed with me," Cohen added.

Cohen is one of a number of Acme graduates who continue to work in various fields of theater. Dan Renkin and Paul Shapiro are earning a living in theater in New York; John Taylor is a member of the Blue Man Group in Toronto; Ari Kreith directs and teaches theater in New York; Jeremiah Hill worked with the Mime Troupe; Jim Utz teaches theater in Ithaca, NY. The more Burmester talked, the more names came to mind of people who had gone through the Acme program and continued on in theater.

Our interview was interrupted by Burmester’s cell phone. It was son Tom, calling to report that the play, Kindred," which premiered in Davis last summer, has just been booked into the Ivar Theater in Los Angeles, and that as the director, he will be paid. "It’s your first paying job in theater," the proud papa said. Later he added, "I told him since he was a little kid ‘you don’t want to get involved with theater,’ and now my buttons are busting, I’m so proud of him."

Burmester has much to be proud of, looking back over the past 25 years. "I’ve always felt that a lot of what we do is part of my teaching and I’ve often said that I probably did the best teaching of my career working with these Acme kids."

Betsy Raymond points out that members of Acme defy one stereotypical view of teenagers as incompetent and "flaky." "We’re supposed to be too inexperienced to handle anything big, but here we are. We don’t have the experience but we definitely have the will and determination and we get it done somehow."

It’s hard to tell who has enjoyed this ride more--Burmester or the kids. "I’ve never had so much fun doing anything except being a parent, I don’t think," he glows. "It wouldn’t have been the same if they’d been adults. Maybe they’re not as accomplished as some that you’d see in an adult show, but boy they sure put their heart into it, so you get a little different kind of commitment. That’s what I’ve done all my life."

Whatever he’s done, it has been a formula that has worked for 25 years. Sarah Cohen echoes the sentiments of many of her fellow Acme alums: "The Acme experience is one that truly comes ‘Once in a Lifetime.’"

The article was so long, I never even got to talk about the "Jeri Sykes is God Theatre Company."


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Acme Theatre

USA, 1983.  Jeri's first Acme Show

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