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New direction

Oakhurst’s Golden Chain Theatre, now in it’s 48th year of operation, is in the midst of a reinventing itself - a revival of sorts. The change of direction didn’t happen overnight - it’s been simmering for a couple years but seems to have come to a creative boiling point this season.

This season’s eight productions are offering the largest variety of productions ever presented at the Golden Chain. The season has gotten off to a great start with a dinner-theater murder mystery (“Murderous Crossing”), a high-energy musical (“Godspell”), and a powerful and moving drama (“The Wardrobe”).

Peter Clarke is the current president of the theater’s board of directors, following long time GCT board member Mary Lou Finley.

“I wanted to get on the board to make some changes,” Clarke said. “Mary Lou saved the theater by stepping forward and keeping the Golden Chain going several years ago when a board president stepped-down. She believed in the the Golden Chain and helped keep it together during a little shaky transition period when conflicts between various factions in the theater threatened to tear it apart.”

Clarke said that based on feedback cards provided to audiences the past year and a half, it was clear that the community wanted a change.

“They still enjoy melodrama, but they expressed the desire to see a larger variety of shows,” Clarke said. “We heard the people loud and clear, and this season we are providing the diversity the community has asked for.”

Clarke said the board will continue to honor the legacy of the Golden Chain by performing a melodrama, and continuing the mini-melodramas that are performed throughout the community.

“But we are now taking some risks that were never attempted before, and they have been well received by our audiences.”

Finley has been a part of the GCT since the 1980s, performing on stage and as a board member for nearly 20 years.

“I think the changes at the Golden Chain are fabulous,” Finley said. “We are getting some new blood ... talented younger actors with plenty of energy - just what we needed, and the audiences are loving this year’s productions. I can’t thank the board members enough who have helped maneuver the theater forward.”

Clarke, who acted through high school and college, said “Harvey” two years ago was part of the beginning of the transformation at the Golden Chain, and the transformation took a big leap with Jennifer Piccolotti’s musical, “I Can’t Believe That Didn’t Win a Tony.”

According to Clarke, there was some resistance to doing musicals at first, but after a couple of them, it was obvious people loved them.

“The musicals were also bringing record-breaking crowds, and increased revenue to the theater,” Clarke said.

The GCT has seen an influx of new people in recent years including Artistic Director Piccolotti, her daughter Lyric, another mother-daughter team Sarah and Amber Persson, James Mierkey, Jennifer Varnor, George and Melinda Rich, Al Joyal, and Stephanie Brock, and others who have been raising the bar to the delight of audiences.

Piccolotti brought a wealth of experience with her when she moved to Oakhurst from Bakersfield where she performed in many productions including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sweet Charity,” and “Cats.” She was also the director of the Stars School of Performing Arts, directing children’s classes and summer workshops for the Bakersfield Music Theater.

Her first leap onto the Golden Chain stage came in 2011’s “Wild West Women,” playing Calamity Jane, Cynthia Parker. She played Liz Stride in “Jack the Ripper,” and directed “Madams Been Murdered, Tea will be Late.” She then directed and acted in “I Can’ Believe That Didn’t Win a Tony,” the fast-paced musical review.

She was just warming up - Piccolotti then co-authored, co-directed, and acted in “Tin Pan Alley,” followed by acting and co-directing in “Willie Wonka the Musical,” “Godspell,” and her moving performance in the recent production “The Wardrobe.”

Her daughter Lyric, a senior at Minarets High School, first appeared on the GCT stage in “Wild West Women,” followed by “I Can’t Believe That Didn’t Win A Tony.” She shined in the lead role in “Willie Wonka,” and was part of the ensemble players in “Godspell.” She left no doubts about her dramatic strength, amazing audiences with her ability far beyond her years in “The Wardrobe.”

Sarah Persson first came to the GCT with her daughter in 2010.

“I actually don’t have an acting background,” Persson said. “I got involved when I enrolled my daughter Amber in Patti Law dance classes. Amber wanted to be in shows, and I began helping Patti behind the scenes with costumes and props.”

Persson, who also serves on the GCT board, has been performing and directing shows for the past two years. She was the assistant director for Jack the Ripper, and ended up filling in for an actress who wasn’t able to make one of the shows. She ended up playing the part of Annie for six shows. She also had a minor part in “The Ladies of Tin Pan Alley.”

But it was her dramatic leading role as Kate, the mother of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” opposite her daughter playing a young Keller, followed by her lead role as Bella in “Angel Street,” that brought her critical acclaim for her talent.

“I found that I loved acting, something I never ever thought about doing prior to my involvement with the Golden Chain,” Persson said. “I’ve been learning as I go, and found that I have a talent for it. It all started with my daughter’s passion for the theater, and now that’s something we share.”

Amber, 14, shared the 2014 Best Actress award for her strong performance in “The Miracle Worker,” while Sarah captured the Best Supporting Actress award for 2014 for her work in the same production.

Jennifer Piccolotti said Mierkey first came to GCT after two years of her begging him.

“We finally got him to commit to being a vocalist in the “Tony Show,” but when I saw how extensive his musical talent was I quickly roped him in to co-direct and write “The Ladies of Tin Pan Alley” with me. We have been working together ever since.”

Having written his first musical composition at the age of seven, and wrote and directed his first musical at 15, Mierkey is no stranger to the dramatic arts. His creative touch with music, multi-media, and technical support, will be an asset to almost every production this season.

Mierkey played the role of Jesus in “Godspell,” and directed “The Wardrobe.”

Another fairly new face on the Golden Stage is Jennifer Varner, who acted in grammar, middle, high school, and college. Her family moved to the area eight years ago, and she always had in the back of her mind the thought of returning to a community theater stage.

“When we moved up to this mountain community eight years ago, I immediately was drawn to audition for productions that were being directed by Heather Sconce, and performed at our family’s church, Sierra Pines Church,” Varner said.

Varner explained that she first became involved with Golden Chain Theatre when Jennifer (Piccolotti) was directing the musical debut “I Can’t Believe That Didn’t Win a Tony.”

“I came one night to watch Heather Sconce audition for the musical with no intention of auditioning myself,” Varner said. “Watching Heather audition for a musical put the ‘bug’ in me to come back and audition the next day. Jennifer was so warm, welcoming, and open to having me in her production. It was a wonderful experience and I looked forward to the next production.”

Varner’s credits include “Harvey,” playing the role of Veta which earned her the 2013 GCT Best Actress in a Lead Role award.

“That production holds a very special place in my heart being able to perform with my father and daughter (Karah Varner, Ken Ryder) on stage,” Varner said. “Three generations on stage at one time is pretty special.”

Her directorial debut is Friday, with the opening of the comical melodrama “Bertha the Beautiful Typewriter Girl.”

“Community theater is extremely important to any town, although most are struggling these days,” Clarke said. “Demographics, taste and times change over the years - these days theaters really have to think what they need to do to survive - We are striving to make it happen. some of the new people who have brought their talents to the Golden Chain have been instrumental in making the transition happen.”

Piccolotti served as president of the GCT board for a short time, but quickly realized her talents and abilities would be best used when she was creating, rather that facilitating meetings. In the Fall of 2014, the board asked her to serve as artistic director of GCT, responsible for conceiving, developing, and implementing the artistic vision and focus for the GCT.

“The position also includes presenting the upcoming season of shows for the board’s approval, and choosing the directors that would have the vision it takes to make the shows something really special,” Piccolotti said. “ I considered specific shows, weeding-out some due to content or budget. I looked for shows that might make a wonderful date night ... a family friendly experience … or a girls night out. The goal in selecting these new shows for the 2015 season was simple - the community told us that they want variety and quality, and this is what I am committed to delivering.”

Piccolotti said the current board of directors is strong, supportive, like minded and hard working.

“We have people that are dedicated, passionate and positive,” Piccolotti said. “As long as we continue to look forward together, remain open to making improvements and take opportunities to enrich our talents, the Golden Chain will continue to grow into a happy, healthy place of live theatrical entertainment for the community.”

“The one thing has become clear is that the community has embraced the change,” Clarke said.

Clarke said that in addition to the actors, the Golden Chain is fortunate to have people willing and able to take on ‘behind the scenes’ duties such as Varner’s parents, Ken and Janice Ryder (office manager, treasurer, and box office), Ronald Ott (set construction), Ryan Fullmer (technical director), Finley (marketing), and Gerri Barron (bar manager).

The GCT was founded on, and historically known for staging 19th Century melodramas - where audiences are encouraged to boo and hiss the villain, and cheer for the hero. Many fine actors have graced the stage of the Golden Chain over the years, and will not soon be forgotten, including the loveable husband-wife team of Jerry and Loretta Roope, Jerry and Sharla Weddle, Dan Ross, Richard and Candy Hoffman, Roger Clugston, and memorable melodrama villains Buzz Baxter, Nick Goldman, and JR Froelich. The impact they have had on the GCT will not soon be forgotten, but the new wave of talent is bringing some renewed excitement to the all-volunteer theater group.

Clarke spoke to the need for continued support from the community, not only in attendance at shows, but also in financial support for the local arts.

“An area we have neglected is in sponsor and patron support,” Clarke said. “Community theaters normally can’t survive on ticket sales alone. In order to better serve the community with a great range of shows in a great facility, we need other means of revenue to meet operating expenses, to stay on top of necessary building maintenance, and improvements. It takes more than just passionate and creative people to help us grow and improve. We need funds.”

Details: (559) 683-7112.

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