25th Mad River Festival

25th Mad River Festival

How It All Got Started

Joan Schirle

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Blue Lake’s Dell’Arte International has been called “The artistic gem of Humboldt County,” bringing original entertainment to local, national and international audiences for 40 years! As one of a handful of rural, professional ensemble theatres in the United States, Dell’Arte is internationally recognized for its unique contribution to American theatre and is proud to call Humboldt home!

2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Dell’Arte’s annual summer Mad River Festival, which began as a festival of local, community-made plays and grew over time to include international companies like Brazil’s Lume Teatro, popular favorites like Los Payasos Mendigos, as well as Dell’Arte’s signature ‘theatre of place’ original productions.


The Mad River Festival was first conceived by Dell’Arte’s co-founder, Jane Hill, who in 1989 staged Barry Manilow’s The Drunkard, based on the world-famous melodrama by W.H.S. Smith. Singer-songwriter Manilow used audience participation to spoof 19th-century melodrama in this rollicking version. The show transported audiences to an infinitely less subtle day in this deliciously coy and exaggerated musical. It was performed on the original outdoor stage, funded by a donation from the Rooney family. It was hand-built by the actors and technicians of the Dell’Arte Company who, under the direction of actor Donald Forrest, poured piers, nailed planks, and re-graded the backyard with recycled concrete to allow for more visibility for the audience.

In 1991, Hill figured if one melodrama was popular, maybe more would be merrier. So she proposed a festival of original melodramas based on local history, created by local communities and with assistance from Dell’Arte artists via acting and writing workshops. Willow Creek developed The Poison Oak Club, about the failed attempts of the FBI to infiltrate a supposed local ‘communist cell.’ Redway contributed a play by local author Ray Raphael about the founder of the State of California: Floundering Father—and Mother Too! An Evening with John and Jessie Fremont, with actors from Redway’s Pure Schmint Players, directed by Hill. “A cause for celebration … a wickedly clever script”

                    – Eureka Times-Standard


In 1992 the Dell’Arte Company wrote its first Humboldt soap opera, Korbel, about a fictional town where the decline of the timber industry has brought hard times and family drama to the Dugans of Korbel—the brothers, Tommy and Terry, and their mother, Dorothy. When presented at the 1993 MRF, Korbel: The Funeral was an instant hit. The family’s downturns echoed the region’s economic decline–from jobs lost through mill closings to their inability to pay the electric bill—familiar enough to local audiences that they not only laughed at the comic Dugans but empathized with their plight. The Dugan family of Korbel achieved iconic status through another four episodes—The Wedding  (1995), The Birth (1996), The Accident (2008), and 2014’s The Secret, by Lauren Wilson.

The Korbel series typifies Dell’Arte’s pioneering approach to ‘theatre of place’—“which means plays about and for the community where you live,” explained Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle. Dell’Arte has been producing such work since its first eco-thriller and touring success, Intrigue At Ah-Pah. The MRF became the primary place for the company to develop its original local plays, like Wild Card (2002) and Wild Card 1.5 (2003) by Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields, imagining the possible impacts of the casino then under construction on the Blue Lake Rancheria. Another example was Schirle’s script for Shotgun Wedding (2000)– a Moliere one-act updated to Korbel with Fields’ character Tommy Dugan stuck in the middle of a nest of local politicians, sidewalk philosophers, and a family of rural con-artists. Continued Schirle, “Our summer festival evolved to become a place where we could hold up a mirror to our own community and our own lives here, and create plays that had bigger casts and a different local bent than our touring work.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


It was the Dell’Arte Company’s international touring work that brought to their attention some ensembles they thought would delight Humboldt audiences. In 2000 the Festival presented the American debut of Brazil’s Lume Teatro, in both a lively street show and a virtuoso clown show, Cravo, Liria y Rosa (Carnations, Lilies & Roses). Ensembles from Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and Australia have also been presented at the MRF, as well as many repeat performances by those ‘Spaniards in Spandex,’ the hilarious Los Payasos Mendigos. Members of this comic acro quartet—all Americans– began as local favorites (three were graduates of Dell’Arte School) and parlayed their popularity into two international tours. For the ‘94 MRF, they even presided over a mortgage-burning party for Dell’Arte’s Odd Fellows building; for another they created an ambitious comic version of Don Quixote.

Mad River Festival audiences love comedy and it has never been in short supply. Through 25 years the popularity of clown and vaudeville has produced some zany revues plus wild treatments of great classic comedies like Moliere’s Tartuffe, Goldoni’s The Coffee House, and Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors in 2013.


The initial seasons of the MRF comprised mainly outdoor work, and audiences loved the open space of Rooney Amphitheatre, spreading their blankets or camp chairs on the ground and enjoying picnics or Dell’Arte’s food concession and full bar. When surveyed, audiences overwhelmingly voiced their preference for the grass seating, instead of the original plan that called for Greek theatre-style bench seating. In 2014, the amphitheatre was expanded to double its grassy area and a big-top tent was purchased to add yet another venue to the expanding festival.

Over a decade ago, indoor shows became part of the MRF, which allowed for dramatic, more intimate productions, as well as the annual sell-out Red Light in Blue Lake late-night adult cabaret, featuring local musicians, Dell’Arte Company actors, alumni, and sometimes local burlesque troupes. In partnership with the City of Blue Lake’s Annie & Mary Day celebration, Dell’Arte staged several “Blue Lake Pageants” that included a parade and spectacle traveling from Perigot Park to the street in front of the Odd Fellows building.  A continuing MRF partner is the Humboldt Folklife Society, which has held its annual one-week festival in Dell’Arte’s backyard since 2004.


TThis year’s 25th anniversary festival is a true celebration of the festival’s commitment to bring one-of-a-kind performances from ‘around the world and down the block’ to the sunny city of Blue Lake. The 2015 MRF offers a multitude of performances including original Dell’Arte Company work, a week of international theatre, a family big-top series, an experimental theatrical laboratory, a saucy late night cabaret, a week of local music with the Humboldt Folklife festival, and more. Dell’Arte International continues to present the work of talented alumni from around the world, aided by a fellowship from the family of late alumna Nancy Jacobs Lafrenz.

MRF PageantThe 2015  Mad River Festival begins up in smoke with The Dell’Arte Company’s original fan-favorite Mary Jane: The Musical III. The Queen of the Emerald Ball and first generation grower Mary Jane, played by Dell’Arte’s Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle, is back blazing up the stage along with a cast of 14 singers, actors and musicians. MJM III runs June 18 –July 5        The original MJM, developed and directed by festival producer Fields, premiered in 2011 to sold-out crowds, quickly becoming Dell’Arte’s hottest selling and highest-grossing show on record. Due to popular demand, the Prima Donna a la Ganja and superstars of sativa lit up a reprise in 2012 with Mary Jane the Musical II: The Diva Returns. Now that Humboldt’s cannabis culture is more visible than ever and states’ debates on legalization are national news, Mary Jane is back to light up the current scene, with original songs from a dozen local composers.  MJM is a unique musical event, part concert, part show, and reflects the broad spectrum of our community’s attitudes, beliefs, fears, hopes and dreams about the herb.

“Around the World Week: International Performances” welcomes talent from Japan to San Francisco in a 7-day performance extravaganza featuring family shows, musical shows, readings and tent shows. In addition to marking the Mad River Festival’s 25th year, 2015 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. July 5 – 11 is homecoming week for DAI alumni, former staff, and faculty, with a grand reunion celebration with performances, workshops and reflections back on the years. DAI will be releasing a limited number of tickets to the public for several July 6 -11 shows.  Check www.dellarte.com for a full roster of events, including the Red Light adult cabaret, family shows, and the week of music from the Humboldt Folklife Festival.


The Mad River Festival would never have been possible without the Blue Lake community plus generous support from local businesses, among them Pierson Building Center, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Wildberries Marketplace, Stephany Joy of RE/MAX Reality, KIEM TV and many, many others. A list of 2015 festival sponsors can be found at www.dellarte.com  The MRF is also supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council.

June 18 – July 19.

Tickets online or at our Box Office: (707) 668-5663 x 20.

See you at the 25th!

Emerald contributor since March 2012


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