In case you haven’t noticed, Salem is fast becoming a theatre nexus. We’re not talking movies here, but live theatre — the original 3D, existential, onstage kind invented by the Greeks and perfected by a playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon and on Broadway’s stages.

Fourteen local theatre companies, venues and supporters comprise the growing Salem Theatre Network, led by the Pimpernel himself, Jay Gipson King (disclosure: King also writes theatre reviews for Salem Weekly). That’s remarkable, because just a few years ago, there were only a handful of active theatre companies here in the Cherry City area and longtime residents know others that have come and gone.

King’s dream? A bustling Salem theatre district offering a wide variety of plays and performances appealing to everyone from seasoned theatre junkies and students to families with kids.

That dream comes alive the weekend of March 17-19 in a few blocks of downtown Salem’s core, when the Salem Theatre Network presents the Cherry Blossom Theatre Festival, running concurrently with the annual celebration of spring blossoms at the Oregon State Capitol and its surrounding park. The theatre festival offers a chance to see a wide variety of shows and attend theatre workshops at a deep discount by purchasing an all-access festival pass. Single tickets to performances are available, too.

A huge undertaking on a short timeline

The Cherry Blossom Theatre Festival is the first of its kind in Salem, and it’s a huge undertaking, said King. It features 20 live performances and five acting workshops spread across six venues.

“The long-term goal is to turn this into an annual event, to bring in new audiences from out of town and to make this a major Salem event — another World Beat, another Salem Art Fair,” King said. “For the Salem Theatre Network, this is a way for us to pull together and put on a citywide event that none of us could do on our own.”

“The challenge is we’ve had a very short timeline. We only started organizing this about six months out, which is not a lot of time for an event like this,” he added.

King is working closely with The Elsinore Theatre operations manager Stephen Munshaw, Pentacle Theatre executive director Lisa Joyce and Enlightened Theatrics founder Vincenzo Meduri and his marketing director Carlos Barata to organize the festival, book play performances and venues, hire workshop instructors, market and sell tickets, and find sponsors willing to support a weekend of theatrical joy. “It’s a lot of work — more than I expected when I signed on,” said King. And he’s having a blast doing it.

It all started with the one-act plays festival

At the center of it all is what first gave King and the 14 Salem Theatre Network members the idea of organizing a weekend theatrical extravaganza: The American Association of Community Theatres One-Act Festival.

The one-act competition is sponsored by the Oregon Community Theatre Alliance, a consortium of 21 member theatres from throughout the state. Now part of the larger Cherry Blossom Festival, the competition happens Saturday, March 18, at the Grand Theater, home to the semi-professional Enlightened Theatrics. This year, three community theatre companies will compete.

McMinnville’s Gallery Theater will present Tell Me Another Story, Sing Me A Song. “It shows the various stages of mother daughter relationships from youth to maturity and old age,” said director Carolyn McCloskey, who also leads the Oregon Community Theatre Alliance. The play is set on a simple stage with large blocks the actors use and move to enhance the storytelling and illustrate how their relationship changes over time.

Beaverton Civic Theatre will perform a condensed version of The Addams Family: A New Musical, based on the popular TV series. “They do something like this every year,” McCloskey said. It’s going to be fun to see how BCT crams a nearly three-hour musical into an hour-long, one-act version.

Salem’s Pentacle Theatre will stage revered American dramatist Edward Albee’s first play, A Zoo Story. This is the first one-act festival competition for director Jo Dodge. She’s been acting, directing and teaching theatre in Salem since the 1980s, with about 40 shows and special productions to her credit. Dodge has also taught hundreds of Saturday morning theatre classes, first at Chemeketa Community College and now at Pentacle, for both beginning and experienced actors. “A Zoo Story is a wonderful, challenging piece, about two characters and their relationship as it grows through the play,” Dodge said. “It’s all about the play, not about competing,” Dodge added. “We’re approaching it as we would any other production. You direct and act in it as if it were going to open on Broadway or at Pentacle. As far as the judging goes, whatever happens, happens.”

Retired Lindfield College professor Tom Gessler is one of three judges who will score the one-act plays. “Authenticity is the key” to a winning entry, Gessler says. “Too many amateur actors are afraid to be emotionally naked on stage. They’re not really committing themselves to their role,” he said. “These actors, if they’re going to be good, have to be emotionally naked. They have to just do it, go for it.” Gessler will also teach one of the festival weekend workshops, “Directing with Actors.”

It’s a tough competition with a strict time limit. Each one-act play can be no more than 60 minutes long, or it’s disqualified. The winning production will represent Oregon at the regional AACTOneActFest held in Boise, Idaho, March 31-April 1.

“The Oregon Community Theatre Alliance sponsored our first one-act festival in 2003,” said McCloskey. With a few exceptions, the alliance has held an annual one-act play competition, with the venue shifting among its member community theatres.

“This is our seventh statewide one-act festival, and we’ve hosted the regionals in Oregon twice,” McCloskey added. But it’s the first year the Oregon AACTOneActFest will be held along with added theatre events and workshops, she said.

Elsewhere on the festival stages March 17-19

In addition to the one-act plays, there’s a wide variety of other live performances and workshops happening throughout the Cherry Blossom Festival weekend.

Capitol City Theatre, a couple blocks southwest of The Grand, will host a morning performance on March 18 of Silverton’s Brush Creek Playhouse family-friendly show, The Further MISadventures of the Seven Dwarfs. That’s followed by a late-afternoon staging of an Aumsville Community Theatre comedy, Mafia Murders. Between these two shows is another family-friendly production, the Laugh Out Loud Project, featuring humorous short stories and music.

Grownups can catch evening improv shows and late-night standup comedy at Capitol City Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights, March 17-18.

Also on March 17-18, Keizer Homegrown Theatre presents a staged reading of Yazmina Reza’s smart comedy, Art, which asks: How much would you pay for a white painting, and is it really worth two friendships? That happens at the Salem Multicultural Institute Gallery in the Reed Opera House, Salem’s historic first home to popular, citywide live performances. Art also comes full-circle at the Reed. It was first performed here by the professional Salem Reparatory Theatre, which, sadly, closed its doors in 2009 after a six-year struggle to attract sustainable funding and audiences.

Willamette University’s Putnam Theatre, across the street from the Oregon Capitol on State Street, is hosting The Real, a one-woman show written and performed by Leslie Grasa. The Real is a futuristic tale of a woman who takes part in a genetic experiment, kidnaps her cloned baby and goes into hiding. The play runs March 18 and 19. Grasa will be visiting her native Oregon from Boulder, Colorado, where she recently completed her Master’s in contemporary performance. She will also teach an actor’s workshop called “Your Body On Stage.”

Premium festival attractions

There are two additional premium attractions offered at a discount price for festival pass holders.

The Historic Elsinore Theatre will present Shakespeare in the Castle, featuring three of the Bard’s classic plays staged in the theatre’s Gothic lobby. Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Company will perform condensed versions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream the evenings of March 17 and 18, and a full-length version of Comedy of Errors in a matinee on March 19. Admission includes an antipasto bar and beverage of your choice, with the performance taking place around the audience. Cost is $20 with a festival pass or $25 without. 

Pentacle Theatre offers festival passholders a $10 discount on tickets to see Emma’s Child, a contemporary drama about a woman’s attachment to the child she had hoped to adopt. It was originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Emma’s Child is directed by Joe Silva and performed at the Pentacle Theatre’s playhouse off the Salem-Dallas Highway about six miles west of downtown.

Weekend Actor’s Workshops

Theatre students and actors of all stripes can attend a variety of Cherry Blossom Theatre Festival workshops during the weekend. The workshops are included with a festival pass, and students have first priority for the sessions. The workshops will be taught by the three one-act judges and two professional actors.

Adjudicator Amanda Cole will teach “Beginning with Nothing: Tools for Devised Performance.” This workshop “Explores the early development of devised theatre performance,” says Cole. She will cover a series of physical exercises leading to a short student performance at the end of the session.

Tom Gressler will teach a “Directing with Actors” workshop, focusing on play selection, finding the story and working with actors. He’s also on the three-judge panel.

Nate Cohen, the third panelist, will teach “Standing Out from the Crowd: The Art of Nailing a Mass Audition.” Cohen’s workshop focuses on teaching actors what people on the other side of the table are looking for and building skills on how to give it to them.

Salem actor Kate Thompson will teach “Ace Your Audition” for actors in community theatre and high school productions.

Prodigal actor Leslie Grasa returns to Oregon to teach a workshop called “Your Body on Stage.” It’s an introduction to movement for all levels of performers, Grasa said. “So often, Western performance moves from the mind; it’s a very thinking process,” Grasa said. “This work does the opposite. It starts with the body, which informs and creates the character from that space.” Grasa also appears in a one-woman festival show, The Real, at the Putnam Theatre at Willamette University.

How to buy passes and tickets

Visit the Salem Theatre Network website at SalemTheatreNetwork.org, or its Facebook page. You can also buy passes and tickets at the Pentacle Theatre downtown ticket office, 145 Liberty St. NE, or by calling 503-485-4300. Buying an All-Access Pass is your best bet.

• All-Access Pass, Adult (VIP): $45.00*

• All-Access Pass, Senior (VIP): $40.00*

*VIP Pass includes wine and beer tasting (ID required) at participating venues on Friday and Saturday, and special discounts for downtown dining and shopping.

• All-Access Pass, Adult (General): $35.00

• All-Access Pass, Senior (General): $30.00

• All-Access Pass, Youth/Student: $25.00

• Per Event, At Door: $10.00

General Admission Seating. No Reserved Seats: Guests will be seated on first-come, first-serve basis. Seating is limited at certain venues (Capital City Theatre and Putnam Theatre), so get there early.