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'Pump Boys and Dinettes'
John Kelleher first saw “Pump Boys and Dinettes” 26 years ago, accompanied by 25 high school students. The play – set at a roadside diner and gas station settled in the middle of two small North Carolinia towns – seemed comical and fun. The story, revolving around four pump boys and two waitresses, had heart in it, he thought.
“[The characters] aren’t really fleshed out, but the music is real,” Kelleher said.
Now, almost three decades later, Kelleher is directing the same play he fell head over heels with. His direction – and acting – will transform Meydenbauer Center Theater into Highway 57’s gas station and diner in Bellevue Civic Theatre’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” July 19-21.
The production, BCT’s last of the 2011-12 season, will leave travelers with full bellies, tanks, music and laughs.
The play, which premiered on Broadway in 1982, stars six actors from the Puget Sound area – including Kelleher.
Kent Phillips grew up in Bellevue with a passion for the arts. As he grew older and watched theater companies come and go, he wanted to bring back entertainment to his hometown.
“[I] remembered the old [Surrey] Playbarn theater,” Phillips said. Bellevue had no theater company in the late 1990s and “the Playbarn had professionals and community actors. I wanted to bring that back.”
Alyson Soma, associate artistic director of BCT, said Phillips thought long and hard about starting a nonprofit theater company.
“I’m sure he had feelers out for years” to make sure the community backed his idea, Soma said.
In order to bring the theater to life, he reached out to other members of the community – including Soma – who were as passionate about the arts as he was.
The company, a non-profit, had a start-up cost of $150,000 and Phillips and the board of directors received grants, donations and public support to cover expenses.
The company opened in 1999, with their first show in the summer of 2000. Today, BCT is the only resident theater company in Bellevue and is finishing its 12th season.
“Many have come and gone in the last decade,” Phillips said. “National tours will come in from time to time but we are also unique in that we are a community theater that mixes in union talent.”
After five years, the board of directors asked whether the theater should become full equity or stay a mix-sized community theater. Soma said the board decided to stay the same because BCT was the only theater of its type in Bellevue: comedic theater employing union and non-union actors.
More changes came when the recession hit in 2008. Ticket sales dropped from 12,000 a season between 2003-2008 to 2,000 people in 2010.
The drop in ticket sales, in combination with the construction of the Bravern, which is adjacent to Meydenbauer Center, almost killed the theater, Phillips said.
He began budgeting by looking at season ticket revenue and dropped the total number of plays per season from five to three. The theater also started sharing shows with other theater companies as another way to cut costs.
BCT has shared productions with Renton Civic Theatre, ACT Theatre in Seattle, Kirkland Repertory Theatre and the Tacoma Arts Guild.
Today, BCT’s budget is about $200,000 a year, including salaries for actors, renting a space for rehearsal, costume and display, and rental costs at the Theatre at Meydenbauer.
The Present and Future
BCT’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” production is a collaborative effort with RCT. The artistic director at RCT hired Kelleher, a former music director for the company.
Kelleher, who worked with BCT once before, hired all of the actors – all non-union – three months before the show premiered at RCT.
Nick Watson, who plays one of the pump boys, heard about the play through Kelleher. As a non-union actor studying acting at Cornish College in Seattle, getting paid was rare. So he jumped on the opportunity to build his resume.
The civic theaters, because of their support of actors at any stage in their career, has been an enriching experience.
“It’s been awesome,” Watson said. “Best show I’ve ever done.”
Chris “Fish” Jones, another pump boy, agreed. Jones was recommended to Kelleher for his ability to play bass guitar. He had no prior acting experience, but his role as one of the pump boys has him playing music and a main character.
Soma noted that the theater tries to provide a great playing ground where the young can learn, get experience and move up.
As their 12th season ends, Phillips, along with the same board of directors with whom he began, hopes the theater can continue to save money and grow their audience back to pre-recession levels. In addition, he hopes to look into a type of ticket selling that provides free tickets to those in need.
Phillips and the board also are exploring webcast performances and a “pay what you can” system for ticketing.
“While many theaters do this for young patrons, we do it for seniors and those in economic trouble,” he said. “The hope is as times get better, they will continue to come and support the theater.”
WHAT: “Pump Boys and Dinettes”
WHEN: July 20-21 @ 8 p.m.
WHERE: Theatre at Meydenbauer
For tickets, visit www.bellevuecivic.org/BCTTickets.