All the forest’s a stage — Kitsap Forest Theater to kick off the outdoor amphitheater’s spring musical production

Actors rehearse at Kitsap Forest Theater in Seabeck for an upcoming production of “Oklahoma!” beginning May 29. Cheryl Phillips, as Aunt Eller, talks to other farmers and cowboys.  - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Actors rehearse at Kitsap Forest Theater in Seabeck for an upcoming production of “Oklahoma!” beginning May 29. Cheryl Phillips, as Aunt Eller, talks to other farmers and cowboys.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

The rain was pouring and the wind blew away the window display during a musical performance last year at Kitsap Forest Theater. The show at the outdoor Seabeck amphitheater — of course — went on. And this was before actors cleaned up after a bear that rummaged through a trash bin during rehearsals.

“It’s not the theater where you can turn off the light and lock the doors,” said Jamie Estill, an actor with Kitsap Forest Theater.

Located south of Camp Wesley Harris in Seabeck, the theater is owned by the Mountaineers Foundation — the Seattle-based club formed in 1906 to explore and promote the outdoors — and is part of the 460-acre Rhododendron Preserve. The outdoor theater was built in 1928 and the Mountaineers Players have continued to perform there with the exception of three years during World War II. The troupe will kick off this season with its 88th spring musical, “Oklahoma!” Memorial Day weekend. It will run through mid-June.

That means that in addition to stage fright, actors have to deal with the elements.

“We do have the crazy weather. It was sunny and it rained for a bit and then it was overcast and suddenly hail was falling. I would have imagined it would be cruddy, but for some reason when you’re already out there, you put on a hat, get on stage and do your thing anyway,” Brandon Deane, of Bremerton, said Monday about a recent rehearsal.

Deane lives a 15-minute drive from the theater but only recently heard about it from the costume designer at Central Stage Theatre of County Kitsap in Silverdale where he interns. The 83-year-old theater is surrounded by old growth trees, some more than 400 years old. The walls are made of cedar bark and Chico Creek flows nearby. In order to get to the theater, the audience must first trek along a quarter-mile trail in the woods (however, there are accommodations for those in wheelchairs).

“I was kind of mind-blown. It’s just so amazing. I’m just so used to theaters in-doors,” said Deane, who has been acting for six years.

The picturesque scene is something that the Mountaineers Players enjoy working with because it produces different challenges from a typical indoor theater.

“It’s really cool to see what you can do without the things you have in an indoor theater,” said Jessica Rothwell, a Central Kitsap High School senior who is performing with the group for the first time.

“Because it’s outdoors, you have to work with the theater itself. It has the audience use a little more imagination,” she said.

Because there are no lights, actors can see the audience, which is different from indoors where views of the audience get washed out, said Lauren Mikov, of Redmond. They can see specific facial expressions when the audience views a scene they like, she added. The theater can seat about 600 people.

“It’s especially encouraging when we have a rain show,” Mikov, 25, said. “They get more responsive when it rains. They clap louder.”

Some other things they have to work with include the noise of airplanes flying overhead and birds chirping. There is a mic-system installed that is set up at the front of the stage and is hidden by ferns. The ground of the stage will get muddy after it has rained. And although it does rain, rehearsals and shows are not cancelled because of the weather.

Mikov became involved with the theater group after searching for hiking trails about four years ago on the Mountaineers website and came across the Mountaineers Players. Enjoying hiking and the outdoors, she decided to give acting outdoors a try.

They throw trash bags over each other during rehearsals if there’s heavy rain. For the performances, actors must make due without rain gear. Aside from the weather, there are other nature-related precautions. Sometimes actors have to check each other for caterpillars, Mikov said, to make sure no one has any critters on their costumes before walking on stage.

“We’re theater people, we bond anyway. It’s even more of a bonding experience than most shows are,” Mikov said.

Although actors like Deane and Rothwell are first-timers with the Mountaineers Players, there are others who have a long-standing history with the troupe, as well as the theater itself.

Craig McCoy, 56, of Lynnwood, was in his first production at Kitsap Forest Theater in 1967. McCoy met his wife in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and now the couple’s 6-year-old grandson will be in “Oklahoma!” with them.

“It’s nice to see the baton being passed,” McCoy said.

Theater as a multi-generational family affair is not an anomaly with the outdoor troupe. Jamie Estill, 57, of Shoreline, has been acting with the group for 15 years. His daughter, then 8, started with him. Now 23, Jenny Estill is directing “Oklahoma!” which opens May 29.

The family-oriented aspect of Kitsap Forest Theater is what many of those involved with the production said they enjoy.

“Where else do you find children and adults have equal footing? When on stage, everyone needs to hit lines,” said Jamie Estill, adding that all members eat together and camp together. Every weekend since March, the approximately 30-member cast has been rehearsing for 14 hours every weekend.

Kitsap Cabin, located on the grounds, is where the cast and crew take their meals. The facility was built in 1918 by mostly women volunteers with the Mountaineers. They created it as a place for the community to come out for major outings, Mikov said, adding that the Kitsap chapter of the Mountaineers now uses it for meetings and it can be rented for special events.

Not only are the Mountaineers Players coming together though acting, eating meals and building camp fires, they help maintain the theater, too. They are all volunteers, with a few production staff who receive a stipend. Maintenance includes sweeping the ground, trimming branches or cutting trees and replacing bark on the walls. When McCoy began acting, “everything was wood” and although a lot of the theater still looks like it, they have been replacing the wood beams that support the rows of seating with concrete, he said. It costs the Mountaineers about $10,000 to $20,000 a year to maintain the theater, including paying property taxes, electricity and repairs.

The Mountaineers came across the land where the theater is in 1923 when they took a boat from Seattle looking for Tiger Lake, but got lost, said Jamie Estill. They wanted to get people out to the area to see the rhododendrons and to hike, so they built the theater there and it has mostly kept its original form, he said. Because rhododendrons bloom in late May, the blooming typically coincides with the opening weekend of the performances.

“It’s beautiful — one of my favorite places in the world,” Jenny Estill said. “Doing theater and being outside totally go together.”

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