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Theater in our neck of the woods

FALL CITY - Are the patrons and supporters of the Snoqualmie Valley Forest Theater environmentalists who happen to like theater, or are they theater lovers who happen to like the outdoors?

The answer was inconsequential last weekend when they gathered for the final dress rehearsal of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" where everyone in attendance could not say enough about the beauty of their surroundings or the theater's ability to put on a classic piece of drama.

"I love the [forest] theater," said Danny Miller, who has appeared in other theater productions and has sat on its board for the past two years. "We've got waterfront. We could jump in the river to cool off if we wanted to. How many other theaters can say that?"

On a summer evening, the season when all of the theater's productions are put on, there is no doubt that the natural beauty of the area could convert even the most ardent urbanite into an environmentalist. Just getting there is a celebration of the Valley's beauty. Its entry road begins where the David Powell Road ends after a drive with the Snoqualmie River on your left and corn crops and trees on your right. A one-lane dirt road leads up to a clearing that is the location of the main gathering area, which consists of a parking lot, a few trailers and a large, covered picnic area that hosts dinners. For the performances, theater goers make their way down a hill on a switchback trail that leads to the theater's entrance. The theater has a rustic, do-it-yourself feel to it, but it can seat 200 people and even has a sound and light booth.

Most of the theater's 95-acre property, however, remains covered in its native vegetation and that is just the way the theater's supporters want to leave it. A good overview of the property can be had from the observation deck at Snoqualmie Falls. Look north of the Falls and just about the whole backdrop of the view is owned by the theater. In fact, theater patrons can get a magnificent view of the Falls from the south side of the Snoqualmie River by taking a short walk from the main gathering area.

Keeping the area pristine will take more than just not building anything else on the property, said Sue Holbink, a theater volunteer. Earlier this year the forest theater contacted Stewardship Partners, a nonprofit group that helps landowners preserve the environment. Together, the two organizations developed a stewardship plan that will not only keep development away, but help the natural area thrive by thinning the forest and clearing it of noxious weeds. All this work has earned the theater the state designation of Stewardship Forest, an achievement of which the forest's supporters are enormously proud.

"Stewardship is not passive," Holbink said.

One of the highlights of the plan will be a salmon habitat restoration project that is slated for the O Creek, a tributary of the Snoqualmie River. In September work will begin on restoring a nearly one-mile stretch of the creek back to its natural flow (debris has dammed up the creek). Holbink said the work has excited fishery workers who have said it will be the most important salmon restoration project in the Snoqualmie Valley this year.

"Every mile [of restored salmon habitat] helps," said David Burger, executive director of Stewardship Partners.

While the environmentalism of the patrons may sustain the area, the organization's beginning, however, was borne out of a passion for theater - the Passion for theater, actually. In 1965, the Fall City United Methodist Church put on its annual Passion play in the woods outside Fall City. The result was such a hit that a nonprofit group was formed to keep productions going at the theater. Now there are two productions each summer. Miller said the theater tries to get works that will represent well in the outdoors. This year "Camelot" started off the season and "The Taming of the Shrew" just began on Saturday and will run until Sept. 4.

When the natural elements of the area mix with the natural intensity of a performance, patrons said it can make for some magical times. Miller said some of the most poignant moments have come when it rains. An impassioned monologue or a dramatic scene can be amplified by a light drizzle and, on occasion, it has rained when a scene has called for it. On a clear night, theater patrons have talked about the magic of descending the trail to get to the theater in the daytime, and then walking out after the performance to see an unfettered view of the stars when they return to their car.

Volunteers have said that perhaps the most remarkable aspects of the plays is that they happen with no paid staff. The forest theater is run by an all-volunteer board and volunteers staff each performance. The director of "The Taming of the Shrew" also manages the concession stand.

The small but dedicated group that runs the theater, however, does not believe they will continue to be so small. Currently general membership (which costs $60 a year and includes access to the park for camping and hiking) hovers at around 300 people. But being so close to the Seattle metro area and being so far from its urban feel leads supporters to believe it won't be a secret much longer.

The theater's supporters said more members would only mean better preservation efforts and better performances; the woods will stay as they are. Miller, who is originally from the Niagara Falls area, said he would hate to see the Snoqualmie Falls suffer the same fate of his hometown falls, which was "all honking cars and pavement."

"It's great there is still a view," Miller said.

* For information on the Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater, visit www.foresttheater.org.

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