Arts and Entertainment

All the world's a stage: A look behind the scenes at Renton Civic | THE CREATIVE SIDE

The empty stage at Renton Civic Theatre awaits the next show. - Jaris English, For the Renton Reporter
The empty stage at Renton Civic Theatre awaits the next show.
— image credit: Jaris English, For the Renton Reporter

I looked inside of the Renton Civic Theatre. It was very quiet.

The stage was bare and the seats were empty, but I felt that the emptiness and silence was somehow alive. I could sense all past and future shows. I felt the magical possibilities of performance art.

The building has been a Renton landmark since it was built in 1924 as a movie house. I was there to meet with Managing Artistic Director Bill Huls and local entertainment legend, Aunt Dottie - known also as Michele Bettinger. Besides performing there, Michele is on the board of directors. Bill runs the theatre and occasionally does some acting.

I wanted to learn more about this art form and the people who were involved in it.

One of the questions I asked Bill and Michele kind of just slipped out of my mouth: “Do you have a ghost here?”

They hesitated, and then both admitted that late at night, when here alone, you often hear creaky sounds as if someone is walking around. Michelle said one time she yelled “Hello!” - but no one answered.

They had stories of the typical glitches of show business, with missing actors, sets falling apart, and so on. One time, during the play Shakespeare Unabridged, the skull that Hamlet was holding fell and rolled under the stage. Thinking quickly, Bill’s wife, who was the assistant stage manager, grabbed a Styrofoam head from a prop wig and tossed it to Hamlet. He stared at it for a second, and then continued on with his speech.

Another time, the burglar alarm went off in the middle of the night and Bill met two police officers at the theatre. One officer proceeded down the left aisle while the other walked down the right side. When the one on the right got close to the stage, he pointed his gun and yelled, “Freeze!” The other officer raced closer. Bill realized they were aiming at a stage prop and yelled “It’s a dummy!”

Bill has been involved in the theatre most of his life.

“The technical side is my passion – particularly the art of lighting,” he said. Earlier in his career he worked with the now-defunct Valley Community Players, and for the Burien Little Theatre and then all around the Seattle area before joining the Renton Civic Theatre as a Master Electrician and Lighting Director. He became the Artistic Director in 2001.

Michelle grew up in unincorporated Renton. Her mom ran a dance studio and she started performing at age seven. She was even on “Romper Room” and appeared in a Mickey Mouse Club Video.

While attending Hazen High and afterward, she performed at community theaters including the Village Theatre in Issaquah, VCP and the Civic Light Opera - now called the Seattle Musical Theatre. Then, she learned that Disney Studios was auditioning comedic singing actors in Seattle for their new resort - Disney World in Florida. Out of a huge group of hopefuls, she was one of only two to be chosen and had 10 days to relocate to Florida.

Michele said, “It was amazing and surreal to be working at a Disney Park before it opened. Cranes were still placing palm trees along Hollywood Boulevard.” She worked with Katherine Jooster from “The West Wing” and “Desperate Housewives,” Paul Vogt before he was in Broadway’s “Hairspray,” Mo Collins from “Mad TV,” and comedian Aasif Mandvi, who is in the soon to be released “Million Dollar Arm.”

One time, she and two other women entertained Princess Diana and her boys at the Brown Derby, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” After seven years in Florida, she moved back to Renton with her new husband.

A year after joining the Renton Civic Theatre in 2007, Michele invented her alter ego, Aunt Dottie, although she admits “Sometimes I don’t know whether she’s my alter ego or I am hers!”

Either way, it was the birth of an interactive improv show which evolved into what is now known as “Aunt Dottie’s Sing-Along Cabaret,” with Aaron Buckner as Aunt Dottie’s doting nephew. Besides the Renton Civic Theatre, they perform at events for the City of Renton and many other venues throughout the area. They also donate part of their proceeds to charitable causes.

Michele also teaches improv acting. She told me, “I like to include the audience. I want people to have my joyful experience as a performer and leave the theatre feeling like they were part of the show. It is always satisfying to me when someone comes onstage and sings or dances and just shines while the rest of the audience cheers for that person.”

The theatre has a wide variety of productions ranging from mainstream musicals and popular plays to unusual off-beat shows. I asked Bill how he selects the plays, and he said, “I talk to other theaters and read a lot of scripts that are sent to me. We are doing Arcadia this year because some friends begged for it.”

The lobby and stairs are lined with photographs from past shows. The theatre has six main stage shows a year, and Bill also rents to other groups.

“When the Hi-liners Theatre burned, they started performing here. We have 66 performances a year on the main stage, plus the Summer Teen Musical,” he said.

They explained why they love theatre so much.

“You walk through these doors and leave life behind you and escape to a fantasy world. You can be anyone you want – do everything you ever dreamed of doing - then after the show you are back to yourself again,” Bill said.

“Theatre performance is one of the few art forms, which similar to sand and ice sculpture and chalk art, is very temporary. After the show, it’s gone forever,” Michele offered.

She remembers a director at Disney Studios who talked about “temenos,” a Greek word for “sacred space.”

“That’s the theater,” she said. “I look at an empty theater and I think: anything can happen - and it is ok to play here.”

When I climbed up on the stage to take their photograph, I had a strong urge to turn around, face the empty theatre and start dancing and singing. Yes, anything can happen on a stage – but not that.

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