by Andrea Palpant

Sometimes life can be condensed into a small space -- a momentous event retold in a one-page poem, a lifetime packed into a book. Rarely, though, does an entire three-dimensional dramatization of a story, complete with bodies, props and furniture, unfold from a 10-foot square space.

The Civic Theatre's latest performance of Joined at the Head required this exact feat and won the theater Best in State during Kaleidoscope 2001, a bi-annual festival for community theaters set this year in Edmonds, Wash. The festival began Friday, March 9, and ran through that Sunday. Directed by Melody Deatherage, Joined at the Head also shared Best of State honors with Spokane Children's Theatre's production of Pinocchio, directed by Kathie Doyle-Lipe.

"It's impressive to see the world of a play set up before your eyes in a time and a space limit," says Marilyn Langbehn, marketing director for the Civic Theatre. "Everything must fit into a predetermined 10-by-10-foot square, and everyone then has 10 minutes to set up their set, whatever it is. That's one of the fascinating parts of the festival -- solving the problem of making a world."

Joined at the Head, written by Catherine Butterfield, was produced originally as part of the Civic's Studio Theatre Series last spring. While the original cast had nine actors and went about two hours, the festival version included only seven actors and was required to run within one hour. The cast successfully performed a slimmed-down script of the play in exactly 57 minutes and 30 seconds.

Awards at the bi-annual festival included Best Ensemble Performance as well as Best Actor for Thomas Heppler, Best Actress for Mary Starkey and Best Actor in a Cameo Role for David Q. Gigler, all from the cast of Joined at the Head. Best Supporting Actor was given to Patrick Treadway from Pinnochio as well as Best Set Design to Peter Hardie.

"It's the most tremendous experience," says Langbehn. "There's truly nothing like being in an audience full of people who do and love what you do and love. Everybody is there for the same purpose, to celebrate community theatre. It validates the work that we do every day and spurs us on to keep making consistently high quality work."

Contrary to the usual monetary motivations of most work, the high quality Civic performance was carried out by a cast and crew of volunteers who are involved locally in everything from medicine to broadcasting to sales and mortgages.

"No one can be paid for their efforts for this," says Langbehn of festival restrictions. "It levels the playing field so that everybody has equal opportunity to present their work when they get to the festival level. It's not about impressing people with a Phantom of the Opera chandelier -- it's about the nature of the work and the quality efforts of the technicians and actors."

The festival accolades collected by the Civic are nothing new. This year's win marks the ninth time in 11 tries that the theater has taken the state prize. In addition to a host of individual awards from various years, the Spokane Civic Theatre is the only theater in the country to win Best in the Nation twice, in 1989 for Getting Out and in 1999 for Lonely Planet.

This year's winning drama follows the story of a writer on a book tour who lands in a city where her ex-boyfriend and his wife live. She reconnects with the family at a time when the wife is going through cancer treatment, and in these strange circumstances the two women become deep friends.

"If you think about meeting the wife of your old love and her being extremely ill, you can see there's a lot of potential for drama there," says Langbehn. "The script is also very funny, as the two women, Maggy and Maggie, stop the action and turn to the audience and say, 'This isn't how it happened.' They direct the play from within the play."

The drama itself was directed by Melody Deatherage, a human resources manager for KXLY. Deatherage began rehearsing the cast in February three evenings a week with long days and nights in the week prior to the festival.

"Spokane Civic Theatre has a real legacy to uphold here," says Deatherage. "I love the group of people that I work with. They're great artists and fun, inspiring people to be around. It's a privilege and an honor to be asked to represent the theater."

At the next level, both the Spokane Civic Theatre and Spokane Children's Theatre will go head to head in the Region IX competition along with the winner of the Alaskan state festival. Date and venue are undetermined at this point. The winner of Region IX will then go on to the national festival, hosted by the American Association of Community Theaters in Harrisburg, Penn., in late June.

"I think the overriding impact of the festival process is that it gets us out here to see each other's work," says Langbehn. "We're part of a 7,000-community theater network, so what we do every day is being done by thousands of people just like us all across the country. Every two years, we get a change to come together and celebrate."

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