By Dee Jae Cox
Theatre is most often referred to as a collaborative art. Though it is easy to imagine the isolated playwright, pounding away on a keyboard, blood and sweat pouring onto the pages in their creation of unique characters, twisted plots and storylines, filled with a plethora of emotions, those words on the page are meant to been seen and not just read. They require actors to breathe life into the characters. Producers who gather all of the puzzle pieces necessary for a production. Directors who visualize and create the staging. Choreographers who light the fires for dance. Lighting and sound designers, costume and prop professionals, stage builders and set designers. It is a mythical, magical world where different breeds of artists come together in a collaborative effort that results in a full, breathing, moving piece of performance art.
Palm Springs, the desert oasis long known for decades of hosting Hollywood stars, Rat Pack performances, follies and cabarets, wasn’t always brimming over with the live theatre productions that it now offers. And then along came the Palm Canyon Theatre, exemplifying the artistry of the collaborative art!
In 1997, the Layne family, while on an annual vacation from their home in Morehead Kentucky, realized that in the midst of this star-studded oasis that something was missing. Dr. William Layne, who received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and served as chair of the theatre department at Morehead State University, used his collaborative skills to coordinate with his family, his wife, Sylvia, their son, J.W., and daughter, Se, along with their extended family, Mike and Connie Layne, and decided to bring their knowledge and talents to the desert. After submitting a winning proposal to the City of Palm Springs, gaining access to the historic Frances S. Stevens School on Palm Canyon Drive and investing $750,000 of their own money for the renovations, The Palm Canyon Theatre, opened with its first production, “The Desert Song,” by Romberg, Harbach, and Hammerstein in September 1997.
In the twenty plus years since their open, this dynamic family has continued to upgrade their performances, producing approximately a dozen shows each year. Often thought of as ‘Broadway in the Desert,’ their productions of Tony Award winning and classic Broadway shows, has brought elegance, entertainment and new perspectives to the residents of the Coachella Valley. They have garnered a multitude of awards from the Desert Theatre League and in 2015 were honored with a Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars (Located at 538 North Palm Canyon Drive.)
Se Layne, a classically trained singer, dancer, and actress with a Master in Fine Arts from Michigan State University serves as Palm Canyon’s volunteer co-artistic director in partnership with her brother, J.W. Layne, who works as the theatre’s technical director and holds a Master in Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota.
In addition to the abundance of talent within the Layne family themselves, they have managed to gather an extended family of artists (staff and volunteers) that work together to create the magic both on and off the stage. A few members of the Palm Canyon theatre’s outstanding team includes, Derik Shopinski, the resident costume designer, who has won numerous awards. Not only is Shopinski one of the most talented in the desert, his choreography and directing skills have also contributed to the theatre’s long-standing success. The talented actor, Morgana Corelli, who runs the office and supervises Palm Canyon Theatre’s Box Office, also graces their stage in many its productions.
Cara Van Dijk, Palm Canyon theatre’s Public Relations and Publicity Manager, is also a playwright who will have the opportunity this fall to stage a new musical that she has penned. Van Dijk, describes her new musical as, “a nostalgic romp through Palm Springs, with historical vignettes of the 1800s to hysterical scenes of the 40s, 50s and on through today. The original script manages to pack in about 150 years of oasis stories by combining Palm Springs melodies, celebrity sightings and shenanigans – all reasons to love Palm Springs!”
SE Layne stated that; “We are standing by for state, county and city guidelines and policies, before we make any concrete plans. As soon as we can re-open and start a production, we’d like to, even if that means doing so with social distancing in place. We have heard from our performers that they want to be on stage again, and we have heard from our patrons that they want to be entertained. We want to bring back live theatre to the community as soon as it is considered safe to do so, and do it in a manner that protects our performers, staff, volunteers and audiences as best we can. Reopening will be a new normal, but we are hopeful that we can find a groove that everyone is comfortable with.”
Palm Canyon Theatre, is a long-standing Palm Springs treasure. Like all local businesses they are riding the wave of this new normal. The community eagerly awaits their reopening.
Dee Jae Cox is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project.