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Vashon’s ‘Church’ seeks a bigger congregation
The writers, actors, musicians and producers who have brought the Church of Great Rain to the stage two dozen times had what you might call a come-to-Jesus talk last month.
Their success to date had been phenomenal. Since moving their grassroots variety show from The Red Bicycle to the cavernous Open Space for Arts & Community a year ago, attendance had doubled, with December ticket sales reaching a new record — 500. Indeed, they had encountered a rather pleasant problem: Finding enough chairs on Vashon to seat the growing crowds.
Now, as they gathered in Jeff and Cindy Hoyt’s living room, they had to ask themselves: Did they want to keep riding this wave? And, more to the point, were they ready to take it to the next level — to invest the funds they’d raised to date not in paying performers but in marketing and post-production distribution? In other words, could they use the world of social marketing and new media to try get some traction off of Vashon?
After a spirited discussion, the group made a key decision: In 2011, they would try to take the best elements of their show beyond the shores of Vashon — or as Jeff Hoyt, the lead writer, put it, “cross a barrier in terms of how many are aware of us.”
Were they to begin paying the performers, Hoyt said, they’d be making a tacit decision to keep the show a Vashon-only phenomenon. If instead they invest in post-production efforts, making some of their best skits just as sharp as possible for YouTube distribution, they might start to draw some real numbers and, eventually, he said, corporate sponsorship.
“Why not see what it’s like to have something become so big that radio stations are clamoring to contract with us … or a TV station wants to broadcast our show?” Hoyt added. “I kind of like the idea of having to face that. … How many of us get to? There is a chance. And I think we all feel it.”
So this Sunday, when they put on their “Love in the Afternoon” show, the crew has one parody lined up for the 90-minute revue that they believe could, in producer Greg Parrott’s words, “go viral.” Indeed, as the group enters its next phase of growth and development, it plans to execute a multi-pronged, multi-page marketing strategy that Parrott believes could position the Church as an edgier version of Prairie Home Companion — a Garrison-Keillor-meets-Monty-Python take on life, set on a misty island in the mythology-rich Northwest.
Rather than marketing Powdermilk Biscuits, for instance, the Church’s faux product of choice is Fupp’s Beer, a lowbrow brew that can get you “fupped up” if you’re not careful. And instead of a monologue that gently pokes at Lutherans, Vashon’s comedy show regularly features an improvisational sermon by the Right Rev. Hunter Davis (aka David Godsey), an iconoclastic parody of a Bible-thumping preacher.
Parrott, one of the show’s founders, put it this way: “If Prairie Home Companion is the Beatles, we’re the Rolling Stones. We’re the bad boys of the British Invasion.”
Meanwhile, he said, he believes Vashon “could become something like that mystical experience of Lake Woebegone. … We have a lot of that mythology happening here in the region.”
“We’ve made our brand known,” he added. “People are starting to buy into the mythology of Vashon. … And we see the potential for it to grow beyond Vashon.”
Indeed, the Church of Great Rain — with its mix of witty news reports, Vashon-inspired songs, comedic skits and headliner musical guests — has already garnered some off-Island attention.
It was featured on KUOW’s Weekday last May. And last month, one of its skits — a hilarious look at weather reporting rich in word play and rendered seamlessly by Wendy Waters (Cindy Hoyt) and Walter Windham (Jeff Hoyt) — was featured on Cliff Mass’s website, where it’s had nearly 2,300 hits.
Still, the Church of Great Rain is largely a Vashon phenomenon — and an increasingly popular one, at that. The comedy revue has grown steadily since its humble roots at the Bike in 2007, where, at most, 90 people could view the show. During its current season, which began in September, it has regularly seen audiences topping 400.
The O Space, a former warehouse behind the Bone Factory, has seen nothing quite like it since it opened in 2008. “It’s by far our biggest audience,” said Karen Biondo, executive director of the O Space.
The show’s success, those involved with it say, stems in large part from the rich talent it’s found on the Island as well as a discipline instilled by its three “elders” — Parrott, the producer, Godsey, the director, and Jeff Hoyt, the lead writer.
They now have a stage manager new to the Church — Mary Shackelford — as well as a strong technical crew. Adrienne Mildon, a talented singer and keyboardist, has added a new dimension, bringing a parody of the Andrews Sisters — called The Twisted Sisters — to the stage. (The other two sisters are Lyn McManus and Arlette Moody.)
Some seasoned Vashon actors are part of the cast, including Mik Kuhlman, Jeanne Dougherty and Janet McAlpin, as well as some newer to stage life — Karen du Four des Champs and Jon Whalen, the crew’s versatile sound effects man.
And the writers, Hoyt said, include some of the funniest folks he knows. Richard Rogers, for instance, wrote the parody on weather reporting. Jim Farrell, another comedic talent on Vashon, is their youngest cast member and edgiest writer, Hoyt said.
Cindy Hoyt writes as well, honing a talent that impressed Jeff Hoyt a few decades ago, when they were college sweethearts and she wrote letters to him. “They were hilarious,” he recalled.
“My alter ego has been a comedy writer for pretty much my whole life,” Cindy Hoyt said.
Since its inception, few have walked away from the show, despite a demanding schedule. (The notable exception is Island comedian Steffon Moody, who left a year ago, taking with him his popular “Ruraltopia” skit.) The only difficulty, Parrott said, has been hanging on to drummers in the Church House Band. At Sunday’s show, Nigel Browne, John Browne’s son, will be filling in for Fletcher Andrews, who’s traveling.
“We’ve gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap,” Parrott said.
As the show’s following has grown, the crew has worked hard to refine its product. Hoyt, for instance, said he’s worked assiduously with the writers to get the skits down to a snappy three or four minutes; initially, they went on for seven or eight minutes, too long to sustain the comedic narrative, Hoyt said.
They’ve also reduced the number of shows in an effort to focus on quality. Initially, the shows were monthly, with the summers off. Currently, the troupe does three shows in the spring and three in the fall. “We can sustain that without burning out,” Hoyt said.
Now, as they ponder their success and the show’s potential, crew members say they want to make sure they don’t lose either the comedic edge or homegrown style that has given the show what Godsey called its “heart and integrity.”
A veteran of live theater, Godsey said the Church has something special — a sense of community due to its committed cast and its place on Vashon. As it grows, he said, he believes fiercely it won’t lose that sense of place.
“It’s a community gathering point,” he said.
Church of Great Rain's "Love in the Afternoon" show, with special musical guest Publish the Quest, will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13. Doors open at 3 p.m. Tickets — $8 for adults, $5 for kids under 12 — are available at Vashon Bookshop or Books by the Way or via brownpapertickets.com.