Church of Great Rain, Vashon’s homegrown variety show, started off four years ago as a modest and almost off-the-cuff affair, playing to small, diehard crowds at the Red Bicycle Bistro.
“We’d have a script in one hand, a beer in the other,” joked Jeanne Dougherty, one of the group’s actors.
Full of Vashon humor and Island talent, the show grew in popularity — ultimately moving to the cavernous Open Space for Arts & Community, where it routinely filled all 600 seats, making it the biggest event of the Island. It also grew in complexity, becoming a much more polished and seamless series of skits, musical performances and monologues.
Now, those involved in the popular show — Vashon’s edgy version of Prairie Home Companion — say they’re taking a hiatus and won’t launch a fifth season with their usual September premier.
With their growing popularity has come a growing workload, several members of the company said, a workload that has proven tough for the all-volunteer crew, which would finish a show on Sunday night and begin discussing the next one three days later.
According to a statement issued by the Church’s publicist Richard Rogers but crafted by many of the company’s members, “Each performance of Church of Great Rain represents thousands of mostly volunteer hours by more than 60 incredibly talented Islanders. This monumental effort has taken a toll on our ability to remain a sustainable production, so we are going on retreat now to renew our individual and collective spirits, explore possible directions and discover how Church of Great Rain will reappear.”
Others noted they’ve also faced creative tensions and some personal disagreements in the last year, questions about their future direction that have taken a toll. Over the course of the summer, members came together in two discussions facilitated by John Runyon, a professional facilitator, where they talked about their options. A third such discussion will likely happen this fall.
Some said they fully believe “Church,” as many call it, will re-emerge, perhaps in a re-configured form. Others said it’s just not clear at this point.
“I’d love to say we’re not going to do a September show but we’ll do a Christmas show,” said Rogers, one of the writers. “But I don’t know if that will happen or if there’ll be another show.”
Mik Kuhlman, one of the group’s seasoned actors, put it slightly differently. “I have no idea (if it will go forward). I think it may. It might not. I think there’s a lot of talent, so even if it doesn’t emerge in the form that it is, something will emerge. … I think it’s a really beautiful thing.”
Jeff Hoyt, the lead writer until he stepped down at the end of the last season, said he believes Church of Great Rain will find a new path and continue later this year or early next. “There’s just so much energy behind it,” he said.
But members were loathe to say anything on the record about the group’s differences, noting only that there were “issues” and “personal differences.” Rogers, asked about tensions among the group’s leadership, declined comment, saying that the group is suffering from “growing pains.”
At their last gathering, he said, “We came to the conclusion that we didn’t have the focus to do the show at the level that we needed to do — to give our community what they expected this September. So we decided, let’s put this on hold, let’s reconvene, talk and see who has the willingness and energy to move forward.”
Hoyt, too, declined to elaborate. “Like every creative endeavor, … artistic differences happen. And Church was no different. Really, from the onset, there’s been artistic tension,” he said.
In recent years, the group has been helmed by Greg Parrot, who co-founded the group and now serves as its executive producer; David Godsey, the artistic director, and Hoyt, who headed a stable of writers. Neither Parrot nor Godsey could be reached for comment.
As the workload has grown, some said, Hoyt and others wrestled with how to make the effort sustainable. Could the show, for instance, become a regional production with a commercial sponsor, bringing in more revenue and thus enabling its many actors and writers to receive some modicum of pay? Currently, the money the show garners goes to renting the O Space, paying the guest musicians and a few members of the technical crew and buying equipment or supplies, members said.
“The workload was unbelievable,” said Hoyt. “I said a long time ago, unless we became a commercial entity and grew into something much larger, where people could get paid, there might not be a way to sustain it.”
But others said it seemed difficult to give Vashon’s jokes a regional appeal. Prairie Home Companion, with its jokes about Norwegian bachelor farmers, touched a chord many could relate to, they noted, but Vashon’s struggles with septic systems, its frustration with ferries or its disdain for a bridge might not grab a regional audience.
“It’s sold as Vashon’s answer to Prairie Home Companion, but Prairie Home Companion is a nationwide phenomenon. People in Seattle don’t understand jokes about a bridge. To me, that was the big challenge,” said Greg Wessel, one of the group’s writers.
What’s more, others noted, with the intensity of the schedule, there hasn’t been time to take the long view and consider the future. Even with six weeks between shows and the summer off, several Church members said, the pace has been intense.
“Our noses were to the grindstone with each season, and there were so many great ideas that we never got around to,” Hoyt said. “Ideas would come along, but we never had any time to ponder how it would work. We need to take the time to really think it through and explore some of these ideas.”
“It’s been happening on the fly,” added Dougherty. “This is a chance to look at the experiences of the last four years and consider the best ideas. … It’s a chance for us to think … when we’re not actually in production.”
Meanwhile, those who have been involved in the show hope they won’t let down “the congregation,” as they call their flock of followers, community members who often get in line an hour before the show begins to claim a good seat. The sense of community when Church performs, Rogers said, “is palpable.”
Should the show not find a new path, he said, he’ll be disappointed. But, he added, “I can walk away knowing it was probably the most creative collaboration I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
But many said it’s far too soon to sing a dirge for Church of Great Rain.
“I fully expect Church to continue,” said Dougherty. “It may not look the same, and it may not have the same people in it.”
“We just need time,” she added. “We can’t rush it.”