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Creating Community at Stockton Civic Theatre

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By Alexandra Krueger 

For Melissa Esau, acting produces a high like no other—and with 60 shows at the Stockton Civic Theatre under her belt, it’s safe to say she’s addicted. “My favorite part about acting in the theater is just being with the cast and losing yourself for two hours. And yet, you’re very aware of the fact that you’re having fun,” she said. “And when you’re done for the night and you’ve just taken your bow, you feel exhilarated. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

In fact, the Stockton-native just took the bow on her 60th show, 9 to 5, this past September at the Stockton Civic Theatre. Based on the 1980 film featuring music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 features three female coworkers who are pushed to their boiling point by their misogynistic boss. In a hilarious turn of events, one of the secretaries thinks that she’s accidentally poisoned him, and they suddenly have the opportunity to give their workplace a dream makeover.

For Melissa, some of the best parts about the show, and about acting in general, are the parts that are totally unscripted and unintentional. “During one of our performances, the character of the boss, played by Joe Smith, the professional golfer who runs Swenson Golf Course, was supposed to kind of fall back in his chair and catch himself. Well, that night he lost his balance and fell completely back. It was hilarious!” Melissa chuckled. “But I could not laugh because I was supposed to be angry at him. Those are the moments that make it so fun.”

If you’re asking yourself, wait, Joe Smith is involved in community theater? Yep! You’d be surprised at who gets involved at SCT, from golf pros to baristas to college professors. And the common thread that ties them together is their love of theater. “Community theater is so nourishing for people, and the performing arts are so important,” she says. “In order to have a balanced community we need to have performing arts, in whatever form that takes.”

Melissa was a kindergarten teacher for 32 years and acted through the majority of her career. She and her husband, Michael Esau, a proficient musician and member of Stockton Garage Band, made sure to pass on their love of the arts to their two children, Katherine Roemer and Frank Esau. “My children definitely have an appreciation for the arts. They grew up in a house full of that, so a little bit had to have rubbed off on them!” laughed Melissa.

And there’s a lot to appreciate in this town. As SCT’s resident historian, Melissa knows that the whole city of Stockton has a rich theatrical and artistic history, from the Stockton Opera Association to the Stockton Community Players and the Stockton Arts Commission to the local college theater programs. But many of those organizations are no longer active or are simply less than they once

“There was always theater in Stockton. And over time, probably as everything got more expensive, cuts have to be made. And when people want to cut, what do they do? They cut the arts, of course. “And it’s not that they don’t think that they’re important,” said Melissa. “It’s just that they think other things are more important.”

But there’s some good news: there’s an artistic renaissance on the wind at Stockton Civic Theatre. Since the pandemic brought their shows to a brief halt, attendance has been slowly creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels. Suddenly, there’s a huge influx of new faces at auditions. “There are over 40 people in our upcoming Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast,” said Melissa, “and a third of them are brand new.”

Think you could be a thespian? Melissa says there’s something for everyone at the SCT. Even if you’re not quite ready to take the stage, you can still get involved by working backstage, on the technical crew, designing costumes or doing hair and make-up. “That’s the thing that’s so great about theater in general, there’s always a place for you,” Melissa affirmed. “If people feel shy but want to try it, they should just come and see where they fit. SCT has an open-door policy and welcomes everyone with open arms!”

Aside from Beauty and the Beast, upcoming shows include Stage Kiss, The Play That Goes Wrong and Cabaret. Be sure to head to Stockton Civic Theatre’s official website for audition information, tickets and showtimes! And if you do attend a show at SCT, Melissa hopes you let yourself forget the world for a couple hours. “I hope audiences can sit there and laugh, or cry, or even sing along. I hope it takes their mind off their worries and that they can just have a great time!”

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