Despite off-stage drama, Kitsap Forest Theater celebrates 100 years

28 July 2023

On the highway between Bremerton and Seabeck, the Kitsap Forest Theater is celebrating 100 years of outdoor plays and musicals this summer. However, were it not for a federal judge, this centennial season may not have happened at all.

Saturday, July 29, is the opening day for “Seussical The Musical” at the unique theatre company’s wooded home east of Bremerton, which the Kitsap Forest Theater website says is about a 15-minute drive from the ferry dock.

The amateur drama group only does daytime shows there because the productions take place in the woods in the middle of a 460-acre rhododendron preserve, and there are no theatrical lights. Tall fir trees surround the seating area, and the seats are terraced from the actual earth – so that same website recommends bringing your own cushion or planning on renting one for a suggested donation of five bucks.

Jerry and Jenny Dreessen live in Seattle. They’ve been volunteers at Kitsap Forest Theater for a dozen years, and they reached out to KIRO Newsradio to help spread the word about the group’s centennial 2023 season, which really is a tremendous milestone for a non-profit theatrical group.

Jenny Dreessen is serving as assistant director of “Seussical.” She says that the history of the organization, which is officially part of the Seattle-based outdoor club The Mountaineers, traces its origins back even further than a century.

“A group of Mountaineers was exploring the area way back in 1916,” Dreessen told KIRO Newsradio. “They were hiking, they were trying to find Wildcat Lake. And they came across a family that lived in Hidden Valley.”

“And they really hit it off with them,” Dreessen continued. “So they started coming back more and more and spending time there. And eventually, some of them bought property around the area.”

When any group camps together, says Jenny Dreessen, everyone typically gathers each night for a campfire.

“And they would just tell stories around the campfire,” Dreessen said. “Eventually, those stories became more and more elaborate. And in 1923 … they decided to actually build a theatre, formed out of the side of the hill, and made a stage.”

“And it’s just been going and growing ever since,” Dreessen said.

While dressing rooms and eventually a sound system came along, because there are no lights at Kitsap Forest Theater, the productions – including Saturday’s premiere of “Seussical the Musical” – always start at 2:00 p.m. There’s another performance on Sunday, too, and then “Seussical” continues every weekend through Sunday, August 20. The group typically mounts two productions each summer.

Jerry Dreessen says being in the woods is a unique setting for a theatrical production. It’s special for the audience, who take in all the natural scenery of the trees, plants, and salmon in nearby Chico Creek, and they experience that terraced earth seating, of course (see above regarding seat cushions).

Jerry says that for the actors and for the audience, too, the outdoor setting can also make for some unplanned and unforgettable moments.

“There’s been a few, I guess I would call them ‘miracle instances,’” Jerry Dreessen said, “where an actor’s on stage singing, and then the sun’ll break out, and it just lights them up, or they talk about a bird and an actual bird will fly on stage for a minute.”

And speaking of “miracle instances,” though it ultimately did not affect “Seussical,” there was some off-stage drama earlier this year that became a major distraction for Kitsap Forest Theater and which almost did disrupt the first production of the centennial season.

It’s a complicated story with several twists and turns, but The Mountaineers say that they had to get a temporary restraining order to maintain access to an easement that is critical to productions for backstage access and for ingress and egress of disabled audience members. The easement has been in use for decades.

The group that now owns the rhododendron preserve surrounding the Kitsap Forest Theater was originally created by The Mountaineers but is now separate and is called the Keta Legacy Foundation.

Keta Legacy Foundation sued The Mountaineers back in 2019 in a complicated dispute over who gets to use the name “Mountaineers” in fundraising appeals. Then, in May of this year, Keta Legacy Foundation changed the locks on the gates to the easement, effectively locking out the outdoor thespians. The Mountaineers went to court, and a temporary restraining order was granted on May 24 by Judge Robert Lasnik. The judge’s action came just four days before the opening of Kitsap Forest Theater’s production of “Sound of Music.”

Going forward with “Seussical” and in future seasons, hopes are for all drama – other than what’s supposed to happen on stage – to ultimately cease if and when the 2019 lawsuit is eventually settled.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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