“They didn’t know what they were going to do with it,” Roger Johnson said. “It was a large garage, filthy and oily. In the middle, embedded in concrete, rose a big hoist for lifting engines. Pipes were sticking up through the concrete floor, which was cracked into a lot of pieces.”
Molly Phinney had just purchased the building next to the Patagonia Gas Station which housed the studio of artist Daniel Randolph. His studio was perfect for the vision Molly and friend Gail Jacobson had for creating an art workshop for local children. But behind it was this garage.
“Hey, Roger,” his wife Jan called. “If you ever want to do the theater you’ve been talking about, Molly and Gail are trying to decide what to do with the back of the Art Center. You better get over here.”
Johnson walked in uninvited, looked around, and mused, “Looks perfect for Black Box Theater.”
“What is that?” Jacobson asked. “Lot of colleges doing it… Drapes… Moveable chairs,” he answered.
So began the Tin Shed Theater, a venue which has hosted everything from live theater to fire jugglers to simulcast ballets.
Johnson had been involved in theater since he won a bible storytelling contest when he was 13 in Ohio. He went on to become an English, drama, and journalism teacher as well as founder of an alternative school. There was always a theater project after hours, including creating an outdoor community theater in a parking lot on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Jan, a weaver and children’s occupational therapist, steadfastly partnered these productions. They even sold their first house and moved into an apartment to pay the bills of the Outer Banks theater.
Johnson’s skill in creating theater out of nothing was a godsend for Patagonia. There were zero funds to build a theater, so he went to work, recruiting many volunteers, like Abel Murietta and Saul Lieberman, from the community. Phinney had had the garage power washed. . .twice.
“The floor was still too messed up for actors to walk on it,” Johnson said, “so I went to Home Depot and happened to see two-foot-square interlock rubber mats. I bought a few to try. I kept going back and buying more and more, finally covering a big enough area for the stage. Guess what, those mats are still there!”
Curtains were another challenge. Most black box theaters have draped curtains around the perimeter. Too expensive, thought Johnson. His ingenious workaround? He made a wavy frame from which to hang the curtains to give the effect of draping. “Saved half the cost of the fabric,” he explained. “The Patagonia Woman’s Club brought their sewing machines over. We formed a production line to cut, hem, and grommet the burgundy corduroy. Each section was then passed over to Lew Myers and me up on ladders to attach to the frames.”
“The Velveteen Rabbit” was the first theater production. Johnson improvised stage lighting from exterior floodlights covered with color gels and designed a Jill Babcock-painted backdrop with moving flaps in lieu of stage curtains. It still sits in the Tin Shed lobby today.
“‘The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail’ was our first adult play. Our cast featured many well-known Patagonians. Don Wenig had a role as town sheriff and his one line kept expanding every performance,” Johnson chuckled. He went on to direct 20-some productions, always encouraging locals to try first-time stage roles.
He and Jan moved to Maryland five years ago for family. They were back to visit Patagonia recently and it was heart-warming for Johnson to see that the ticket price for a theatre performance was still five dollars. “People always wanted to charge more but I didn’t want anyone in the community not to be able to see a play. Theater shouldn’t be something for just one group of people, whether participants or audience.”
On their recent visit the Johnsons saw the orange table and sofa still sitting in the props that had been “borrowed” from their living room. But the more meaningful legacy of his tenure at the theater was the people of all ages lining up to see three performances of the latest Tin Shed play. It was testimony to Johnson’s goal: “I wanted to pull people in from all walks of life, to make them want to see a play.”