Dinner theater entertains Hemet audiences

Mark Lentine
From right to left Melanie Rose Johnson, Noah Peterson, Frank Jaramillo, Paola Cifuentes, previous cast members of Play With Your Food Productions.

■ Mark Lentine / Contributed

Nadine Gordimer, writer and activist once said, “A desert is a place without expectation.” And out here, in the sleepy little desert town of Hemet, we have the most unexpected taste of more cosmopolitan surroundings: dinner theater.
Play With Your Food Productions is a wonderful little venue that’s been treating patrons to established and first-run plays for over a decade. “I had directed many shows at the high school, community and college levels, but nothing prepared me for producing a dinner theater experience,” said Michael Tennant, owner/producer/writer of Play With Your Food Productions.
The idea began 16 years ago when founders Murray and Laura Robitaille decided to bring dinner theater to Hemet. “After 10 years they were going to give it up because they decided to travel. I decided to take it over, but none of my previous training prepared me for this experience.” Tennant, who also teaches theater at the San Jacinto Valley Academy, realized he had a lot to learn about dinner theater.
The first order of business for Tennant was to begin to learn his audience. “When I took over six years ago, it quickly dawned on me that a dinner theater audience is different from the normal theater-going public. Our patrons want mostly comedies because they want to relax and enjoy their food with a good laugh and have fun.”
Unseen to the dinner-theater-going public is the cost and the split-second timing that goes into presenting a dinner-theater experience. “First and foremost, everything is out-of-pocket when you’re producing. The minimum cost of a production is ten thousand dollars,” said Tennant, “And the timing has got to be perfect…or the experience is compromised.”
The timing in a production is everything in dinner-theater. “We open with an entertainer while folks are having their food, and this is quickly followed by a first act, a second act and then intermission.” At intermission, coffee and dessert must be delivered to the tables with military precision so that everyone has finished their entire meal by the beginning of the third act.
After gaining knowledge of his audience, Tennant had to find a stable of actors and actresses. “We had to quickly assemble a stock company, and we try to use the same actors from production to production.” When you add actors and actresses to the small army of stage personnel – carpenters, painters, stage managers – you quickly realize that it is no mean feat to put on a dinner-theater and make it work well.
Tennant went on to say, “We’ve been lucky in that we’ve been accepted by the residents here in Hemet. We have groups that will buy forty to fifty tickets for their entire retirement community and people love the experience.”
Most important to Tennant at this point is to grow the Play With Your Food Productions experience. “Every year we try and add something new, whether it be lighting or an enhancement to the sound system. We also added original plays performed here, which I wrote, and which are now available in published form. Last year we staged ‘Bad Medicine,’ which people can now purchase for performance.” This year Tennant also wrote and staged “Cursed Bones,” also available for performance.
While Play With Your Food Productions has a small touring company, and a musical group called, “The Musical Chain Gang,” most productions are staged at 140 North Buena Vista Street at the Fellowship Hall of The Unity Chapel. Tickets are $40 per person, with groups of eight or more ticketed at $35 per person.
For more information, visit playwithyourfoodhemet.com or call (951) 663-8491.

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