Arcata Playhouse founders Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney met as young actors touring the Canadian Fringe Circuit in the summer of 1995. The story goes that her sketch comedy troupe crashed his comic acrobatic troupe's show in Edmonton. After that first encounter, "I chased her around the world. Literally," says Ferney.

They eventually moved to a small island on the Canadian side of the San Juans and lived there for five years, got married and had their first of two daughters. In 2002 they made their way to Humboldt where Dandeneau landed a teaching position and Ferney got a job booking shows at Dell'Arte International, his alma mater. In time, a plan was hatched to start a theater company of their own.

It's been 10 years since Dandeneau and Ferney signed the lease on a small theater in Arcata's Creamery Building and established the Arcata Playhouse and the accompanying nonprofit organization Playhouse Arts. At the time, they had no idea that their little theater company would snowball into the influential community arts organization that it is today. It's not just a venue, it's a vortex of creative collaboration.

In its mission to build community through the arts, the Playhouse has developed a rather mind-boggling menu of programs. There's Apprentice Entertainment, a teen task force where the kids create, market and perform their own shows and write their own zine and blog. The Artist in Residency program involves five artist teachers and six local elementary schools. There's a Family Fun Series of performances, the week-long Women's Festival, the resident theater company Four on the Floor, the Arts Annex, a live music series bringing more than 60 international performers a year, public art and the Youth Workshops Series. Sprinkled in amongst all of this is puppetry and pageantry, stilt walkers and fire performers, outdoor festivals and, curiously, a 16-foot-tall pink polka dot pony.

click to enlarge LEÓN VILLAGÓMEZ
  • León Villagómez

Dandeneau and Ferney also rent out the 140-seat theater to community members to host their own productions. "It's not just a cold rental space that folks use and then leave," Ferney explains. "There is a feeling that this is a place that sustains people and the arts."

Dandeneau, (resident bookkeeper, civic activist, actor, grant writer, band member and executive director) is passionate about the arts as economic drivers. "Whatever we can afford to pay artists, we do." She says it's vital to, "provide a place where artists can make a wage which then pays payroll taxes and county taxes ... all of those things go back into the economy."

Certainly Dandeneau and Ferney's efforts have had an impact on their neighborhood. Under the banner of Playhouse Arts, the Creamery District's neighborhood businesses, building owners, the City of Arcata, artists, architects and community members have transformed the surrounding blocks into a vibrant art district with a Saturday Art Market and festivals and workshops throughout the year.

Behind the scenes, Dandeneau and Ferney's personal dynamic has shifted from marriage to partnership. "We split up about a year and a half ago," says Ferney. "It's part of the story. It's life." The pair says they are asking themselves how to manage their new balancing act. Communication is crucial. Ferney adds, "It's a transition period, so you have to let whatever's there be there. Ultimately, it's a positive thing."

Dandeneau has come a long way from the farm in Alberta where she grew up. Says she was an average girl who rode horses and worked in the garden. "I was a bit of a scaredy cat but I always tried everything." She was a drama geek and played basketball until she made a basket on the wrong end of the court. "I'm a pretty close rule follower." She pauses and adds, "Except for the big ones that I break."

Ferney jumps in to explain this is the typical Canadian/American aesthetic that they've observed during their years together. "She's more cautious and I'm like ... Come on, let's go!'" Raised in southeast Idaho, Ferney is proud of his rural roots. "I was the oldest of four kids. I did what I wanted, when I wanted to. I had all of this crazy freedom. I'd get on my bike with my friends and experience the world on my own terms." Ferney, who has performed in 20 countries, got hooked on theater early in high school. "It grabbed ahold of me and never let go. It was a thread in my life that I never tried to overanalyze. It led me around the world. It led me here."

Learn more about the Playhouse programs and history at

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