Califonia Bountiful

Starrh of the show

July/August 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Farmer honors family roots with stage production

Farmer and playwright Larry Starrh uses his theater background to tell stories of life on the land. Photo: © 2020 Alex Horvath

Farming and theater have something in common, as Larry Starrh sees it: Both require creativity.

"Dad and Mom both were very creative," said Starrh, a third-generation farmer with a theater degree. "You have to use your imagination and do a lot of things to evolve and to be up to date."

So the farmer took his act to town. A decade ago, he helped launch an annual arts festival in Shafter, called the Colours Festival, with the goal of adding culture to the community. Then an idea sprouted.

"I got this wild hair to start writing shows," Starrh said. And so, he did.

Starrh (in vest) performs alongside Jason Gauthier, left, Dan Carrion and Chloe Boozer. Photo courtesy of Joseph Lara

A tribute in two acts

His newest play, called "The Big Secret," grew from the loss of the family patriarch. Larry's father, Fred Starrh, died last year at age 89, leaving behind a decades-long legacy of cotton farming and farm advocacy. The elder Starrh served as president of the Kern County Farm Bureau from 1973 to 1975 and went on to serve on the California Farm Bureau Federation board of directors, among many other leadership roles in agricultural and water organizations.

It was not an easy play to write.

"I was just really struggling to come up with something," Starrh said. "I knew I wanted to do this, but trying to find that vehicle to do it was very hard."

He researched his father's side of the family, in the process learning of an aunt he never met who died by suicide. What he discovered prompted "a serious look at how we remember people, and how legacies are carried on."

"How do we highlight their lives and carry that on into future generations?"

Community also factors into Starrh's playwriting.

Comparing past to present, he said, "Your roots would be deep, and your community would be important. Now that people are more mobile, and everything's easy just to pick up and move, you don't have the same tenacity for community where we used to."

Starrh shares a scene with Ashleigh Janzen and Bethany Rowlee. Photo courtesy of Joseph Lara

What lies buried

In "The Big Secret," Starrh plays farmer Lester Jensen. The character's name, he said, comes from his father's middle name and a great-grandmother's maiden name. Some of Lester's lines were things Starrh's father would say—"those little vignettes or moments where I remember his saying things vividly to me as a kid," he said. "I tried to bring those out in moments when they worked."

Spoiler alert: The play's "big secret" purports to be round and orange.

"They get wrapped up in a pumpkin-growing contest," Starrh said of the characters. "They think that's the big secret. But the big secret is that there's some deeper things that are going on and that are hidden."

Theater-goers, however, have no need of a box of tissues. Starrh described his musical as "lighthearted and fun," with a large cast including children and a chorus. He and his daughter, Michelle Crawford, wrote the music, and Crawford—a music major—did the arranging.

The play was staged at the Colours Festival in February. Starrh said he's talked to a friend about staging the play again elsewhere, and also plans to post a video online.

That video might be the only way to see "The Big Secret" for a while. Less than a month after producing the play in Shafter, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the state to issue a shelter-in-place order that banned large gatherings, including theater audiences.

Starrh said he considers himself blessed that he was able to stage the play when he did; another production he was planning for April had to be called off.

To Starrh, the pandemic and ensuing quarantine serve to reinforce his message.

"If there's a good thing that's going to come out of this, I hope it is that we value family better and more now," Starrh said. "Like the play, the idea that cherishing where you've come from and what's really important is family."

Starrh majored in theater and worked in that profession before returning to the family's Kern County farm. Photo: © 2020 Alex Horvath

All the farm's a stage

Starrh has long been a man of many hats. Though he grew up the son and grandson of farmers—his grandfather George Starrh settled in Kern County in the 1930s—he studied theater in college, attending Fresno Pacific University and California State University, Fresno, simultaneously. He then worked in theater for a while before his father asked him a question.

"I remember Dad calling me and asking me, 'Well, you ready to quit playing?'" Starrh said. "I was ready. You start itching for a family."

So he went to work back on the farm with his dad, brother and brother-in-law. Where once there was cotton, alfalfa and other row crops, and chickens, Starrh now grows almonds and pistachios. But the passion for theater never left him. In addition to launching the arts festival, the family converted an old auto dealership in Shafter into a 300-seat theater.

Starrh now has about nine plays to his credit. "The Big Secret," he said, is "about a farmer and farming"—the tough times his dad went through, but also the joy of life.

"Most of all," Starrh said, "the play's a tribute to remembering those who have come before us."

Kevin Hecteman

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest