Fall Arts 2018

Going The Distance

Sunnyvale Community Players celebrate 50 years on stage

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The Sunnyvale Players kick off their 50th season with 'Grease.'

Six years ago the Sunnyvale Community Players were still sending out postcards in an effort to drum up attendance and increase subscribership, using paper mailers, despite the fact that the theater group stages their productions in the heart of Silicon Valley. Facing competition from the myriad entertainment options now available to anyone with a touchscreen handset, the Players knew they had to adapt to survive. Now, thanks to new leadership willing to push creative boundaries with their repertoire and promote via social media, the company is not only surviving—they are thriving.

The Players will open their 50th anniversary season with Grease in the fall, followed by Cabaret, a junior production of Bye Bye Birdie featuring performers all under the age of 18, and an ambitious closing production, The Wiz.

"With everything that has happened with arts in Silicon Valley... that a small community company can make it 50 years is as testament to the perseverance of the people that are a part of it," says Anna Williams, a former Players board president who first joined the company as a prop maker when her daughter was cast in a production.

The Sunnyvale Community Players began 1969 as a small non-profit company performing in venues around the South Bay. According to board member and Players archive historian Sam Saunders, the group was co-founded by Virginia Hannum and Margaret Wozniak, mother of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Originally a youth company, the first show the Players staged was Come Blow Your Horn under the name the Junior Players. In 1973 the group was adopted by the city of Sunnyvale and staged its first young adult production, West Side Story. The Players have stuck to the formula of opening each season with a family-friendly show, followed by a more adult-oriented show, a junior's production and a big closer.

Kevin Surace has been with the company since 1995 and will serve as musical director for this year's production of Grease as well as co-producer and musical director for The Wiz. He says that within the last five years or so, under the direction of board president Steve Shapiro, the Sunnyvale Community Players have grown to produce shows that rival those of professional theater groups he has worked with, such as Rubicon Theater Company. The company's reputation has expanded beyond the South Bay: Performers traveled from Hayward and Oakland to audition for the Players' production of Grease. The company has learned to adapt with the times, using social media to promote shows in order to fill the 200-seat theater they perform in. "There was a time we were like, "Well, we're community theater and [tickets are] $15; what do you expect?'" Surace says. "Now [tickets are] $38 and I want you to expect a world-class performance. I want you to expect virtually professional theater." In their previous season, the Players staged ambitious productions such as Fiddler on the Roof, which featured a 25-piece orchestra; Avenue Q, which required most cast members to learn puppetry; and a juniors production of The Addams Family complete with a two-story set. A season highlight was casting Eric Sun, a man with terminal cancer, to play the titular Fiddler, an item that was on his bucket list. The anniversary season capper, The Wiz, is set to feature a 28-piece orchestra and a cast of 50 in an updated version of the production the Players did in the '90s. "The Wiz can be a very eye-popping show," Surace says. "We wanted to show our history but also where we are going in the future, and we want to show we are going to be pushing the limits of what we can do."

Sep 15-Oct 7
Sunnyvale Theatre
550 E. Remington Drive

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