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Catholic Tastes: Hoochi-Doo's production of 'Nunsense' is among the offerings gathered together under NBTG's diverse new umbrella.

All Together Now

For the North Bay's struggling theater companies, hard times are surprisingly conjuring good times

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Two years ago, the future of the North Bay theater scene looked as bleak, depressing and hopeless as the final act of an Arthur Miller play. Throughout Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, theater companies large and small were suffering an array of serious setbacks: declining audience numbers, skimpy box-office profits, a drying-up of corporate and community arts grants, a decrease in young actors signing up for tuition-based theatrical programs, a steady exodus of local theatrical talent and a Brigadoon-like evaporation of reliable volunteers.

A number of companies--the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, the Santa Rosa Players, Studio Be, the Odyssey Theater Company--were still smarting from having recently lost prominently located performance spaces. Some groups' boards of directors were splintering apart in disagreement over how to move forward. And though few talked about it publicly, competition between stage companies was as fierce as ever, following decades of artistic turf wars that pitted one group of theater artists against another, each fighting for a piece of the local theater audience. The behind-the-scenes drama had become so juicy that, as actress and teacher Lennie Dean once noted, "it would make a great show, part comedy, part tragedy--if only anyone had the guts to put the real drama onstage."

Even more dramatic--and potentially devastating--was the fact that, with many companies focusing their energies on matters of emergency survival, diehard theater fans were beginning to notice a certain artistic anemia setting in. While there were certainly exceptions to the trend, it was clear to many that local theater was becoming safe, predictable, lacking in excitement and alarmingly absent of significant and creative derring-do. Fewer and fewer patrons were coming to fill the empty seats. As professional trend analysts began predicting the demise of small- to medium-sized theater companies in America, Northern California appeared to be right in line with the prediction.

There was plenty of desperate talk. Theater, it seemed, had come to a major fork in the road, and every company had to choose whether to close, stay the course and hope for the best, or begin forging a new, untested path. The latter course would require boldness and courage, some quick, creative thinking and a dose of survivalist-level ingenuity. For the North Bay theater community, it would mean learning to do something few of them had ever been especially good at: working together.

Which brings us to the present.

Bed to Boards

"Today, everything is the same--and yet everything has changed," pronounces Elly Lichenstein, artistic and executive director of Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. "Two years ago," she says, "it was all bad news. The traditional sources of funding had pretty much dried up, and a lot of us were scrambling for different sources. Now--and I don't want to sound too rosy, because who knows how any of this is going to pan out--new foundations are starting to be built, people are trying some neat new things, and throughout the theater community there is a sense of hope again, a sense of possibility.

"I'd say that artistically, Sonoma County theater has never been this strong. In the middle of all this serious adversity there's suddenly a palpable sense of excitement, and I think the quality of the shows is up."

When Lichenstein says "real diversity," she is not being dramatic. Cinnabar--which houses an award-winning opera company, a theater company, several youth ensembles, a summer music festival, an opera-in-the-schools program and several choruses--is currently facing one of its most drastic challenges: the imminent loss of $70,000 in annual transient occupancy tax funds. Monies raised by a tax on city hotel rooms, these dollars are specifically intended to support cultural programs and institutions that bring in tourism.

The city has announced it will likely exercise its option to dump such revenue into the general fund. If the city goes through with this option, Cinnabar will face a major financial crisis, as that $70,000, used for marketing and promotion of Cinnabar shows and programs, is 15 percent of the theater's overall budget.

"It's going to hurt us badly," Lichenstein predicts. "We can only hope that people will show up in droves to tell the city council they want Cinnabar to continue to be supported. If we can't afford to promote our programs, it will be very difficult to continue operating at this level."

In spite of this predicament, Lichenstein affirms her observation that the mood of uncertainty does seem to be dissipating. Jennifer King, newly appointed executive and co-artistic director of the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, now less formally known as "the Rep," agrees.

"There's an extraordinary movement taking place in the North Bay at the moment," she says. "Because things have been so difficult, what was once competition has turned into collaboration. This is such an exciting time right now for theater, because there's an infrastructure now in place, with all the theater companies working to help one another. . . . I've never seen anything like it."

How did this happen? What kind of cultural alchemy has taken place to bring about such a transformation, an attitudinal evolution from chronic despair to giddy exuberance? How can the North Bay's theater community sustain this rising artistic heat, and can it possibly be made to last long enough for audiences to catch the fever?


Photograph by Michael Amsler

Brain Thrust: Award-winning area playwright John Moran contributes original works to the Rep.

Company!

"I think, by and large, we've all tightened our belts," remarks Argo Thompson, artistic director of Actors Theatre. "We've all buckled down and come up with innovative ways to continue doing what is most important to each of us. The doom and gloom we were feeling a couple of years ago has definitely subsided to a great degree. Theater companies never have a problem dreaming big, and that has definitely continued, and those dreams have been tempered, over the last couple of years, by a sense of stark reality. Now things are actually looking up, because we're finding creative ways to reach those dreams."

Some companies are cutting staff to make ends meet, many are staging shows with smaller casts or finding ways to stage them less expensively. Others are taking the opposite approach, choosing to spend money in ways that will generate more excitement. In recent months, a number of companies--most prominently the Pacific Alliance Stage Company and the Rep--have dealt with the departure of beloved artistic directors (Jim dePriest and Michael Grice, respectively), by bringing in certified theatrical stars as replacements.

Hector Correa (see below) is a San Francisco director and actor who is widely considered one of the most inventive and groundbreaking members of his generation. King, who worked with the Rep until six years ago, is back after stints in leadership with the California Shakespeare Festival and the Dallas Theater Center. Many companies--Cinnabar, the Rep--have been bringing in guest directors, powerful visionaries eager to take advantage of whatever is building in the North Bay, hoping to translate it into stage magic.

The most earthshaking development, however, is the foundation of the North Bay Theater Group (www.nbtg.org). Two years ago, when the alliance was first forming, there were only a handful of companies involved, with little certainty that it would amount to anything. Now there are 26 companies involved, meeting together every month to brainstorm and plot and dream, and the resulting power of that combined force is, according to all involved, reshaping the way theater is made north of the Golden Gate.

"The NBTG has done a great deal towards making coherent the local theater community," Lichenstein says. "Everyone is cooperating now, and while at first it was just for survival, now I think it's for fun. It's so much more fun to collaborate and cooperate than to be jealous and resent one another's successes."

The 20-plus members of the North Bay Theater Group include major longtime theatrical institutions with their own theaters, educational programs and colleges, fledgling companies and traveling troupes. In Marin, these include the Novato Community Players and the Ross Valley Players; in Sonoma County, Actors Theatre, the Cinnabar, Get a Clue Productions, Hoochi-Doo Productions, the Independent Eye, the Pacific Alliance Stage Company, the Pegasus Theater Company, Healdsburg's Raven Players, the Santa Rosa Junior College theater arts department and its prestigious Summer Repertory Theater, the Santa Rosa Players, Sonoma County Playback Theater, Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, Sonoma's Theater at the Center and the Upstart Crows Young Shakespeare Company; in Napa County, Cheese (yep, that's a company, formerly the Otter Spigots), Dreamweavers Theatre and the Napa Valley College; and farther abroad, the Ukiah Players and the Willits Community Theatre.

"We've got theater companies with different levels of experience working together," King notes, "and the ones with less experience are bringing a lot of freshness, while the people who've been in theater for years and years are sharing their know-how. That balance is creating something that is quite magical." Echoing Lichenstein's description of newfound camaraderie among theater groups, she adds that "there is no longer the propensity for companies to hold on to actors that there was before. A few years ago, if you performed at one company, then you'd better be loyal and not do any shows at another company. If you did, you'd be treated as a traitor and might not be given roles anymore.

"That's gone now," King continues. "That's nonexistent. We are all working together to create the best shows possible, so actors are suddenly crossing over. Actors who are working at Actors Theatre are being given parts here at the Rep. People who work here are doing shows at Cinnabar. We're trading cast lists. That whole 'if you work there, you'll never work here again' thing is gone. To me, it's an extraordinary evolution that's taken place over the last couple of years. It's having a profound effect on the North Bay theater community."

Some of the NBTG's resource-sharing efforts are merely practical. The NBTG website features information about shows on stages from Marin to Mendocino, with regular updates and news about the theater community. By joining together, several companies can have their advertising flyers and postcards printed up at once, saving money individually by having the work done jointly at bulk rate.

Observing a reciprocal "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" attitude (actually, it's more like "you plug our show and we'll plug yours"), companies are finding ways to tell audiences about other companies' shows. Folks attending Cinnabar Theater's recent production of Tony Kushner's Illusion were informed at the curtain talk before the show that their Cinnabar ticket stub would get them $5 off at the door to Arms and the Man during its run at the Rep.

Some collaborations cross county lines, as with Hoochi-Doo Productions, a Sonoma County-based "nomadic" company that uses different facilities for each new production. In May, Hoochi-Doo will join forces with the Ross Valley Players for a production of Into the Woods. Says Kim Taylor, publicist for both companies, "Hoochi-Doo had the musical, the Ross Valley Players had the theater, and after a little wave of the magic wand, the two theater companies have banded together. Collaboration is the latest trend among theater companies in the North Bay."

No example of two theater companies banding together is more eye-opening than the current merging of Actors Theatre and the Santa Rosa Players, companies with entirely different artistic goals. Actors Theatre focuses on contemporary plays and the use of semiprofessional actors; the Santa Rosa Players are devoted to classic Broadway musicals and "museum plays," with casts made up mainly of amateur performers from the community. They maintain entirely disparate audiences.

"We had two separate boards, two separate theaters, two separate budgets, two separate production companies," says Argo Thompson. "The establishment of the North Bay Theater Group first threw us together, we started talking, and after a while we realized we can save a whole lot of money if we just do the whole thing together. Actors Theatre had a structure of employees in place and a system for delivering public relations and promoting their shows--all of which SRP didn't have. But SRP has a core group of volunteers helping get their shows up that Actors Theatre didn't have. Having one board with twice as many members as before, having one staff, one set of books--you can imagine the economies we're starting to enjoy now with the merger."

Santa Rosa's city council, Thompson adds, is encouraged by the merger, seeing it as a model of what nonprofit groups can create together. "There are over 200 nonprofit organizations in Sonoma County alone," Thompson says. "And to have them working together in their fields is vital."

The merger will be legally finalized in July, with each company retaining its name and its brand, but the companies are already united under a common board of directors and have just launched their first artistic collaboration in the new musical The Bachelors, using talent and crew from both companies. By putting the play on the subscription schedule of both companies, it also means that for the first time, faithful Actors Theatre supporters are sitting side by side with longtime Santa Rosa Players fans.

"Each of us has had our own particular niche in the performing community," agrees Pam Zainer of the Santa Rosa Players. "Being able to do join forces and do a play together-- a bold contemporary musical--introduces two distinct audiences to a medium they might not ordinarily have gone to see."

The next obvious step is to begin sharing one theater. To that end, the two companies have set out to build a new performance space, refurbishing the former Del Monte packing plant, an old brick warehouse on Sixth Street, just off of Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. To be named the Sixth Street Playhouse, the new facility will house operations for both companies, who will alternate productions on the stage of the playhouse's 170-seat theater, with plans for more Bachelor-like collaborations and the occasional repertory event. Thompson envisions perhaps having the Santa Rosa Players perform Michael Frayn's large-scale farce Noises Off in repertory every other night as counterpoint to Frayn's minimalist drama Copenhagen. First, of course, the Sixth Street Playhouse will have to be built.

The World's a Stage

"This is the ticket counter," says Thompson, leading a tour through the cavernous warehouse, on the cement floor of which is marked out in masking tape the outline of each room: the lobby, the restrooms, the dressing rooms and the stage area itself. "Here's the theater," he says, stepping over a line of tape into another section with marks showing where the stage, the orchestra pit, the control room and those 170 seats will be. "Nobody will ever be more than 27 feet away from the stage," he says. "There will be incredible sightlines. It's going to be a fairly intimate theater for a room this size."

The total cost of the project is $800,000, but with $250,000, Thompson says they'll be able to move in and begin staging productions, even with only the first in a three-phase process completed. "If we had all of that money dropped in our lap right now," he says, "we could complete the project this summer and open in the fall. Realistically, we'll probably enter with phase one. So come fall, we'll be here, but in what capacity--at what level of completion we'll be at that point--I can't say."

Of course, the next step for the Sixth Street Playhouse, and the entire North Bay theater community, is to take the dreams, the excitement and the newfound cooperation, and find ways to excite the people who buy the tickets. Unless the public begins to embrace theater as an important part of everyday life, none of this will matter.

The responsibility, says acting teacher Lennie Dean, now falls to the theater companies. "We must begin creating vital, important theater," she says, "the kind of theater that newspapers write about, not just to review, but because it is news. The way it was news when the Matthew Shepard story was turned into The Laramie Project. That's the kind of theater that matters, and that's the kind of theater that's going to make theatergoers out of the people who haven't had a reason to go yet."

"We must now create a culture of theatergoers in Sonoma County and beyond," King adds. "We have to take the buzz that's growing here in Sebastopol at the Rep, and in Marin and in Santa Rosa and Napa and Petaluma, and by creating the best theater we possibly can, turn that buzz into a revolution. It's happened before in this country and in these counties, and I believe it's about to happen again."


Strong Man

Hector Correa raises the bar

"I've always had a strong desire and passion for creating good theater," says actor-director Hector Correa, newly appointed artistic director of the Pacific Alliance Stage Company. "Theater is what I think about all the time. How to make it better, how to make it more exciting. So I decided I'd come and try and do that here, to bring something to this space, to continue building its reputation as a place where people know they will see good theater. My goal is to create as good a theater as possible."

The Pacific Alliance Stage Company, based at Rohnert Park's Spreckels Performing Arts Center, is Sonoma County's only equity company (the Actors' Equity Association being the national stage actors union). Now in its 14th season, Pacific Alliance was created by former artistic director Michael Grice, a certified legend among local theater fans, who departed in order to take a position with the Gallo Arts Center in Modesto. It only made sense, then, in replacing a legend, to bring in another legend.

Correa, who's been directing for 11 years, first came to Bay Area attention as the lead in the West Coast premiere of Kiss of the Spider Woman in San Francisco. Since then he's performed in or directed hundreds of plays, with a résumé that includes stints with Eureka Theater, Marin Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Magic Theater, American Conservatory Theater and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. His productions include the world premiere of Real Women Have Curves, which he directed for El Teatro de la Esperanza, and the West Coast premier of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, in which he acted in a production by the Berkeley Rep.

"Hector has tons of energy, tons of knowledge, tons of talent," says Elly Lichenstein, artistic and executive director of Cinnabar Theater. "His arrival on the scene," she says, "is going to raise the whole bar for theater in the North Bay."

According to his agreement with the company, Correa will be programming the schedule of plays for each season (he inherited the current season from Grice), and will direct at least three of those plays.

"Programming is a challenge," he admits with a laugh. "You have to be fearless, but not reckless." Though still finalizing plans for the next season, he says he's considering doing a Tennessee Williams play, probably A Streetcar Named Desire, and will balance the rest of the schedule with comedies, new works and one musical, which will likely be Cabaret. "I would also love to do a Shakespeare," he says. "I don't know if this company has ever done Shakespeare on this stage, but I don't think so. Shakespeare is a very strong background I have."

The other challenge is in building a company of actors who will create an aura of energy and, he says, even a sense of celebrity, with audiences eventually getting to know certain actors and making sure to see every show they appear in. But first the Oakland resident will have to get to know local performers.

"I really do want to see and get to know the North Bay theater artists, directors and actors, and to welcome them here," he says. "I know that if you only bring talent in from elsewhere--like San Francisco does in always bringing people up from L.A.--you are not creating a strong theater community the way you would by giving local artists opportunities on your stages. I believe Sonoma County has the potential to become a spot that people visit from other counties. Once people start talking about how exciting and alive the theater scene is up here, this region--and certainly Spreckels--will become an important theater destination."

--D.T.

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