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[whitespace] Jim dePriest
Photograph by Rory McNamara

Downtown bound? Sonoma County Rep's Jim dePriest hopes to bring live theater back to central Santa Rosa.

Downtown Drama

Theater groups vie to create new performing arts space in downtown Santa Rosa

By Paula Harris

ONE BY ONE, central Santa Rosa's live theaters are going dark. By the end of April, the so-called cultural hub of Sonoma County could be devoid of any regular live theater performances downtown.

But like all good dramas, there's more than a little intrigue at work. Amid a swirl of rumors, at least two groups of local arts organizations are formulating ambitious plans to create new downtown Santa Rosa performing arts venues. One plan could put live theater on stage in the building that now houses the United Artists 6 movie theater.

First the closings. This weekend, Santa Rosa Players will stage its final show at the Lincoln Arts Center, which was the theater company's home for many years until the building was recently purchased and donated to a local nonprofit organization that works with at-risk children.

Trey McAlister, the Players' board president, says the group is considering relocating to the Merlo Theater at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, or to an undisclosed Highway 12 location en route to Sonoma.

Also this week comes the announcement that the Studio Be theater company has lost its lease on the building it was renting near Railroad Square. Associate artistic director Robert Pickett says the company must be out by the end of the month and is in dire need of a new home.

The theater-closing trend began at the end of last year with the closure of 10-year-old Sonoma County Repertory Theatre's Humboldt Street location after the building was converted to office space. The theater company has had to consolidate resources into its other venue, the smaller Main Street Theatre in Sebastopol.

But one group of collaborators is working quickly on plans to bring live theater back downtown. Santa Rosa-based movie house mogul Dan Tocchini, who owns the Roxy Theatre megaplex downtown and Airport Cinemas in north Santa Rosa, last week confirmed that he is attempting to buy the UA6 Cinemas building on Third Street, with plans to create a combination movie art house and live theater venue.

"The negotiations are finished," Tocchini says. "There's been a proposal on our part, and we have a verbal commitment from one person in the company, and now it has to go through the board of directors. They're drawing up the paperwork."

Further information on the deal is sketchy. "It's difficult. We're dealing with a big corporation in bankruptcy," Tocchini says, referring to United Artists' current economic struggle.

"The chances are we'll use [the venue] for theatrical and nontheatrical purposes," Tocchini confirms. He adds that he has talked with Actors Theatre creative director Argo Thompson about potential collaboration on the project.

Since Tocchini wouldn't need all six screens--he'll just use four to show art films--Thompson says Actors Theatre (currently housed at the Luther Burbank Center) could create two stages at the site. "We could have a 300-seat theater and a flexible black box," Thompson explains.

Michelle Gervais, executive director of the CityVision downtown revitalization program, is enthusiastic about the plan. "If a venue could be half live performances and half movies that would be fantastic, because then you'd have a very healthy mix of diet," Gervais says.

Meanwhile, Thompson says that Actors Theater must move soon on its expansion plans. "We have to take that step now," he says. "We don't have enough room for the audiences we're getting."

But downtown may not be the only option. Thompson says such a location has both pluses and minuses. "Being at the heart of a vital cultural life is ideal, and also being within walking distance to shops and restaurants is conducive to the marriage of art and commerce that needs to take place," he says.

Joan Lounsbery Musical chairs: Symphony executive director Joan Lounsbery wants offices downtown.

On the negative side, Thompson says, downtown Santa Rosa is still dead. "A lot of people pay lip service to the idea that it's being revitalized, but it's still dead," he argues. "I was born and raised in Santa Rosa, so I can badmouth it." Another potential problem is lack of parking, he says.

Thompson adds that possibilities for Actors Theater include converting an existing space in the LBC, building a new facility on the LBC grounds, or moving into the UA6 or UA5 building on Mendocino Avenue.

At press time, it was unclear whether Tocchini is also negotiating to purchase the UA5 building. Representatives of United Artists Theatre Circuit Inc., headquartered in Englewood, Colo., declined to comment on any current negotiations.

Another set of allies has its eyes set on the UA5 building on Mendocino Avenue, also with the idea of creating a multi-use arts venue. According to Sonoma County Repertory's Jim dePriest, the Sonoma County Museum, Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, and Santa Rosa Symphony are planning to collaborate on a downtown space that will accommodate all their needs. The UA5 building would fit the bill.

The Sonoma County Museum made its ambitions clear in its December 2000 Envisioning Report. In that document, the museum's board of trustees discusses establishing a facility called CenterSpace, a multi-use cultural arts campus for the museum.

"Contributions of other disciplines (such as music, performing arts, contemporary art, etc.) to CenterSpace Cycles will be supplied by local cultural arts groups already specializing in those disciplines and partnered with the museum," notes the 95-page report.

"A collaboration seems to be the best way to work," dePriest says. "Downtown Santa Rosa is a tough place to run a business."

DePriest adds that Sonoma County Rep's minimum space requirement for a downtown venue is 12,000 square feet--room for a 250-seat theater, a classroom for youth programs, shops, and storage.

"I've looked at the ground plan for the UA on Mendocino Avenue, and it has 20,000 square feet," dePriest says. "It's a very large facility. The CenterSpace idea could happen there because it could accommodate the needs of the museum, the theater, and the symphony. It could all work very well."

Santa Rosa Symphony executive director Joan Lounsbery confirms that the symphony is interested in moving its offices to downtown Santa Rosa when the symphony's lease at the Luther Burbank Center expires in 2003 and performances move to the Green Music Center on the Sonoma State University campus.

"We want to have a presence downtown and believe cultural life will thrive downtown," Lounsbery says. "We're looking for 5,000 square feet [for office space and box office], but we feel we have a couple of years to find something."

While Sonoma County Museum board president Kevin Konicek declines to comment on plans to purchase the UA5 Cinemas, he does point out that various groups have agreed to work together on an experimental basis for an upcoming exhibit focusing on work by the artist Christo.

The September exhibit will involve music by the symphony and participation by various art galleries in the county, plus a stage production of Art by Sonoma County Rep. It will be curated by Gay Shelton of the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art.

"There's a swirl involving the museum, the repertory theater, the symphony, and SMOVA that involves downtown activities," Konicek notes.

Of course, several theater companies could collaborate and all operate from the same venue. AT's Thompson says such a collaboration could be in the cards. But Sonoma County Rep's dePriest hasn't heard of any such plans. CityVision's Gervais thinks cooperation would be a great idea.

"Collaboration is especially important when it comes to the arts because the project will have to be as financially solvent as possible," Gervais says. "Because I don't think there will be terrific support or funds available from the city."

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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