It was already getting dark, and the big auger drill was having difficulty digging into the hard-packed dirt. Above, the stars began shining though the black night.
In the background, work lights powered by a small generator illuminated two massive brick walls, all that remains of California Packing Company Plant No. 5. on West Third Street in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square district. As the ground fought back against the foot-and-a-half-wide drill, David Lear asked himself the question he’s been asking for a year now. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
Those walls have long held a fascination for Lear. “I’ve always had my eye on the cannery,” says the director, who has worked with Cinnabar Theater and 6th Street Playhouse, and most recently directed plays at Ives Park in Sebastopol. His vision for the old building was an annual outdoor theater festival called Shakespeare in the Cannery. While having a cup of coffee at Flying Goat nearby last year, he looked over the railroad tracks and thought, “It’s time.”
That’s when Lear shared his idea with Martin Hamilton, director of the nearby Arlene Francis Center. Hamilton’s a dedicated community activist working to make Railroad Square a cultural center. When Lear mentioned his idea of turning the vacant land down the road into a theater, Hamilton’s eyes lit up at the prospect.
“I think I just said, ‘We’ll do it,'” recalls Hamilton. The two formed a partnership. But they needed help.
Chris Costin has practiced law in Sonoma County for 30 years, often in issues of land use and real estate. He is also a champion of the local theater scene and a former board member at 6th Street Playhouse, and his offices happen to be in Railroad Square. When Lear and Hamilton approached him for help, he naturally signed on.
The cannery was built in 1917 in the heart of the town’s Little Italy district. At its height in the 1920s, the three-block-long building employed dozens of workers, mostly women. They canned crops from all over the area before the goods were sent by rail across the state. The company relocated in 1928 and the building closed for good in in 1932. The city has struggled on what to do with crumbling space ever since.
The landowner, San Francisco developer John Stewart, whose own plans recently fell through, generously gave the group a free two-year lease for the space. The Santa Rosa City Council voiced its support when they heard the idea. All Lear, Hamilton and Costin had to do was get the permits. They took their plans to the planning department, and confidently put in a request for a temporary land-use permit back in April.
It was promptly denied.
The city had concerns about safety. The plan had to be totally reworked. Lear was devastated. He thought he had lost his dream before it had even begun. Yet the next week, Costin came back with revised ideas and the group met again with Santa Rosa chief building official Mark Setterland. “If it wasn’t for Chris [Costin], we’d be dead in the water,” says Lear.
About 45 minutes into the meeting, Setterland suggested they all meet on site, to see what they could do. With extensive revisions to the proposal in place, the city issued a permit to start building a theater space. Suddenly, Shakespeare in the Cannery was a go.
That’s when the real work began. Those holes the auger was drilling late into the night were subsequently filled with concrete to hold lighting poles in place throughout the space. A solar-powered generator was specially developed to power the lights. Debris by the dump-truck load was removed. Architects and structural engineers were brought in. Contractors built a massive, three-tier stage. Hundreds of feet of fencing was erected to keep crowds a required 40 feet away from the walls. Visitors will walk from the entrance on Sixth Street at the Playhouse, past a rusted water tower, to the open-air stage now centered on a field located within the walls.
“Nothing has been a smooth ride. We solve one problem and it becomes another problem, and we just keep solving them,” says Lear, a week from the theater’s opening night. “This thing got away from us. It said, ‘You created me, now keep up with me.’ But my mantra is, if you believe in something, nothing stops it except you. And I’m not going to stop it.”
Shakespeare in the Cannery’s inaugural performance is Romeo and Juliet. Donations from the city council, the county, local businesses and personal investors have kept the project going. Hamilton says donations have totaled about $20,000, slightly less than half of current costs.
When opening night, July 18, finally came last weekend, Setterland and the city signed off on the permits and approved the event only an hour before doors opened for the first performance.
As the crowds watched from blankets and chairs on the lawn, and the sun dipped away in the background while swords clattered and star-crossed lovers danced, Lear’s vision became real.
“I’ve been so fixated on the minutiae, I couldn’t see the big picture,” says Lear. After the premiere weekend, he’s still trying to put it all into perspective. “Honestly, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. But I’m very proud of everyone. I’m very happy.”
For Hamilton, the success of Shakespeare in the Cannery signals the potential for Railroad Square. “We want to think about what will be here when the Smart Train comes though,” he says. “This is the theater district now.”
Costin also points out that there are no other major venues in Sonoma County on the forthcoming train’s route, and he hopes the cannery becomes a cultural destination, not only for the local community but for the entire North Bay and beyond.