Miller’s Time

Spreckels goes local to replace long-time artistic director Gene Abravaya

After a months-long, nationwide search, the city of Rohnert Park has named Santa Rosa native Sheri Lee Miller as supervisor of Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s and artistic director of Spreckels Theater Company.

Miller follows in the footsteps of Gene Abravaya, who retired in June, and has since relocated to Tucson.

Miller, an Equity actor and an acclaimed stage director and theater administrator, says that it has been a lifelong dream to become artistic director of a thriving theater company.

Her early on-stage experiences were as a student at Piner High School, and then Santa Rosa Junior College, under the mentorship of the late Joan-Lee Woehler-LaSalle. “She’s the one who encouraged me to become a director,” Miller says. “Joan-Lee told me she loved casting me in her shows, but that she also saw the director in me and wanted to explore that.”

Miller went on to study acting and directing at San Diego State University, and over the ensuing years appeared on the professional stage in San Diego and understudied at the Seattle Repertory. After returning to Sonoma County, she’s worked as an actor and director at Cinnabar Theater, Main Stage West, Actors Theater, Sonoma County Repertory Theater, 6th Street Playhouse, Spreckels, and other venues. She earned her administrative chops as director of marketing and education at Cinnabar Theater, general manager of the Performing Arts Center at Napa Valley College, and operations manager of the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County. Most recently, she taught theater in the ArtQuest program at Santa Rosa High School.

It should come as no surprise that the 59-year-old Miller comes to the Spreckels position with plenty of ideas and enthusiasm.

“Oh, I have lots of plans!” she says. “I am very big on nurturing future and emerging artists. I want to build the Youth-in-Arts program into a year-round educational program. I would also like to develop a lab series to nurture artists who want to stretch themselves. For example, perhaps one of our awesome techs would like to try his or her hand at design. Or perhaps an actor wants to try directing. The lab could provide them with a forum in which to try their hand at developing that new skill.”

The lab won’t be happening this year, she says, “but it’s something I really want to explore.” Another plan is to embrace the original intention of the center’s small, 99-seat black box theater, the Bette Condiotti Experimental Theatre. “I don’t think anyone even notices that sign above the door anymore,” Miller says, “but one thing I hope is to make the experimental theater a bit more experimental.

The 2017–18 season at Spreckels was largely selected by Abravaya and begins in September with the Larry Shue comedy The Foreigner.

One of Miller’s first decisions was to cancel the planned May 2018 run of The Hunchback of Notre Dame—based on the animated Disney film—and replace it with the classic musical Peter Pan.

“It was not an easy decision at all,” she admits, “but I felt Peter Pan, for various reasons, was a stronger choice for the May slot. Peter Pan, also, was my favorite childhood story. Mary Martin may very well have been my first exposure to theatrical staging, albeit on television, and Peter Pan was definitely my first true love.

“As for future shows,”, she adds, “we will still do musicals, absolutely! But I think the large stage is also perfect for epic straight plays. It just might be time to bring Shakespeare indoors.”

Abravaya says the theater company is in great hands with Miller as he reflects on his run as artistic director. “My time at Spreckels was the happiest, most satisfying years of my professional life,” he writes in a recent email from the Arizona desert. “The relationships I developed with so many creative people will stay with me, and in my heart, forever. Knowing Sheri and the depth of her talent, the depth of her feelings and her integrity, I am confident that Spreckels Theater Company will continue to reach new heights. I wish her all the best.”

Abravaya racked up a number of notable accomplishments in his 17-year tenure. In 2010, he founded the Spreckels Theater Company and established a focus on elaborate musicals. He created the company’s signature Paradyne Projection System and saved the center thousands in construction costs by augmenting small, practical sets with opulent projections and animations.

He is also widely credited with keeping the center afloat during the Great Recession, as he simultaneously enhanced its reputation as one of the largest and best-appointed performance venues in Sonoma County—with 40,000 square feet, a 550 seat theater, and the 99-seat black box—all while remaining committed to the center’s original purpose: live performances of theater, music, and dance.

“It’s pretty well known that Gene saved live theater at Spreckels,” says Miller as she recalls the 2008 economic crisis, during which Rohnert Park considered eliminating theater productions and came close to closing the center altogether.

“But they gave Gene the opportunity to make it work,” Miller continues. “He dug deep, and with his amazing team, brought about a renaissance at the theater by producing big, splashy, Broadway-style extravaganzas. He brought in the projection system, which was genius, too. Gene really did Sonoma County a wonderful service.”

And now it’s Miller’s time to put her stamp on the continuing legacy of Spreckels. “I wish Joan-Lee was still here,” she says. “I’d love her to know that I did what she suggested. I think she’d be terribly happy.”

Sonoma County Library