North Bay Theater

Not in Kansas Anymore: The cast of theSanta Rosa Players’ ‘Wizard of Oz’ reflects the dread that many local theater companies face.

Stage Fright

Why are so many North Bay theater groups beginning to fear the future?

Kelly Brandeberg, wearing overalls, an old T-shirt, and a pair of battered dance shoes, is perched on the edge of a broken-down Kansas wheelbarrow–actually a big, decaying hand truck temporarily posing as a broken-down Kansas wheelbarrow–where she sits, eyes closed in concentration, preparing to sing one of the most famous songs ever written.

Brandeberg, 15, has been cast as Dorothy in the Santa Rosa Player’s season-opening production of The Wizard of Oz, and with less than three weeks to go until opening night, she’s working hard to shed her modern-day teenage mannerisms and infuse her performance with authentic 1930’s farm-girl naiveté.

So focused is Brandeberg on her task–silently mouthing the words to “Over the Rainbow” as she waits for her cue to begin–that she barely seems to notice the real-life chaos going on all around her: the scream of a scenery-building band saw creeping in from outside; the voices of Jane Crowley and Jenny Jones–the show’s music director and vocal director, respectively–rising in spirited debate over some aspect of the ever changing musical score; the no-nonsense shushing of director Holly Vinson, warmly but firmly banishing a band of noisy choristers out to the lobby; and the escalating backstage wiseassery of various loudmouthed cast members, including talented SSU grad Tim Fischer, set to play the Scarecrow, retired businessman Hal McCown as the Cowardly Lion, and–ahem–myself as the Tin Man (see sidebar).

The rising noise of our idle clowning causes Brandeberg to roll her eyes at us in mock rebuke. Seconds later, she’s been given the go-ahead. Jones launches into Dorothy’s musical intro, and Brandeberg, hands folded in her lap, begins the introductory verse: “When all the world is a hopeless jumble / and the raindrops tumble all around . . .”

As she warms into the song, building toward the familiar words “Somewhere over the rainbow / way up high,” Kelly Brandeberg the teenager suddenly fades away. In a flash, she becomes Dorothy. Through Brandeberg, “Over the Rainbow,” with all of its built-in pathos and desperate longing, is working its time-proven magic.

In other words, she nails it. Brandeberg has hit a community-theater home run, and everyone listening to her knows it.

Throughout the room, the clowning and chatter and noise have dropped off into silence. As the song ends and Brandeberg becomes herself again, we reward her with a thunderclap of applause, and McCown nods his head and whispers, “You know, I think this show is gonna be good.”

Brandeberg, grinning, pops up to ready herself for the big twister scene as, from somewhere in the hall, the voice of an anonymous chorister is heard spontaneously singing the reprise: “Some day I’ll wish upon a star / and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.”

Clearly, we are all in an optimistic mood.

Acting Out: One reporter’s inside experience of live community theater.

It’s almost enough to make us forget that for SRP–and, for that matter, for dozens of other theater companies in the North Bay–the clouds are anything but far behind us. For many theater groups, attendance has been dropping, enrollment in classes and summer programs has fallen below expectations, and available performance spaces are rapidly dwindling. Several companies in recent months have lost their homes, while others are facing imminent homelessness.

With the economic downturn in the business world, those once common corporate grants and donations that many theater companies counted on to keep afloat have all but dried up. Meanwhile, the royalties paid for the right to perform the plays have more than doubled, often rising to $3,000 a run or more.

The situation has become severe, and some time-honored theatrical institutions such as the once popular Sonoma County Shakespeare Festival have had to shut down completely.

To quote Auntie Em (Susan Panttaja), now stepping onstage to survey the darkened horizon: “Dorothy, the sky looks bad.”

With The Wizard of Oz, the Santa Rosa Players begin their 33rd season of revivals and popular musicals, but the beleaguered North Bay institution–Sonoma County’s oldest operating theater company–has clearly fallen on hard times and is counting on Oz, a proven crowd pleaser, to help fill its sadly depleted coffers.

The trouble began last year, when the Players were forced to leave the spacious Lincoln Arts Center, their Railroad Square rental home for nearly 30 years, after the facility was purchased and donated to Santa Rosa’s award-winning Kid Street Theater, a worthy nonprofit formed to aid at-risk children through therapy, group activity, and theater arts. While gaining the Lincoln Arts Center was a dream come true for Kid Street, the building’s change of hands has sparked a major crisis for the Santa Rosa Players.

After months spent shopping for a new stage (during which time many SRP fans became convinced the company had been forced to give up), the Players finally settled on the Merlo Theater at the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts. Pleasant but small–and expensive to rent–the temporary venue is only available to the Players in the evenings, since it’s shared with corporations and community groups during the day. On Sundays it is used as a church.

This arrangement forces the company to borrow rehearsal space from all over the county: a dance studio one night, a board member’s living room the next. Once the Merlo does become available, the SRP tech crew must work day and night for three or four days in order to build the sets and hang the lights in time for dress rehearsal.

The other significant problem with the Merlo–though plush enough from an audience’s point of view–is the size and configuration of the stage, never intended to host major theatrical productions such as last season’s Hello, Dolly! and the Players’ upcoming February production of The Pirates of Penzance. Such challenges require a great deal of creativity.

This Wizard of Oz is a good example. To overcome space issues, Vinson has envisioned a minimalist, nontraditional Oz in which a troupe of dancers routinely stand in for scenery, playing everything from trees in the haunted forest to the famous twister itself, twirling and spinning around Dorothy before whisking her off over the rainbow.

“It was much easier when we had our own theater,” sighs Vinson, taking a break at the Dance Center in Santa Rosa, where she’s been overseeing the Players’ annual summer theater camp. (This season it hosted a mere 27 young actors, significantly less than the 52 students enrolled the last time the camp was held at the old Lincoln Arts location).

It is the camp that will provide Oz‘s numerous munchkins, winkies, jitterbugs, flowers, and crows. Brandeberg–like many of the show’s chorus members and backstage crew–is a veteran of the summer program, which is also struggling to survive without a permanent home.

“Everything,” says Vinson, “is harder now.”

The toughest challenge facing the Players since their exit from the Lincoln Arts Center is that, without the home they were identified with for almost three decades, the Santa Rosa Players have become all but invisible.

“There are a lot of people who think we no longer exist,” Vinson says. “We’re the oldest theater company in this town, and most people don’t think we’re around anymore. It breaks my heart.”

Not to mention the pocketbook. With walk-in patronage having dropped off to almost nothing, the Players depend on subscription ticket holders more than ever. Ironically, subscription rates are up due to a massive phone and mailing campaign launched early this year, yet there still haven’t been enough bottoms in the seats to break even–this in spite of SRP having sold an average of about 100 tickets a show last season, evidence that there is still an audience for the kind of musical theater being done by the company.

But the audience for theater in general has suffered a major decline over the last year. (In 2000 SRP averaged 250 patrons per show for each musical.) And while there is a great deal of discussion about what to do, no theater company seems sure what action is best to take.

“Making money isn’t even the issue anymore,” Vinson says. “We’re all theater groups, we’re not trying to make lots of money. At this point, we’re just trying to stay alive.”

The Santa Rosa Players are clearly not alone in the haunted forest of live theater, and they’re not the only troupe to have lost their home. Over the last 20 months, evictions have come for downtown Santa Rosa’s experimental Studio Be and for Odyssey Theater’s short-lived performance space next door. Acclaimed two-facility Sonoma County Repertory chose to abandon its midsized theater space on Humboldt Street and consolidate operations into its other venue, the 81-seat Main Street Theater in Sebastopol.

“It was too cumbersome trying to run two facilities six miles apart,” explains Jim dePriest, SCR’s artistic director. While this consolidation of resources has proven positive for the company, “We’re actually coming off of one of our best seasons ever,” he declares. “Don’t ask me how we did it!”–the company has its share of challenges, operating all of its various programs and events out of a single (oh-so-tiny) theater.

“We’ve been fundraising, thinking about a larger facility that we can house all of our programs in,” dePriest says. “Finding the appropriate property will not be easy. It can’t be too expensive. It has to have a lot of room and conform to a lot of other specifications. So we’re in the search, and I really don’t know where we’ll end up.”

Even those who do have permanent homes and a stable infrastructure, such as Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater and Napa’s Dreamweavers Theatre, are reporting that the situation looks bleak, especially for those companies that frequently stage world premieres and experimental theater works.

“We’re definitely on the downswing part of the cycle right now, and I don’t see it coming back up again for quite a little while,” says Elly Lichenstein, executive director of Cinnabar Theater. “The last season, in terms of artistry and quality and inventiveness, was one of our best seasons ever, but it was not our best in terms of drawing people into the seats.”

Though Cinnabar’s popular summer children’s programs managed to fill up, they did so just barely, without the long waiting list that they’ve always experienced in the past. “The enemy,” Lichenstein suggests, “is the American economy. People take a look at their portfolios, and they get nervous. Or maybe they’re afraid of being laid off, or have been laid off. If you don’t have any disposable income, going to the theater might not be high on your list.”

Trevor Allen agrees. He’s the director of company services for Theatre Bay Area, a 26-year-old organization formed to aid live theaters and performers throughout the Bay Area. One of his jobs is to keep the pulse of the theatrical community at large.

“Most companies are seeing a slump in attendance,” he says, “and the economy is definitely part of it. Sept. 11 probably is still having some effect, as is the threat of impending war. People’s tendency is not to buy theater subscriptions when the future is uncertain.”

Regarding the shocking failures of so many recently bankrupt Bay Area theatrical institutions–even San Francisco’s legendary Theater Artaud had to pack it in last year, and the venerable Theater on the Square recently announced its closing–Allen begins to sound more like a scientist than a theater guy, tossing out such phrases as “artistic Darwinism” and stressing the importance of “cross-pollination” of theater companies. He cites a study published by the RAND Corporation a few years ago that compared theater companies to the hotel business.

According to the study, says Allen, “the big regional theaters across the nation–the ACTs, the Berkeley Reps–are going to continue to exist, whereas all the midsized theaters–much like in the hotel business, where the midsized chains and the mom and pops have gone away–are going to eventually disappear. So we’ll have a bunch of really small theaters, if we’re lucky, and a bunch of really big theaters–and nothing else. Unfortunately, it looks like the RAND study is beginning to play itself out.”

“Can I please have some good news?” Holly Vinson is begging the stage-tech on the other end of the cell phone. “Can’t anybody tell me something good?” Hanging up, she tosses the phone onto a nearby seat and drops into the one adjoining it. “What else can possibly go wrong?” she sighs.

This has been a hard night for Vinson. With just over a week to go before opening, the pressure of staging a show under the present conditions is taking its toll on everyone. She’s just learned that the lights needed to create her Yellow Brick Road are not available anywhere in the county. Earlier this afternoon, she received a shipment of rental costumes from the vault at SSU–with no budget for a designated costume designer, she’s resorted to renting and borrowing from anyone she can–and it was as if she had been sent costumes for a different show; the designated flying-monkey wings, on examination, are creamy, sparkly, semitransparent wings clearly designed to represent an angel.

Now, before Vinson has time to recover from the last disaster, Fischer takes a bad turn during a casual run-through of the Scarecrow dance. As we all go running for ice packs and doctors’ phone numbers, it is apparent that our Scarecrow has seriously injured himself. Indeed, by this time tomorrow, Vinson is convinced that Fischer won’t be on his feet again in time for opening night, and the search has begun for a last-minute replacement. For most of that day, she seriously thinks about shutting down the show altogether.

But there’s too much riding on this production. If Oz doesn’t go on– and doesn’t make money for SRP–there very well may not be enough funds to stage the remaining four shows of the season. So Vinson does what she’s been doing all along. She makes calls, begs favors, trims scenes; in short, she uses all the ingenuity and craft and resourcefulness she can summon to keep the show moving ahead.

Before long, she’s locked in another Scarecrow: 16-year-old dancer Jeremiah Ginn. In the middle of all that, she recarves and colors those angel wings to resemble those of a bat–perfect for a flying monkey.

That’s the kind of resourcefulness now needed from the entire North Bay theatrical community if it is to survive the developing crisis. Fortunately, the community has already started banding together and is busily plotting a large-scale dramatic resurrection.

The recently formed North Bay Theater Group ( is an alliance of theater groups that have banded together to find new ways to get those much desired butts into the empty seats. At present, the group includes Actors Theatre, Sonoma County Repertory, the Cinnabar, the Santa Rosa Players, Ukiah Players Theatre, the Rohnert Park-based Pacific Alliance Stage Company, and Monte Rio’s Pegasus Theater Company. Setting aside the competitive impulses of the past, the members have in essence pledged to support one another in this time of trouble and to encourage theater attendance throughout the North Bay.

Admittedly, the group’s initial efforts seem a bit small: flyers are provided at each company’s shows announcing the productions of the other theaters; ticket discounts are being offered when patrons show a full-price stub from another company; and an attractive new website offers news and entertaining facts about each member. But such steps are a significant move forward, demonstrating an awareness of a few hard facts. Inexperienced theater patrons have to be shown why a night at the theater is worth their time and money. In other words, the audience has to be grown.

That’s what Kim Taylor, a Marin-based publicist specializing in performing artists and small theater companies, says must be done if live theater is going to survive in the North Bay. With clients including the Ross Valley Players, Marin Classic Theatre, the Mountain Play, Belrose Dinner Theatre, and the San Anselmo Town Players, Taylor goes so far as to predict a live theater renaissance–if theaters do the right things right now.

“The shows that are enjoying the most success the last six months or so are shows that appeal to families and parents with children,” she says. “So we have to find a way to say to those parents who take their kids to see Peter Pan or to The Wizard of Oz, ‘That’s great that you treated your kids to a theatrical experience. Now you ought to go treat yourselves.'”

What Taylor is suggesting–and what Trevor Allen also prescribes–is marketing.

“I know that ‘marketing’ is a crass word for an art form,” says Allen. “For most companies, their marketing budget is miniscule if not nonexistent. But if theaters are going to get those butts in those seats, they are going to have to think smarter and market themselves better.”

What these companies have to do, adds Taylor, “is make it easier for people to go to the theater. Once people are in the seats–if the experience is good–you have an excellent chance of getting them back again.

“You know what I hear in the lobbies of theaters, something I never hear anywhere else?” she asks. “A show is over, a couple is walking out hand in hand, and one of them says to the other, ‘We should do this more often.’ You don’t hear that at the movie theater or at the county fair, do you? Because there is something charming and thrilling and life-affirming about watching a live performance–even a nonprofessional or semiprofessional one–and you can’t find it anywhere else.

“Sometimes people forget that, and it is a theater company’s job to remind them of that, by whatever means possible.”

By whatever means possible. The spirit of those words is as much a part of the theater world as “There’s no business like show business” and “The show must go on.” Now more than ever, they are words to live by–because the future is uncertain and the skies have grown dark.

Fortunately, for the time being, most of our theater lights remain on, and the theater is still the place where, as Dorothy from Kansas sings so well, “The dreams that we dare to dream really do come true.”

From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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