Marin’s theater scene sets the stage for talent despite lack of funding

As we enter the initial weeks of the 2014-15 theater season, the state of this beleaguered art form in Marin is good. Not great, but better than might be expected in a small county with a decentralized suburban population and two of the West Coast’s most important cultural hubs, San Francisco and Berkeley (with all that they offer) just a bridge crossing away. The picture might be even brighter if the severe water shortage we’re experiencing were not matched by another drought that’s been around for many years: money. More specifically, the widespread need for long-term, stable financial support for the arts.
It’s common knowledge that anyone brave or foolish enough to become seriously involved in a small nonprofit theater, whether at the professional or community level, is going to be overworked and underpaid. That people keep doing this year after year is one of the wonders of the world, and we who enjoy the results are blessed for it. A thriving arts scene enriches everyone, but when the money springs run dry, those who depend on them may be tempted to give up the daily struggle, and new ventures created by people endowed with creative vision and youthful energy are unable to take root.
With a few notable exceptions, that’s essentially a snapshot of Marin’s current theatrical landscape. In last year’s Fall Arts Preview, I noted that Porchlight Theatre was on the endangered list. Having cancelled its annual summer show in the rustic amphitheater behind Ross Valley Players’ Barn, the company was reportedly regrouping for a return in 2014. It didn’t happen. Lack of funding for required site changes and internal management squabbles sank a valuable cultural resource. It’s the latest in a series, with no replacements in sight.
That leaves us with the following lineup as we enter the 2014-15 season: Two professional companies operating under standard Equity contracts (Marin Shakespeare Company, with three summer productions at Forest Meadows Ampitheatre on the Dominican University campus, and Marin Theatre Company, with six productions during the regular season at their Mill Valley playhouse); two volunteer-run community groups (Ross Valley Players at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross, and the Novato Theater Company in its new digs adjacent to Hamilton); and, finally, a pair of professional/community hybrids (the Mountain Play, with one annual production, early summer on Mt. Tam, and Marin Alternative Theater (AlterTheater), presenting a couple of plays yearly in various empty San Rafael storefronts). A trio of non-mainstream participants—tiny Curtain Theater (one summer production in the amphitheatre behind the Mill Valley Library), the College of Marin Drama Department (various student shows on the Kentfield campus), and a festival of short plays called “Fringe of Marin” at Dominican—complete the list.
It might seem like a lot, but it really isn’t. During our “warm” summer months, except for Curtain’s free performances in Old Mill Park, Marin Shakespeare Company’s three productions are the only game in town. During the 10 months from September through June, the heart of the regular season, MTC’s six professionally produced shows are the focus of local attention. The lower-ranked companies have their loyal followings, but it’s hit or miss when it comes to play selection and performance quality. (I should add, however, that the Mountain Play, AlterTheater and RVP frequently offer entertaining fare and they have something going for them that the big boys don’t: bargain-priced tickets!)
Since Novato Theater company hasn’t been on my review schedule recently, I can’t make any judgments about quality, but play selection has been questionable in the past. Under Mark Clark’s leadership, that may be changing. See the “News” sidebar for NTC.
Marin Theatre Company is one of two major exceptions to the financial crunch most of its peers are facing. Its history is a classic example of how adequate funding can create a positive feedback loop. Back in 1984 a group of generous private donors raised several hundred thousand dollars and leveraged it to get grants and loan guarantees from the San Francisco Foundation, which was then administering the Buck Trust. The money raised was used to move the tiny but respected Mill Valley Center for the Performing Arts from the town’s old Golf Clubhouse to a vacant commercial building on Miller Avenue that was purchased and converted into the attractive theater complex that stands there today. Successive waves of other generous donors eventually replaced most of the founders, operations expanded and quality improved. In response, the subscriber list steadily lengthened—to the point that when the Marin Community Foundation (which took control of Buck grants after successful litigation) discontinued direct operational subsidies a few years ago, MTC could comfortably sail ahead under its own power.
While Marin Shakespeare Company has received substantially less contributed support from foundations and individuals than MTC, not having a building to maintain or a large permanent staff has allowed it to put most of its money into productions and outreach to local schools and prisons. That, in turn, has elevated its prominence in the community, attracting subscribers and helping to keep the company on a solid financial footing. Now, the recent receipt of a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor has the potential to transform what has essentially been a low-key mom-and-pop operation under Lesley and Robert Currier into one of Northern California’s top producers of the Shakespeare canon.
As we all know, success tends to build upon success. In the theater world, that means having the right combination of money and talent. One without the other won’t get the job done. Below the top echelon occupied by MTC and MSC, many leaders of second-tier companies that make substantial contributions to Marin’s cultural life, when interviewed for this report, wondered if they can avoid the financial crisis that closed Porchlight and others before it. They said the clear need is for a multitude of dependable revenue sources—from individuals, government, business and, most of all, from the Marin Community Foundation, which in recent years has been directing funding away from the arts to social justice and affordable housing projects.
Wishful thinking? Probably. But a cultural community is like a garden: plant the seeds with care, attract knowledgeable people to tend the plants, nourish them with adequate food and water, and they will reward you with a bountiful harvest. Neglect them and they will die. It’s as simple as that.
Marin Theatre Company 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415/388-5200, marintheatre.org
News: Now entering his eighth season as artistic director, Jasson Minadakis is watching MTC’s play development program pay off handsomely as two of six scheduled productions this season will be of scripts that were winners of the company’s Sky Cooper New American Play Prize. During the run of The Whale, its author, Sam Hunter, will be on hand for a public presentation of a project now in the workshop stage. Date and place to be announced. Public outreach is expanding with Q&A discussions after most performances and preview discussions of the season’s plays at libraries around the county.
Fall Productions: The Whale (Oct. 2-26), The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) (Nov. 28-Dec. 21)
Marin Shakespeare Company Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 415/499-4488, marinshakespeare.org
News: Over and above the recent $1 million donation, contributions are at a higher level than previously, which is a welcome vote of confidence. With the support of a grant from the California Arts Council based on the impressive success of their Shakespeare at San Quentin Prison initiative (inmates guided by professionals perform plays for their fellow prisoners and members of the public), MSC is inaugurating a similar program at Solano State Prison in Vacaville. Managing Director Lesley Currier is in charge of a staff that will include interns with a drama therapy background. Discussions are underway with Dominican about facility improvements at Forest Meadows. One high priority item is to upgrade the stage lighting system, which is now over 40 years old.
Fall Productions: Romeo and Juliet and An Ideal Husband (running in repertory through Sept. 28)
Mountain Play Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais, 415/383-1100, mountainplay.org
News: The Gala will feature stars from Mountain Play musicals that go back to 2006. The practice of bringing in new directors every year will continue and there may be other staff changes, with the goal being to make the organization “more dynamic,” according to Executive Director Sara Pearson. The $50,000 income shortfall for this year’s production of South Pacific has now been covered through fundraising.
Fall productions: Hooked on Broadway (Gala fundraiser) at the Hoyt Theater, OSHA Marin (Nov. 8) Next summer’s show is Peter Pan.
Antenna Theatre San Rafael, 415/578-2435, antenna-theater.org
News: After a 15-year occupancy, Antenna has had to move its headquarters from Marin Headlands to San Rafael’s Gerstle Park when its lease expired. The special effects-enhanced Magic Bus tours of San Francisco have been drawing more customers, especially among tourists, and a new tour bus experience is about halfway through the design process.
Fall productions: Summer of Love Magic Bus tours continue in San Francisco.
AlterTheater 1333 Fourth St., San Rafael 415/454-2787, altertheater.org
News: Unavailable
Fall productions: TBA
Ross Valley Players Marin Art & Garden Center, Ross, 415/456-9555, rossvalleyplayers.com
News: Last season ran a small deficit, but the good news is that the large rent increase the group originally faced has been reduced to a more manageable level. Chapter 2 and Old Money were the 2013-14 income laggards. Company goals include raising actors’ stipends (currently $100 for the production run) in order to make RVP more attractive to Bay Area talent who live outside Marin. There is also talk of starting an outreach program for school-age children, details of which have not yet been announced. This month RVP is also celebrating its 85th anniversary season, marking it as the oldest, continually operating community theater on the West Coast.
Fall productions: The Fox on the Fairway (Sept. 12-Oct. 12), Jane Austin’s Persuasion (Nov. 14-Dec. 12)
Novato Theater Company 5420 Nave Dr., Novato, 415/883-4498, novatotheatercompany.org
News: After several years of not having a permanent home, NTC is now happily settled into its space in the Hamilton area. Though the interior is still unfinished—audience risers are needed, among other things—there is a palpable sense of energy and vision coming from Mark Clark, its new artistic director/board chair. The recently concluded season saw an improved play schedule that featured Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the off-Broadway musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, Next to Normal. There will be staged readings of a new musical about life among the techies in Silicon Valley Nov. 14-16.
Fall productions: Leading Ladies (through Sept. 14), Avenue Q (Oct. 10-Nov. 9), Inspecting Carol (Nov. 29-Dec. 21)
College of Marin Drama Department Kentfield campus, Sir Francis Drake Blvd., 415/485-9558, marin.edu/departments
News: Drama Department Coordinator Lisa Morse says they are looking to expand their relationship with Kent Middle School, whose students can simply cross College Ave. to see a performance arranged specially for them. Consideration is being given to dropping the requirement that all actors must be enrolled students because it discourages experienced community actors (who often act as mentors for college beginners) from participating.
Fall productions: Little Women (Sept. 25-Oct. 5, Main Stage), The American Dream/The Zoo Story (Nov. 20-Dec. 7, Studio Theatre)
ONE FINAL NOTE: Although it lies a few miles north of the Marin County boundary, Spreckels Theatre Company, performing at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park (5409 Snyder Ln., 707/588-3434) is a convenient, low-cost way to view fully staged professional quality productions of Broadway musicals. Next up is Bell Book & Candle, Sept. 19-Oct. 9.
Charles can be reached at cbrousse@att.net.