The house goes to dark, the audience quiets in anticipation, and then, lights up—actors hit the boards and the show is on! There’s plenty of this kind of excitement in Sonoma County with more than 25 companies, many performing live theater year-round.

Before you head for the city and wrestle with traffic, why not find out what’s playing locally. I’m proud to be part of this vigorous industry, having directed theater for over 30 years. Today we are going to cozy down into the “green room” with three theater groups in North and West county to see what makes their companies unique.
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center
It’s 10 a.m. on a crisp morning as Yave Gusman and I sidle along for coffee. Yave is artistic director of the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center. He greets folks by their first names which fits right in with what he believes makes this group so successful: community. The theater opened in 2010 infused with the spirit of—‘Hey, let’s find a barn and put on a show!’ Led by community leader Mary Ann Brigham, local businesses and citizens donated lights, sewed ‘blacks’ (curtains), refurbished seats from an old movie house, painted and hammered.

Yave graduated from Cloverdale High School, went to Santa Rosa Junior College, collected a BA in Theater Arts from UC Santa Cruz and returned home. In 2014 he became artistic director. “How great is that?” he said. Yave sees Cloverdale as the theatrical epicenter of the region. A successfully met goal has been to pull actors, directors and audiences from as far away as Mendocino College in the north, and all the way south to Rohnert Park.

I asked Yave about money, the big thorn for every production company. At one time, community theaters were 100 percent volunteer, actors/directors—nobody was paid. Theater is labor-intensive. It requires hundreds of hours to produce a play: auditions, rehearsals, set and costume construction, performances. The epitome of volunteerism: an activity for pleasure rather than for financial gain. Lots of heads wag up and down on that one. Today, most actors receive just enough to cover gas expenses.

Stepping inside Cloverdale’s 99-seat theater, you know right away there’s not a bad seat in the house. Designed by Paul Gilger, also architect of 6th Street Playhouse, the stage and audience coalesce into a happy space. Lounge-velvet seats (each with a cup holder) give off a welcome that makes you want to snuggle down and see a show. Besides plays, you can also enjoy an evening of ‘Open Mic’ and ‘Books on Stage’—both free.

“We’ve been attaining 70-percent full houses, an accomplishment that we are continually striving to expand,” Yave said. He describes this year’s lineup of plays as a “dream season,” offering a balance of entertainment they have been striving to achieve. It is important, he explains, to serve all factions of the community—adult, youth, those who want drama and those who will only attend a comedy. Not an easy trick.

May begins the second half of their season with a favorite classic, “The Importance of Being Ernest,” followed by “Puss and Boots,” where, with audience participation, a princess is discovered. Then back to adult comedy with a hysterical comedy that I was fortunate to see while in London, “Run For Your Wife.” They finish off the season with “Mr. Toad” and will already be well into decisions for 2017.

To operate a theater successfully, the loop is always twirling, a cycle that never stops. As we part, Yave tilts his head and smiles. “It’s oddly curious that ‘theater’ struggles, always… and yet, after 2,500 years, here we are.”*

Raven Performing Arts Theater
I’m sitting inside the Raven Theater, known fondly as the Aven Theater back when I was a kid. Memories abound. Healdsburg is my hometown and I’ve spent many hours in this building as a kid, later as a teen, sneaking into blue lounge seats, maybe even got my first kiss here. Theater founder Joe Gellura and marketing director Carol Noack have joined me to talk about the Raven Performing Arts Theater and its resident theater company, the Raven Players. Suddenly the door whaps open, the sun flooding in along with the UPS delivery guy. “Hi, Mr. Healdsburg,” Carol says, and they all share a laugh. And it is, actually, Mr. Healdsburg, Bob Barker, who won last year’s contest sponsored by the theater. Besides this contest, and a full season of eight plays, they also stage “Dancing with the Stars” and an event called “24/7,” where actors, directors, and playwrights gather to write a play overnight, returning the next evening to perform it in front of an enthusiastic audience.
“Interaction with the community is our focus,” Joe says, echoing Yave.
Carol agrees. “It’s what I’m most proud of.”

In a town that has become a destination for the rich and famous, Joe explains, “We’ve resisted bringing in high-end touring acts to make money. We prefer to make less but serve our neighbors and friends.” Thus their space is used by youth theater groups, schools, the American Association of University Women, Healdsburg Ballet, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival and more.

The Raven Players opened in 2001 and the board got busy raising $1 million to purchase the building, which they did in 2003 with a special boost from Richard Norgrove of the Bear Republic Brewing Company. Last year they hired an artistic director, Steven David Martin.

“We opened a second theater in Windsor and had a good few years,” Joe says, “but just couldn’t get local support. When we couldn’t buy the building, regretfully we closed that arm of our operation,” says Joe.

How does a theater group determine its season? I’m remembering back to the early ’80s, as a board member of Santa Rosa Players, when after considerable haranguing and not a few loud voices, we voted not to accept “Grease” into the season—the language and content not appropriate fare. Imagine.
Joe explains, “We are in a competitive market and must balance musicals with ‘straight’ shows.” There is a catch-22 in this endeavor. Musicals attract more patrons but are expensive to produce. “It costs us $35,000 to mount a musical,” Joe says. “It takes a tremendous leap of faith.” Forty percent of their annual budget comes from ticket sales; donations and fundraisers make up the difference. As Joe says, “The Raven is an organization of and by the community.”

Coming up: “Immaterial Matters,” a new original play about a 19th century photographer who is touched by the spirits of his recently deceased subjects, showing May 19-29; and the musical comedy “Bye Bye Birdie” from June 24-July 10.

Main Stage West
On the busiest corner in Sebastopol, inside a building that looks more like a drug store front than a theater, because it once was, I sit in the lobby of Main Stage West with Artistic Director Beth Craven. “Theater in Sonoma County,” Beth says, “is a vibrant place for actors. I cut my teeth in this area.” And indeed she did, having worked as director and/or management with Santa Rosa Players, Actors Theater, Cinnabar, Western Union, 6th Street Playhouse and now Main Stage West, not to mention stints outside California. Between Beth and her husband John Craven, drama instructor at Santa Rosa High and actor extraordinaire, they have touched every phase of theater in the area.

On this corner, laughter and tears have been happening since the 1990s. If these walls could only talk, they’d share the thrill of hundreds of opening nights, beginning with NOVA Theater, then Sonoma County Repertory Company founded by Jim DePriest and Steven David Martin in 1993. Jennifer King and Scott Phillips stepped in and ran Sonoma Rep for 10 years. DePriest, a mainstay of the theater community, recently passed away. Today, the theater is under the guidance of Beth Craven and called Main Stage West. The umbrella organization is PACT (Performing Arts Coalition for Theater), a group of directors and actors.

The first thing Beth did was assess the community—what do they want from a theater? “I see the county in hamlets,” she explains. “We decided to be the theater of Sebastopol. If we do it well, people from other hamlets might come over to see what’s up.”

“Our company philosophy is all about quality,” Beth states. “We draw from a primary base of talent, but also invite others to participate through auditions.” She is proud to be the only theater in the county to have a ‘letter of agreement’ with the Bay Area Theatrical Union, meaning there is a track record of quality productions, translating into jobs for actors.” Why do actors join the union, I ask Beth, knowing that theaters must pay ‘equity’ actors much more. She explains that only union actors can work in the larger professional venues, a must if one is to break into the business. “Most equity actors are very skilled, but, so too, are non-equity.”

“Do you want to see the design for our new show, “The Road to Mecca?” Beth’s eyes light up. You’d think after 30-plus years, she’d take a more ho-hum attitude. But, it is this exact spirit that keeps theater companies driving forward. We go up a small set of stairs and she turns the lights on in the 75-seat house. Voila! The stage is magical with exotic beads hanging from doorways and brightly painted walls and furniture. The theater itself is intimate and comfy. I wonder how they make their ‘nut’ with such a small house. “We have amazing support from folks who care. Our board and president Chris Costin, and local supporters like Dan Smith and wife Joan Marler, restaurateurs of The French Garden,” Beth says.

She swipes her long white hair back and smiles. “We’re not about block-buster shows. We select our plays carefully, stay focused on quality, and pray.”

In May and June: “Bob: A Life in Five Acts” chronicles the highly unusual life of Bob and his lifelong quest to become a “Great Man,” showing May 6-22. “Hope” illuminates our country’s immigrant experience using storytelling, poignant lyrics and haunting melodies, from June 17-July 10.

Becoming Patrons
We are fortunate to have such a rich array of theater, music, art and literature at our fingertips, here in our county. Major challenges shared by all performing art groups are how to keep audiences excited about attending productions and how to overcome their financial conundrums. Perhaps, someday, America will adopt the European model and the arts will garner appropriate support from the government, because culture is viewed as a universal birthright to be protected and celebrated. In the meantime, we can help out by becoming enthusiastic patrons.

Did you know that going to the theater is good for you? The top reasons people attend the arts include socializing with friends, learning new things, and supporting the community. Sounds like an excellent recipe for happiness. SD

RESOURCES
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center
209 No Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale
Tickets online: cloverdaleperformingarts.com; by phone: 707-894-3222

Raven Performing Arts Theater
115 North Street, Healdsburg
Tickets online: raventheater.org
by phone: 707-433-6335

Main Stage West
104 North Main St., Sebastopol
Tickets online: MainStageWest.com
by phone: 707-823-0177