Heroes of Marin 2016
Arts & Culture: Sara Pearson
By Charles Brousse
Ask a politician, or the manager of just about any nonprofit organization, what the least favorite part of their job is, and the almost certain reply will be, “Fundraising.” Not the case with Sara Pearson. Executive Director of the Mountain Play Association and producer of the annual play in the Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre atop Mount Tamalpais, Pearson says that corralling the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations needed to support each year’s show is “fun.” Before you conclude that the lady has lost her marbles, let me suggest that the ability to enjoy her work—along with the remarkable mix of passion, energy, perseverance and management skills that comes with it—is the essential quality that has fueled her success since the Mountain Play’s board of directors selected her to replace the retiring Kathy King.
Now, you may wonder what is so difficult about pulling together one production a year when resident theaters regularly mount five to seven every season. The answer lies in the scale and complexity of company operations. Since budgets usually tell the story best, here’s a quick summary for last year’s six performances and one dress rehearsal of Peter Pan. On the expense side, costs totaled $1,152,500. The income grand total was $724,300. That left a gap of $428,200 that had to be covered by grants and individual contributions to break even. Despite strong attendance figures and energetic fundraising, the fiscal year ended with a small deficit of $4,700.
The main problem is that Mountain Play productions have so many moving parts. Many of them can potentially go wrong and it’s virtually certain that some will. There could be trouble with California State Parks, which is sensitive to overuse of the land; a shuttle bus accident or breakdown on the winding narrow road that leads to the top of Mt. Tam; unfavorable weather on performance days; a medical emergency in the large casts; glitches in the sound system; higher than expected royalty costs. In the absence of a financial reserve or endowment, a setback like the audience decline after the country’s 2007 economic crash can pose an existential threat. In such circumstances, with only a three-person paid administrative staff (plus volunteers) to keep the ship afloat, people on the inside confirm that it helps to have a “happy warrior” at the helm.
“The large-scale American musical isn’t dead!” Pearson says, noting that people love the classics. “How about The Lion King on the mountain? Wouldn’t that be something!”
Sara Pearson was born in Bismarck, North Dakota, but when very young, migrated with her family to Baltimore, Maryland, where she says she encountered a lively cultural scene. Frequent trips to New York theaters with her father led to a desire to get on stage—a calling that she tested in high school and in the drama program at Drew University (Madison, New Jersey) in the early 1970s. When the latter was abruptly shut down two years after she arrived, Pearson left Drew and, having decided by then that a theater career was (in her words) “not meant to be,” headed west to the Bay Area in 1976. Once here, she married a Baltimore friend, Adam Davis (currently a partner in an environment-oriented San Francisco investment firm) and enrolled at San Francisco State University to study history and international relations. Most importantly, she also took a course on nonprofit company management that got her thinking about her future career. The couple moved to Marin in 1989, where their two daughters, now aged 26 and 21, attended local public schools before going on to graduate from Marin Academy.
Always a practical problem-solver rather than someone chasing academic degrees, Pearson sought out actual job experiences to hone what by then she recognized were her native abilities. During the subsequent two decades after she and Davis settled here, she worked as a part-time consultant to, or staff member of, a variety of organizations, including Mother Jones magazine, the Marin Conservation Corps, Marin Conservation League, Point Blue Conservation Science and many others. (All the while, of course, she was raising her children, volunteering at school functions, meeting with teachers, doing what mothers usually do.) From a professional standpoint, the most notable part of this pre-Mountain Play period was her 10-year tenure (1992-2002) as development director for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). Working beside MALT founder Bob Berner, she was able to use skills gained in telemarketing, public relations, board management and fundraising (especially the solicitation and cultivation of major donors) in the group’s successful campaign to raise $5 million in individual gifts, an achievement that helped establish the organization as a model for similar land preservation programs.
Despite past achievements and a positive attitude, Pearson recognizes that the road ahead for the Mountain Play is full of potential potholes. Public enthusiasm for a family theatrical outing on Mt. Tam could wane as alternative recreational options multiply. Costs are increasing faster than income, and there is still no reserve to draw on. Since few of the latest Broadway musicals have the scale needed for a Mountain Play, it is forced to continually recycle previous productions (a situation also faced by opera companies, ballets and symphony orchestras). After a suitable musical like The Lion King does debut in New York, production rights are withheld for years and, when they finally become available, are priced beyond reach.
So—what to do? Pearson’s sights are now set on the Mountain Play’s West Side Story—directed by Jay Manley (whose The Sound of Music was a big success a couple of seasons ago), and incorporating a stellar artistic team—which opens a five-Sunday run on May 21. Pearson expects that the Mountain Play goal of “community theater with professional standards” will be fully realized. “It has everything: Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, a book based on Romeo and Juliet … ,” Pearson says. “The audience will love it!”
As for the more distant future, Pearson says that her primary objective is to create a solid financial base for the organization she runs and, in the process, strengthen its ties with the Marin community. “It’s been around for 103 years,” she says of the Mountain Play. “I want it to grow and evolve so that our grandchildren can also enjoy ‘a day on the mountain.’”