Feature: Staging an intervention

Have theater companies become addicted to crowd-friendly musicals?

by David Templeton

It started on my Facebook page.

Six little words, posted as a private message in response to a link about a show I’d recently seen. A musical, one of many I’d caught in the previous few weeks. This one wasn’t particularly good.

Bing! In came the message.

“Musicals,” it read, “are destroying Sonoma County theater.”

Period. No exclamation point. Just the cold hard statement.

This declaration was, I should say, left by a very talented actor-director, a passionate local theater artist who’s been conspicuously out of the spotlight on local stages lately.

He is also a straight-talker who knows how to poke at the tender parts of his audience. For one thing, he happens to know that I like musicals in addition to straight plays (theater-speak for non-musical shows). But his was a provocative remark, pointing to a significant issue in the North Bay theater scene, one I’ve had numerous discussions about in recent years: the difficulty of building an audience for new and challenging theatrical works, and the financial necessity of feeding the tastes of what audience there already is.

So I reposted the message as a question of my own.

“Are musicals destroying Sonoma County theater?”

Mindful of how the theater community works in this area, I expanded the geography of my question—now bouncing out to the 300 or so of my mostly-theater-involved Facebook friends—from its original Sonoma County focus, to now include artists from the entire North Bay, where an actor from Santa Rosa might take a part in a show in Napa or Marin, and a director from San Rafael might take a gig helming a show in Sebastopol or Cloverdale.

The response was immediate—and all over the map.

Musicals vs. Plays

“I don’t think it’s as serious as ‘musicals are ruining it,’” says actor-director Nicholas Christenson of Narrow Way Stage Company. Narrow Stage has long been known for it’s willingness to tackle new, unknown and controversial plays, including the occasional musical, such as Stephen Sondheim’s polarizing Assassins, currently in rehearsals for a September opening in Sonoma.

“Musicals are extremely important to the overall picture of the theater scene,” Christenson says. “They just shouldn’t be the only thing on stage.”

OK, so there’s one pro-musical voice.

Add to that Rohnert Park-based publicist and event marketer Karen Pierce-Gonzales, who has promoted both musicals and non-musicals in the course of her event-marketing career.

“Musicals are perhaps the most accessible all-age theater genre,” she says. “I wish we had more of them.”

So there’s another on the pro-musical side.

Who’s next?

“To say that musicals are killing local theater is like saying Midsummer or Twelfth Night are doing the same,” says actor-director Matt Cadigan, who recently directed a piece for Tapas, Pegasus Theater’s New Short Play Festival. “We see Shakespeare shows every year, every damn year, because they are well-known and bring the money in. I think musicals have a very important place in theater, in that they make money for the big houses.”

And there’s another on the pro-musical side. Or wait—is he?

Cadigan’s articulate and funny answer to my Facebook question (“Season ticket-holders expect to see ‘Cats’!”) quickly moved on to address the problem of separate companies performing the same shows over and over—both musicals and straight plays—leading to duplication and a sense of staleness. Indeed, there have been at least three productions of Fiddler on the Roof in the North Bay in the last two years, two productions of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in Sonoma County within a year of each other, and Sonoma Arts Live, in Sonoma, will be staging the mathematical drama Proof in August, just four months after it was staged at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center in April (though admittedly, even if both in Sonoma County, these theaters do not serve the same geographic audience). Last Christmas, there were two productions of the play Other Desert Cities running simultaneously in Sebastopol and Rio Nido, less than 15 miles apart.

“I think,” concluded Cadigan, “that the mixture of musicals clogging a season, and what’s left being so repetitive, can choke out what is important about theater. We need to see more stories coming through that we don’t know. We need to capture different audiences to grow local theater. Is it growing right now? I don’t know.”

So that one is pro-musical, but just barely—and with a bit of attitude.

Speaking of which, actor David Tice Allison, an admitted disliker of musicals—despite the fact that he recently played the larcenous Fagin in Lucky Penny’s Oliver (“A blessing and a fluke,” he says)—has always preferred serious drama, the more disturbing the better.

“People leave plays like Sam Shepard’s Buried Child feeling weird and muttering, ‘Holy Jesus!’” Allison says. “They exit musicals feeling like they’ve eaten half a bag of jelly beans.”

Dollars and Cents

After several days, the online conversation actually heated up a bit, demonstrating a roughly equal level of support for both musicals and straight plays, with a larger number of responses falling somewhere in between.

“What’s killing community theater,” says actor-director Larry Williams, whose production of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is running at 6th Street Playhouse through July 19, “is the same thing that’s always killed community theater: lack of funding through fundraising, certainly not a lack of possibilities or ideas.”

“In this age of three-inch screens,” asks Gene Abravaya, of Spreckels Theatre Company, which presents both musicals and straight plays, “what will keep theater alive longer: maintaining the interest of an adult who likes to attend thought-provoking dramas, or capturing the imagination of a youngster who has never attended a musical before?

“The answer is both,” he answers, “as long as they are both done well.”

As long as they are done well.

This is a point that several make—namely, that it’s the quality of the work, whether musical or straight, that eventually draws an audience or drives it away.

“Do you know what really kills theater,” says Harry Duke, Santa Rosa actor and theater reviewer. “Bad theater.”

It’s a point made painfully explicit by award-winning theater artist Conrad Bishop, of the Sebastopol-based touring theatre company, the Independent Eye. A lifelong supporter of the arts, Bishop applauds the efforts of North Bay artists who keep making watchable theater amid the hardest of hard times (“I’ve been very impressed with the quality of many productions I’ve seen here,” he says). But even having just praised some local artists, even he admits to getting exasperated by the overall quality of theater in the North Bay, where the talent pool is so stretched between so many companies.

“Despite having spent 45 years in professional theater,” he says, “I usually find it much cheaper, and usually much more satisfying, to just go to a movie.”

Ouch.

Bishop’s point mirrors Duke’s, suggesting that instead of being pro-musical or pro-straight play, perhaps the best thing that a North Bay theater artist can do is to become staunchly pro-quality.

On the pro-quality and pro-musical side is Dan Monez, currently a board member of Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, which this year has presented the musicals Oliver, Bonnie and Clyde and Cowgirls.

“Having been on the management/production side of two nonprofit theater companies, as well as an actor-singer for many years, I couldn’t disagree more with that statement,” Monez said of the musicals-killing-plays charge. “In fact,” he says, “one could argue that musicals are saving nonprofit theaters in small markets and communities.”

Monez believes that musicals are just as worthy of being called “theater” as are straight plays. “Musicals draw diverse audiences and generate good buzz for a company,” he says, “not to mention the fact that they usually turn a profit. Some artists are so wrapped up in the ‘importance’ of what they do, they forget who they are doing it for: the customer, the business side of the house. The fact is, without some deep pocket underwriting, you can’t make it work.”

The Chardonnay Analogy

“Have a glass of wine, and I’ll tell you exactly why musicals are ruining local theater,” says Adam Palafox.

Palafox is the founder of Sonoma County’s Actors Basement Theater Company, and the one who posted the original message on Facebook. Though admitting to some concern that he might be targeted in the future as the guy who put a hit out on the proverbial golden goose, he’s agreed to elaborate while taking a lunch break from his day job as hospitality and sales manager at Pellegrini Wine Company’s Olivet Lane Vineyards in Santa Rosa.

As an actor and director, Palafox—who interned and served as dramaturge with San Francisco’s acclaimed Campo Santo—has shown a strong interest in developing new works and putting fresh spins on classics. At Campo Santo, he worked on the development of new plays by Sam Shepard, Naomi Iizuka, Octavio Solis and others.

In his work with Actors Basement, a nomadic company that performs sporadically, usually in alternative spaces or “black box” theaters, Palafox produced and directed a number of original works, and hopes to bring a pair of developing projects—Ghosts of Santa Rosa and Conversations with Our Fathers—to the stage in the next year or two. Palafox has become discouraged lately with what he sees as an increasing lack of opportunities for artists eager to do something outside the mainstream.

To make the point, he pours me a glass of 2013 unoaked chardonnay.

“Chardonnay is a perfect metaphor for what’s going on in the theater community in the North Bay, particularly Sonoma and probably Napa County,” Palafox says. “Years ago, when people were saying that chardonnay was destroying the wine industry, they didn’t mean we should do away with all chardonnays. They meant that the trend toward big, oaky, buttery, ridiculously over-the-top chardonnay was closing the boundaries of what the wine industry had to offer and what wine-drinkers knew about wine.

“Chardonnay,” he continues, “can run the gamut, from the crisp notes you have here to the super-oaky, and neither is good or bad. But when you have a majority of people focusing on producing what they consider to be the cash cow, then it hurts the overall industry because it shrinks the marketplace; it leaves out the people trying to do something different.”

In Palafox’s view, musicals, oaky and delicious, have not only become the big buttery chardonnay of the North Bay’s theatrical tasting room, they’ve become so popular that theaters are becoming increasingly afraid to take chances with anything else.

“I’m not suggesting that theaters stop doing musicals,” he says. “I’m saying, let’s look at the boundaries we’ve created for ourselves by depending so much on musicals. Let’s show the diversity of what theater really is, and put more energy into making theater everything it can be.”

He admits that there are exceptions.

“Main Stage West [Sebastopol] has been doing small, original works and challenging new plays, and they are doing it very well,” he says, “but they can do it because they have a small theater with relatively low overhead. Straight plays cost less to produce than musicals. And they’ve built an audience that is interested in what they have to offer. They’ve done it right.”

Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, which produces a blend of musicals and plays, has also found a way to make it work, having just closed the seventh in a string of consecutive sold-out shows that were extended due to audience demand. And in recent months, a new company devoted to small, nonmusical plays has emerged. Left Edge Theater, founded by Argo Thompson, launches its inaugural season this September at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, with four straight plays, most of them premieres or relatively new works.

“I believe there is an audience for new works, and unusual works,” Palafox says. “But you have to reach them, and you have to earn their trust, and then you have to keep that trust. I think a lot of theaters in this area, excepting Cinnabar and Main Stage West and Marin Theatre Company, have forgotten what their audience is, or are just catering to the part of their audience that only wants the familiar and the safe.”

Spreckels Theatre Company recently added encore performances of the musical Mary Poppins, one of the biggest hits they’ve ever had. The crowd-pleasing Poppins was staged in the large 500-plus auditorium, while Spreckels’ smaller 99-seat venue next door, where the company’s smaller musicals and straight plays are performed, rarely has a full house. Doesn’t that prove that the audience for small, original works is just a fraction of what it is for musicals? Isn’t it a theater’s responsibility to give the audience what it wants?

In answer, Palafox pours another glass of wine.

“It’s a matter of return on investment,” he says. “At one time, chardonnay was very accessible. It was inexpensive to produce and affordable for the consumer. But the cost of producing it kept going up, so the cost of a bottle in stores went up, and what once started out as an approachable item started pricing out consumers. And then they went elsewhere.”

So the less affluent consumers were forced from the table, and wandered off to see what’s on tap at the brewhouse down the street?

“Exactly,” Palafox says. “Musicals are popular, so companies do a lot of them, because they have to pay the bills. They get addicted to those larger audiences. But musicals are also expensive. The return on investment is often lower, so they have to charge more, pushing away folks with less money to spend. When the cost of doing those musicals becomes so expensive they can no longer afford to produce them at the same level of quality, then they lose their affluent audience, too. And they’ve already lost their less-affluent audience.

“And then,” Palafox says with a shrug, “they’re out of business, which is why I say that musicals are destroying local theater. Musicals are an addiction, and we have to stage an intervention. I’m not saying we should have some prohibition on musicals. They are part of the landscape, and they have something to offer. Let’s definitely do musicals.

“I’m just saying,” he concludes, “that we need to do musicals responsibly.”

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