Theater: Going Strong

The secrets behind the success of 87-year-old Ross Valley Players

By Charles Brousse

Taking advantage of a break in the review schedule, I’m devoting this first column in March to sharing some thoughts about a tiny but truly remarkable local theater company that, at the end of this season, will have been an important part of the Marin cultural scene since 1930. Eighty-seven years, and about 420 productions—it’s an amazing record, one which makes the current leaders completely justified in proudly proclaiming theirs to be the longest continuously performing community theater west of the Mississippi River.

The Ross Valley Players (RVP) began as an itinerant group, presenting plays wherever they could find space. Then, in 1940, they found a permanent home in town founder James Ross’ former barn, now on the grounds of the Marin Art & Garden Center. But longevity is only part of the RVP story. A search of their production history reveals that they haven’t settled for the lightweight comedies and thrillers that are the staple of most community theaters. Yes, there have been some of those, but sprinkled among them are many of the greatest plays that the modern Western theater has generated—foreign classics by Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Moliere, Coward and Goldsmith, and American classics by Miller, Williams, Albee, Wilder, Simon, Kaufman and Hart, to name a few. And they haven’t overlooked relatively unknown newcomers, like John Patrick Shanley, Caryl Churchill, A.R. Gurney, Jon Robin Baitz and Sarah Ruhl.

The further miracle is that they’ve done this on a shoestring, performing in a drafty old building, with non-Equity actors and almost everyone either working as a volunteer or close to it. So—to pose the question frequently asked of spry nonagenarians as they march toward the 100-year mark—what’s the secret?

I think the answer is fairly simple. Start with eclectic programming—seasons with just enough theatrical “meat” in them to attract Bay Area directors, designers and non-union performers who are looking for an artistic challenge to overcome the disadvantage of low, or no pay; seasons that appeal to Marin’s educated, affluent, but decidedly middle-brow audience, who like to feel that they’re culturally up-to-date as long as it doesn’t go too far and cost too much. Add a low operating overhead, thanks to volunteerism, and a below-market facility rental, which has made it possible to sell seats at a fraction of the professional competition. Top it off with a dash of nostalgia among the graying playgoers, and you have the makings of that single most essential ingredient of a sustainable operation: A loyal, committed following.

The trouble is that, with no financial reserves to fall back on, things are so delicately balanced at RVP that a single malfunction or miscalculation may affect everything else. Take the question of programming choices. In a telephone interview, veteran Business Manager Alex Ross cited examples from recent seasons. Robin Hood, Glorious and The Ladies of the Camellias were expected to have strong ticket sales. Instead, they were financial disasters that might have threatened the company’s viability if The Diary of Anne Frank and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance had not had such profitable runs.

Finding the right modern plays has also become harder. As the American theater has decentralized, there are no automatic “draws” like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon were in the ’40s and ’50s. Audiences have to take a chance on playwrights whose names they don’t recognize.

The availability of high-quality, non-union talent has declined as small nonprofit Bay Area theaters, many of them specializing in exciting experimental work, lure actors away from the decidedly “uncool” traditional sector.

Faced with financial troubles of its own, RVP’s landlord (the Marin Art & Garden Center) has raised monthly rents substantially over the last few years and has agreed only to a lease extension through 2018.

Those are a few of the headwinds that face the company in its 87th year and beyond. Yet, as far as I can determine, there is no lack of resolve to persevere, and plans to upgrade the risers and audience seating display continued confidence in the future. Frankly, I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.

Ross Valley Players, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; (415) 456-9555;

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