News Flash: There’s more to local theater than Music Circus, B Street and other big fish. The Sacramento region is swarming with a surprising number of small but mighty theater groups, run by volunteers and fueled by a remarkable passion and commitment to providing exciting, high-caliber, often cutting-edge productions.
The following five represent just a small sliver of our region’s rich theatrical tapestry. While fiscal challenges and a fierce commitment to their craft are common to all, they’re otherwise decidedly different. Here’s how.
James Wheatley doesn’t believe in the phrase “I can’t.”
“If you say ‘I can’t,’ you psychologically limit yourself,” says Wheatley, whose life story proves the point. When the actor-dancer-musician-director-playwright founded Celebration Arts 30 years ago, he was working full time for the state of California—and continued doing so until he retired some 12 years ago. “I always worked and did my art on the side,” says Wheatley.
But this endeavor is far more than a sideshow. As multifaceted as it is multicultural, Celebration Arts is a full-out trifecta, with a dance company and chorale in addition to the theater company. Though the organization’s missions have remained constant during its three decades, its emphasis has shifted, says Wheatley.
“Our missions—to offer high-quality performances and to provide training and performance opportunities to community members—have remained the same,” says Wheatley, the group’s artistic director. “But when we first started out, dance was our main focus. Now theater has become more prominent than dance.” Wheatley takes particular pride in providing a “warm and welcoming environment for people who, for whatever reason, haven’t had an opportunity elsewhere in the community. If you’re willing to work, we have an opportunity here for you.”
With a focus on the African-American experience, Celebration Arts’ six annual productions range from well-known works by such renowned playwrights as August Wilson and Lorraine Hansbury (“A Raisin in the Sun”) to Wheatley originals. Last November, they offered an unusual one-night “7 ½-Minute Storytelling Festival” involving 13 local storytellers who took on the challenge of sharing personal stories with unusual speed and power. Celebration Arts’ first production this season is Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” playing through March 13.
When asked what he looks for when choosing material, Wheatley says simply, “I’m always looking for a really good story that will challenge the audience and make them think.”
What he’s also looking for: A little more visibility. Though Celebration Arts has won prestigious Elly awards and has spent the last 23 years at its 50-seat theater at the corner of 45th and D streets in East Sacramento, a surprising number of locals still don’t know they’re there.
“People come in and say they didn’t know we existed,” says Wheatley. “How could they not know? We want people to know we’re here.”
Green Valley Theatre Company
If you’re weary of mainstream musicals and are looking for something on the dark or quirky side, this one’s for you. At Green Valley Theatre Company, founder/artistic director Christopher Cook is taking things right to the edge with such gritty productions as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (a Halloween tradition), “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and VerteFée Cabaret, which he describes as “dirty, fun and debaucherous.”
“Most of our shows are for 18 and older,” says Cook, who founded Green Valley nine years ago. “It’s theater for big people.”
The cast of “Into the Woods” rehearses for the Green Valley Theatre Company production.
Green Valley has two distinct facets. In addition to its four mainstage musicals each season, the company produces the VerteFée Cabaret, a variety show in the tradition of the Weimar era cabarets of the 1920s and ’30s. “These shows mix song, instrumental music, burlesque, dance and clowning,” says Cook. Along with a corps of recurring characters who appear in every cabaret, special guest acts have ranged from fire eaters to magicians.
Music-lovers will also love this: All productions feature live orchestras and bands. (The house band is Boo Radley & The Finch Kids.) “We basically use the same orchestrations as are used in the Broadway shows, though they may not necessarily be scored for full orchestra,” says Cook. A professional woodwind player himself, Cook spent a few years conducting orchestras on the East Coast prior to returning to his native Northern California (he grew up in Placerville) and starting the theater company.
Once peripatetic, launching productions in a variety of venues, Green Valley settled about four years ago into a home at the 49-seat Grange Performing Arts Center at 3823 V St. in Sacramento.
They have no plans of going anywhere, Cook says.
“Our hopes are for the theater to be a staple in Sacramento, to be an asset to the community, and to be a strong company,” he says. The way to do that, he believes, is to continue what they’re already doing: Focus on artistry, not money.
“We never pick a show in terms of its economic viability, or because we’re trying to satisfy an audience, but rather for the artistic challenge or interest,” says Cook. “Amazingly, we always end up satisfying the audience anyway.”
Flying Monkey Productions
Twenty-somethings Ryan Warren and Julie Soto started Flying Monkey Productions to provide for young people what they could not find while growing up here as teens: opportunities to take on leadership roles in the theater.
“That’s what makes us unique—our leadership and apprenticeship program for young people,” says Warren, who serves as executive producer. Founded by Warren and Soto in 2003, Flying Monkey offers a positive environment where students can experience all aspects of theater work, from costume and set design to choreography, stage managing, directing (and, of course, performing).
“When we were 13 years old, Julie and I loved being on stage, but we wanted to direct and take on other leadership roles, and those opportunities did not exist. So we went off to college for a few years and when we came back, we started this company.”
Christina Clem, costumer for “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” and Big Idea Theatre board secretary, prepares ensembles for the production backstage.
For 2016, Flying Monkey’s schedule includes “Winnie the Pooh” (April), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (May) and “Heathers the Musical” (July–August). Productions are generally categorized by age groups, from youth to junior high and teen. But casting is not so much about age, says Warren; it’s about ability and look. “For example, we have a kid who is a junior in high school, but he looks 12 or 13, so he’s able to hang back and lead the junior high school group,” says Warren. Some shows are produced at the itty-bitty, 49-seat Geery Theatre at 21st and L streets, while others are at the larger (some 100–115 seats) Black Box in West Sacramento. “That’s kind of our home base,” says Warren. “Not a lot of people know about it, but it’s a beautiful theater.”
Being outside of the school system allows Flying Monkey to enjoy unusual artistic freedom, says Warren. “We definitely push the limit when it comes to material,” he says. For example? “Well, last year we did ‘Spring Awakening,’ and in it there’s a song called ‘Totally F—ed.’”
Currently, the excitement is swirling around Flying Monkey’s original teen musical “Generation Me.” With book and lyrics by Soto and music by Will Finan, this gutsy show explores the survivor’s
guilt and heartbreak that follows the suicide of a 15-year-old boy. “It’s got a beautiful message,” says Warren. “I’d really like to see this show take off.” It already has: “Generation Me” has been produced in Hollywood and New York, providing Flying Monkey’s young company members the thrill of performing in, and spending time in, two creative capitals of the world. A local performance of “Generation Me” is scheduled on March 20.
Warren sees Flying Monkey as more than just a training ground for theater wanna-bes.
“One of the greatest joys for me is seeing the way that being involved here helps to give kids confidence in themselves and gives them the life skills theater can bring, even if they don’t stay in theater,” he says. One high-school senior has started a photography business. Others have been accepted at such top-notch schools as Yale and UCLA.
This is why the opportunity for leadership at a young age is so important, says Warren. “I think that’s what gives them the edge.”
Big Idea Theatre
The appropriately named Big Idea Theatre is known for just that: producing shows that are provocative, edgy, and full of—yes—big ideas.
“We seek to do fresh, thought-provoking plays with people who are like-minded and professionally motivated,” says Ben Ismail, producing artistic director of the 13-year-old theater group, which performs in an intimate 60-seat theater at 1616 Del Paso Blvd.
Originally founded in 2003 by Blake Flores and Gian Montesini, the current incarnation of Big Idea, with Shannon Mahoney and Kirk Blackinton at the helm, began in 2007. BIT is sometimes called a “theater-goer’s theater, or actor’s theater, because we don’t produce shows that may have been seen over and over throughout the theater community,” says Wade Lucas, BIT’s board of directors president and box office manager.
Check out their list of productions, and you’ll see what he means: The 2016 season kicked off in January with “The Mother F**ker With the Hat,” and continues with everything from Shakespeare to Nick Jones’ “Trevor,” the story of a has-been actor who also happens to be a chimpanzee.
“The 2016 season has been touted as unspeakable!” says Lucas. “It includes some dark comedies, two classics and a lot of ‘big ideas.’”
Central to BIT’s mission is providing a place where professional and pre-professional artists can develop their crafts together with a unique sense of ownership, says Ismail. “Big Idea is a strong inclusive family of passionate artists,” he says. “The plays we produce are all selected by the artists themselves so the work stays interesting, engaging and current.” Through the years, the company has grown from its original 10 or so members to 18 company members and dozens of associated artists. Many have gone on to direct, design and act professionally with Capital Stage, Berkeley Repertory, B Street and other well-regarded theater groups, notes Ismail.
Ismail hopes that one day, Big Idea can find new means by which to pay its artists. “In the future we’d love to incorporate a paid staff, and consistent artist stipends,” he says.
Lucas has other visions.
“From little things such as cosmetic upgrades to the theater to getting more new talent involved in future productions, BIT’s potential is so very unlimited,” he says. “When I hear people say it’s their first time here when I check them in at the box office, and then after the show to have them tell me, enthusiastically, that they will be back—that is what I want to see continue to happen in BIT’s future.”
Guest director Katie Rubin advises cast members during a rehearsal of “The Motherf**ker With the Hat.”
Resurrection Theatre Company
When Resurrection Theatre Company took a chance on Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” a few years ago, many people were shocked, recalls Margaret Morneau, a producing artist and one of the company’s seven members. “It’s extremely racy—about a main character who has a love affair with a goat,” says Morneau. “But I cannot tell you how many people were astounded by the performances, and remember it to this day.”
That show isn’t necessarily representative of Resurrection Theatre, which was founded in 2010. But with a mission of producing “exceptional, intimate theater adventures,” they are open to taking such risks, as long as there’s passion behind it. “We really believe in producing shows that people have a passion for, meaning we ask local directors or actors to submit shows that they really love instead of selecting a season based on a theme or one person’s vision,” explains Morneau. In the case of “The Goat,” she says, the show was recommended by their friend (and local actor/director) Dean Shellenberger. “When he brought us the show, he thought no one in Sacramento would ever produce it,” she says. “But he truly loved the show, and we loved his enthusiasm for it.”
What Resurrection really aims to do, says Morneau, is “provide compelling stories that audiences will connect with, and shows that have great roles for actors.” Those goals are reflected in the lineup for the 2016 season, which kicks off in March with Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box,” followed in late March by Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser” and a local original short play festival, Save Our Shorts!, in June. In September, Morneau is set to direct Colette Freedman’s “Sister Cities.” “This is a powerful piece for five women, centering around the relationship of four sisters who are dealing with their mother’s death,” says Morneau. Rounding out the season in October is Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
Resurrection’s ties to California Stage runs deep. Its artistic director, Ray Tatar, produced the group’s first show, “Atwater: Fixin’ to Die,” and Tatar now rents space to Resurrection (in addition to other local theater groups) to perform its shows in the three spaces at the R25 Arts Complex at 25th and R streets: The Wilkerson, The Threepenny Playhouse and California Stage.
The company members—Morneau and her daughter Aerin, Shawn B O’Neal, Julie McKinney, Sabrina Fiora, Cynthia Drumbor and Marc Duva—operate very much as an ensemble, says Morneau. “We each take on different roles with each show, and really work as a collaborative team.”
Morneau says she dreams of the day when Resurrection has its own space “and that this would be permanent work for each of us in the company—no more day jobs!”