Gary Bolen

By Philip PearceGary Bolen & Jill Miller

GARY BOLEN knows that theater offers social and personal treasures that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents. But as head of Monterey Peninsula College’s theater department he’s preaching that message at a time when the college is, in his words, “in full bottom-line mode.” (Left, Bolen with choreographer Jill MIller.)

Since he took over MPC’s theater program four years ago, after the retirement of Peter DeBono, he admits “it’s always been a scramble for funds, but what took place a year and a half ago was a different ball of wax.”

That’s when, on a day he still calls “Black Thursday,” the college administration announced they would attack a daunting 2.5 million dollar shortfall with budget cuts that would slash 80 percent off the theater department’s operating budget and cut the full-time jobs of all its non-teaching staff. A “compromise” reached three weeks later still included deep cuts, still deprived Bolen of two valued full-time colleagues and set off a major fundraising effort.

“We all know theater is no financial best bet,” he told me last week. “But there are benefits that don’t show up on any spreadsheet.”

Gary Bolen was first caught up in the performing arts when he made a hit in a lead role in a high school play in Santa Ana. “I don’t remember what the play was, but they needed men—that story never changes!—so I auditioned and got cast.” The experience convinced him he wanted to make theater his life’s work.

After a BA and then an MA in Theater at Cal State Fullerton, he worked for ten years on stage and in film and TV, then decided he wanted to focus on teaching, and so got a Master of Fine Arts in acting and directing from UCLA.

“I continued to work professionally. I did a season at the Alley Theater in Houston and I like to boast to my friends that I closed two dinner theaters in Orange County, but I can’t really take full credit. I was just around when it happened.”

When he wasn’t doing stage or movies or commercials, he took on the standard unemployed actor’s work regimen, waiting tables and doing part-time teaching jobs, some of them engineered by his then girlfriend.

Deciding he wanted to teach full time, he began applying for jobs through an online clearing house for arts hopefuls called ARTSearch. “In the Spring of 1999, my stars all of a sudden seemed to be in alignment. I was a finalist for several really good jobs, one of them as far off as New Hampshire. I ended up with three offers, one of them in Monterey, another in Olympia, Washington and the third in Orange County.”

Gary and wife Sherie liked the Puget Sound area, but “the job was essentially to build a whole theater department from the ground up. I’d already had that kind of one-man band assignment for years at College of the Canyons in Valencia. So Monterey was my first choice. I didn’t want to return to Orange County, the job here was in an established college department with an advanced teaching program, and my wife had family in the area, so it seemed like it was meant to be.”

And things went well. Like any other college arts venture, there were budget cuts and fund raisers, and then came Black Thursday.

“The college had an issue. It needed to come up with two and a half million and it started looking for ‘efficiency’ and I put that term in quotation marks. What it translates into is how many students can you teach per unit of cash? Putting one lone instructor to work lecturing three hundred students in a big auditorium is ‘efficient.’ Spending money for the sets and lights and costumes and front-of-house that go into any full-scale stage production—all of it involving maybe thirty students—well, that isn’t ‘efficiency.’

“It’s been hard. Hard saying goodbye to colleagues who didn’t deserve to be let go. Hard to swallow losing 75 percent of your funding. Hard being no longer able to offer some important classes.”

We spoke shortly after Bolen and the department had taken the hard blow of the resignation of long-time Morgan Stock Stage technical director Dan Beck.
“What all this has amounted to for me is about a 40 percent increase in my work load,” Bolen admitted. “Unpaid, of course. It’s a never-ending effort to make sure we are funded and doing more.”

“I think people who came to the first show after the cuts expected two buckets and a sign reading ‘Oklahoma!’ But we’ve consciously decided against keeping on with seven shows a season and doing them bare bones and low values. We think there’s greater educational value in cutting the season down to three main stage performances that are still done with the same high quality people have come to expect.”

But the downside of that policy is a loss of momentum in the public’s strong response to the financial struggles of Monterey Peninsula College theater.

“People get galvanized when something like the announcement of those drastic cuts happens. We were on the front pages of newspapers and the television news. And we have had tremendous support from individuals locally. Teresa and Eric Del Piero along with many others were at the forefront of that fight and they still are. But you have to sustain all the passion and excitement and that’s tough if you’re doing only three major shows a year. You do a show and then you drop off the map when there are others doing shows every six weeks.

“It’s not just money. Oh, we need that, of course. But we also need help in outreach, in volunteering for all kinds of jobs. That need didn’t go away with all that big, passionate influx of community support back in January of last year. It’s still there and part of the effort is keeping people informed—and galvanized.”