Monterey County Theater troubles

By Philip Pearce

Gentrain, MPC’s innovative senior education program, directed the spotlight of its latest Wednesday lecture on the beleaguered but hopeful world of Monterey Peninsula theater.

Monterey County Theatre Alliance President Teresa Del Piero launched the hour-long session with a quick informal audience survey. How many of us seniors had been to a live theater event in the past month? How many had done so in or around Monterey? How many were area season ticket holders? Seated down front I couldn’t crane my neck quick enough to count the raised hands, but Teresa pronounced the straw poll encouraging.

Less cheerful were some of the words of the seven producing members of MCPA who then took over with eight-minute time slots that pitched their current offerings and described the increasing struggle to get productions up and running, never mind profitable.

Stephen Moorer spoke of emergency efforts to relocate forthcoming PacRep shows like Shrek, originally scheduled for Carmel’s outdoor Forest Theater, which was recently declared physically and electrically unsafe for audiences. All upcoming PacRep shows for this year are now scheduled for either the Golden Bough or Circle Theatre spaces.

But Moorer and MPC Artistic Director Gary Bolen and Forest Theater Guild Executive Director Yvonne Hildebrand-Bowen all agreed that darkening a theater for repairs or improvements is a double-edged sword. On one hand a full-scale refurbishment offers the hope of acquiring the kind of new state-of-the-art facility MPC returned to after a two-years makeover. But, even if a theater company finds alternative venues during home building ops, it never fully regains all of its old fan base. “People get the idea that you’re gone forever,” Bolen commented. The speakers agreed, the shorter the absence from home base, the better.

Bolen noted wryly that some people had mistakenly thought the recent purchase of Monterey’s historic Golden State movie theater by a Redwood City couple was a dramatic rescue of Monterey Peninsula College Theatre from the draconian administrative cuts imposed in December of 2012. In need of almost everything but stage, dressing room or workshop facilities, Bolen made it clear that even the recent success of a double-your-contribution financial push still left MPC Theatre Arts in need of major financial support from private sources.

Question-time highlighted another conflict, between theater that breaks new ground, challenges and educates but seldom makes a profit on one hand and the safe and familiar tried-and-true revivals that fill seats and help them break even on the other.

Moorer responded to a spectator’s comment that ticket prices were often a challenge, especially to a family. “Call the theaters,” he insisted. “They almost all have some kind of discount policy or event. Ask them about it.” MCTA Subscriptions Chair Terry Blum noted that a $20 per year MCTA membership carries with it two-for-one ticket pricing at a number of member theaters.

Other participants in the group lecture event were Linda Hancock, director of The Listening Place readers theater events held throughout the year in the Monterey Art Museum’s La Mirada Gallery next to MPC; Koly McBride of Paper Wing Theatre, Tish Sammon of Ariel Children’s Theatre on Main Street in Salinas; and Laura Kershner of The Western Stage at Hartnell College, Salinas. All painted a picture of exciting hopes and ideas threatened by a falling away of ticket sales and waning financial support.

Sadly missing from the lecture was Elsa Con, Artistic Director of Carmel Valley’s Magic Circle, which has just announced that major financial losses will mean, for the second time in its distinguished career, a closing down of the 60-seat theater after its forthcoming production of The Mountaintop in August. (See Susan Meister’s profile of Con on this week’s Performing Arts People page. Click HERE.)