WHEN HE HEARD that I had just endured oral surgery, Stephen Moorer said, “No oral surgery for me. Then I’d have to keep my mouth shut.” Moorer is not known in the Monterey County theater community for keeping his mouth shut. Au contraire. Lately, longly and loudly, Moorer’s big noise has focused on the renovation of Carmel’s historic outdoor Forest Theater. “It’s about getting it right, even if it takes longer,” he says.
That wasn’t always the case since, initially, both Moorer, founding director of Pacific Repertory Theatre, and the Forest Theater Guild leadership, were hot-to-trot to get the popular venue—red-tagged over safety issues—open ASAP. But the design process is always slower and more bureaucratically encumbered by laws and regulations than performers and artists—thankfully the most impatient among us—anticipate. Moreover, the turmoil in Carmel city administration last October, “brought the project to a standstill for several months,” dashing hopes for using Forest Theater this summer. Now, the soonest in could open is not until 2016.
Nearly everything about Moorer’s arguments with the presently accepted architectural plan stems from his four-plus decades in local theater. Uniquely, Forest Theater and its surrounding groves of trees can come to life during a performance. Actors can enter from the trees and through the audience. Taking advantage of this macro-environment intensifies theatrical effect. It’s showbiz after all. But Moorer is as much a theater administrator and fundraiser as an actor and director. He has criticized such related issues as handicap access and parking, the latter his bêtes-noirs at both Forest Theater and at PacRep’s home in the Golden Bough Playhouse situated on an otherwise residential block on Monte Verde Street in Carmel. Meanwhile, he also mounted a campaign to expedite the Forest Theater renovation and soon had raised $60,000.
For Moorer, the theater bug bit early. In elementary school, in Santa Monica, “I was the class clown,” he says. “I blossomed whenever there was a school play.” Following the divorce of his parents, Stephen arrived in Monterey in 1971 with his mother and sisters. By then he’d already spent time sitting backstage watching his mom acting onstage. Soon he haunted Marcia Hovick’s Children’s Experimental Theatre, whose home happened to be Forest Theater. “Marcia was the greatest influence in my life.” He calls her approach, “straight-on theater,” where he learned everything about theater, from the lighting to set design, props, and performing itself. “I’ve attended and worked on shows at Forest Theater every year since I was 11,” he says. But, with deep deference to Hovick, he modifies the source of his theatrical influence to the Carmel theaters themselves, Forest Theater and the Golden Bough. “These old historic theaters—these old ladies—have been a huge part of my life since I was a kid.”
In his early 20s, Moorer began to envisage his own theater company. After a meeting at the Pebble Beach home of theater-enthusiast Mary Clark to recruit a board of directors, he and fellow actors Julie Hughett, John Rousseau and Dan Gotch launched GroveMont. Their first production, Scapino, was staged in 1983 at the Pacific Grove Middle School auditorium (now the Performing Arts Center of Pacific Grove.) Without a home of their own, they went on to stage productions at the Cherry Center and Forest Theater. They finally settled at the New Monterey venue, corner of Hoffman and Lighthouse, as Grovemont Theatre Arts Center—the space now known as Paper Wing Theatre. After five years, in 1991, they relocated to the larger space now occupied by the MyMuseum on Washington Street downtown, which they called Monterey Playhouse. Ever the visionary, Moorer always had one eye on the future.
“We were looking to buy a space instead of more years paying rent.” Having already given their landlord notice, in 1993, he “driving down Monte Verde in Carmel and saw a For Sale sign at the Golden Bough. They were going to tear it down and create four residential lots.” Describing that discovery as “perfect timing,” and having gained skill at raising funds, Moorer and his board took a limited-time option and in six months raised $600,000, half the purchase price, and changed their name to Pacific Repertory Theatre, copying the Ashland/Stratford example. The mortgage was paid off five years later, in 1999. “Saving a piece of Carmel history was a great motivating factor,” he says. “In 2000, we had a mortgage burning party.”
A theater-lover who enjoys local live theater might not be aware of how the choice of repertoire is determined by the venue. “It’s quite a formula,” says Moorer. “We’ve got three different locations to choose from. If we get a small audience at the Golden Bough, the room becomes an echo chamber, but we have the 99-seat Circle Theatre which is often the best choice.” Downstairs from the Golden Bough, the Circle Theatre was returned to service in 2011 after a one-year renovation. Its entrance is located Casanova Street. “At Circle Theatre the audience is very close to the action. Everything gets amplified, comedy is funnier, drama that much more forceful.” Moorer calls it Living Room Theatre. It’s also the venue of choice for the less known, edgier shows that can be done at lower cost. “Income for Circle comes in part from more familiar fare at the Golden Bough. And when we do more contemporary work we can and have gotten grants from Shubert Theatre in New York.” To choose new theater works, Moorer scours the trade papers, including in London, looking at plays that are getting the most recognition and weighing “what’s castable” from among area talent. “Of course, big musicals are best at Forest Theater. We can make the audience part of the show, but there are distractions, raccoons, barking dogs.”
In 2012, John Rousseau died in his sleep at age 64. This was a huge shock to PacRep and the Monterey area theater community. “I first met John when he was running the traveling improve group, The Magic Carpet Band.” Suddenly, Moorer became aware of his mortality. “John was an old soul. We always figured he was like the 1000-Year-Old Man, a renaissance man, actor, director, writer, designer,” says Moorer. “His influence was everywhere here, how to choose shows, which actors, what material.” His approach to non-profit producing was unique, says Moorer. “He could stretch a dollar, spend the same money on 10 shows that others would put into one show.”
The result of Rousseau’s passing was the realization that the company had no succession plan. Now, Moorer says, “I feel like I’m working on my last 10 year plan. On the succession issue, we are in talks with a major consultancy, with a focus on myself and a couple of key team and board members.”
In the course of our conversation, Moorer began naming those of his colleagues going back decades, from The Western Stage, to Monterey Peninsula College, from his early internships to his later collaborations, his development director Jim Bennett, music directors like Don Dally and Stephen Tosh, right down to the sharing of costumes, props and other stage kit.
In recent years Moorer has spent less and less time on stage and more directing and in administration. But the creative spark still excites him. “I see myself as a story teller, and how that bleeds into the choices we make,” he muses. “Theater can be challenging, abrasive, standoffish, preachy. I’ve always believed my job was to move an audience through time, to make it relevant, to move the feelings of the audience. To do that successfully you’ve got to be clever.”
Portrait of Stephen Moorer by Nate Mandurrago,