Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Sierra Rep

The full cast of The Laramie Project. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, set design by Dennis Jones, and lighting design Joanna Hobbs. Photo courtesy of Sierra Repertory Theatre, Rich Miller Photography

In many ways, the Sierra Repertory Theatre boasts that type of dream big, work hard, all-American story that we all relish. In the 1970s, five twentysomethings became friendly while performing summer stock shows at the Fallon House Theatre in rural Columbia, California, roughly 140 miles outside of San Francisco. Once the season ended, they went their separate ways but stayed in touch, all the while nurturing a shared dream of one day starting a company of their own.

It wouldn’t be until a few years later that the group would take the plunge and begin setting up a theater in Sonora, about 20 minutes from where they first met. They had only a vague business plan, little if any outside capital, and only themselves to rely on for construction of the actual performance space. “We were young and foolish, and had nothing to lose really,” said Sara Jones, one of Sierra Rep’s original founders, and current managing director of the not-for-profit.

The five friends moved into a single house, with two working full-time jobs to support the other three as they devoted themselves to mapping out the organization. Forms were filed, funds were raised by selling “potential season tickets to this potential theater,” Jones said, and an old warehouse was converted, screw by screw, into the 99-seat East Sonora Theatre.

Amanda Galang and Dakota Cox in a production of The King and I. Directed by Scott Viets and costume design by Peggy McKowen. Photo courtesy of Sierra Repertory Theatre, Rich Miller Photography

When Sierra Rep’s doors opened on February 29, 1980, with a production of Dracula, it marked the area’s first experience with year-round theater. Since then, the company has expanded from a $12,000 budget to $1.5 million, and in 1997, it became the resident company of the historic Fallon House, where the group had first met. Between the Fallon House and East Sonora, which was renovated in 1991, Sierra Rep puts on nearly 300 performances a year. In 2011, 42,000 tickets were sold, an impressive number considering Toloumne County, where both theaters are located, is only home to 55,000 people.

Jones says that many theater patrons come from outside the immediate area as well, bringing with them “destination spending” on things like restaurants and gas. The company has made a concerted effort to showcase the economic impact it has had on the community, highlighting not just the spending it attracts, but the 21 people it employs. Because the community is so small, “[Locals] know we’re here,” Jones said. “They can see that people they know can get a job in the theater.”

This argument has been particularly powerful since the recent economic downturn. California’s Central Valley has been hit hard in terms of unemployment and foreclosures, which in turn has affected Sierra Rep. Programming has been less diverse to focus on popular shows, and attendance has been down. But Jones says that the community has rallied behind them, donating what they can. Last summer, the company drew 500 individual donors, ranging from $5 to $10,000. There are of course national grants as well, including a FY 2011 Challenge America Grant from the NEA.

John C. Brown as Pirelli and Tom Mesmer as Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. Directed and set design by Dennis Jones, and costume design by Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra. Photo courtesy of Sierra Repertory Theatre, Rich Miller Photography

Despite Sierra Rep’s current economic hardships, Jones remains upbeat. “There are so many times every year that I feel extraordinarily lucky to be both doing what we’re doing here, and meeting the artists that we meet and working with them.” For the artists, Jones thinks the company offers an equally special experience, one which some compare to summer camp. Because the area is so geographically isolated, “[Performers] can’t be auditioning at the same time they’re rehearsing. They get to really focus on the production and be in this incredibly beautiful environment.” There’s also the small-town atmosphere that can be a major shift for actors coming from more anonymous metropolitan areas. Locals often house visiting performers in their homes, and Jones said that actors are often recognized around town and commended for their work.

When it comes down to it, it's this same support and familiarity is what sustains the company, founders included. “We really feel like a part of the community in a meaningful way," Jones said. "That’s what it’s all about.”

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