Success was killing Playhouse West. In January 2006, the small theater company's eleventh season came to a screeching halt. It simply couldn't afford the rent for the intimate 110-seat Knight Stage 3 at Walnut Creek's Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Labor costs were up since the company outgrew the 49-seat venue that seconds as its Playhouse West Academy for actors, and an emergency fund-raising push fell $100,000 short of what was needed to finish the season.
The Lesher rent alone was 40 percent of the company's gross, says founding artistic director Lois Grandi. "That's not including actors' salaries, royalties, insurance, marketing, administration, any of those costs," she adds. "We couldn't do it without raising a phenomenal amount of money."
When it became clear the numbers weren't adding up, Grandi decided to cut bait and go out with a bang. She held out just long enough for January's show, David Mamet's inherently controversial sexual harassment play Oleanna. Then Playhouse West went on ice.
That might have been curtains for most companies, but from the start Playhouse West has been defined largely by Grandi's seemingly inexhaustible energy. She's directed nearly every show, and, by necessity, has become a master of the contingency plan.
She got her Actors' Equity card at seventeen when she was cast in a production of The Boyfriend in New York, right after a ballet company rejected her for being too short. She moved to Walnut Creek as a new mom when her husband was posted at Travis Air Force Base, and soon resumed acting. In 1984, she opened her acting academy. "I was always going to be a performer as far as I knew, and then in 1990 I got my first offer to direct something, and I said, 'This is what I want to do,'" she recalls.
As a freelance director, Grandi often felt things would get done better if she were in charge of the company. She dreamed of starting her own, and one day realized her academy digs could be made into a theater. "It was just linoleum floors," she says. "So this army of students helped me build the stage and get organized. I started with $2,500 in my savings account, and started a theater company. We opened with this very ambitious piece, After the Fall, and sold out. I still have no idea how people even knew we were here."
For eight years, loyal patrons squished in to see her productions until it became painfully clear the company had outgrown its space. Playhouse West wound up in the Lesher in 2003 after a three-hundred-seat theater to be built for the company in Danville's never-completed Center for the Arts fell through. But last year's fiscal crisis forced the company to reconsider its old digs, just down the street from Lesher. No other venue was working out. "One day last November I was sitting here with my wonderful set designer and saying, 'I don't know what to do. We don't have a venue. I don't want to go back here,'" Grandi recalls. "And she said, 'Look, you have to direct. So let me bring in my tape measure and see what I can do.'"
They replaced the notoriously uncomfortable folding chairs with cushy new seats, revamped the restrooms, and chopped five and a half feet off the stage to increase audience leg room. The renovations depended almost entirely upon volunteer labor, and Grandi says they pulled the whole thing off with little more than $6,000.
Playhouse West's return comes with a new twist. Grandi will no longer be running the whole show. She'll share directing duties with new managing artistic director Adam Fitzgerald, a New England native who'd been running his own theater company and managing a performance space in New York City. "I had really needed a partner for a long, long time, and I'd never been able to find the right fit," Grandi says.
Then Fitzgerald called looking for a job. Grandi had met him two years before, when she was thinking about taking a Playhouse West production to the Big Apple. This time it was Fitzgerald looking to come West, since his partner had been cast in a yearlong Las Vegas production. Grandi jumped at the opportunity. Not only could she turn over some artistic responsibilities to a trusted hand, but her company needed someone with Fitzgerald's fund-raising and management expertise.
"Initially, I asked Lois to send me all her financials for the last ten years," Fitzgerald says. "And I was like, 'Lois, you have a nonprofit that sustains itself in majority from ticket sales!? That's crazy!' It's amazing and wonderful and makes producing so entirely possible, but when so much was coming out of the ticket sales it just meant that Playhouse West had a business model that didn't match what happens at the Lesher Center."
Fitzgerald has committed for the season, after which he'll reassess. "The way my life goes, it could be Bangkok next," he says. "Or if this explodes and things go as we think they're going to go, I could be very happy here for a long time."
In September, Playhouse West will launch a monthly reading series to develop new plays, and plans are afoot to rent the space on off-nights for concerts, comedy, and cabaret. The resurrected company's opening gala is called Celebrate Playhouse West Our Musical Legacy. The show, which samples ten and a half seasons' worth of musicals, is now under way and plays through Sunday, June 24.
The real deal starts in September with Anton Chekhov's The Brute and Other Farces, followed in October by the Bay Area premiere of Defiance by John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote the Pulitzer- and Tony award-winning Doubt. On the bill for next year are the West Coast premieres of the new musical In This House, and Girl in the Goldfish Bowl by Morris Panych. Fitzgerald had initially optioned Goldfish Bowl for New York, but arranged to bring it to Walnut Creek instead.
"When we first opened in 1995, I said if we make it to the third show, that'll be great," Grandi says. "That's kind of the way I feel now. There will be a point where we'll want to do shows in other places where we can do something bigger. But for right now, it's going to be here, and we're pretty excited about that. It's small, but it's ours."
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