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Over-Oaked Theater

Local theater groups confront a crowd-pleasing conundrum: the musical!



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"Have a glass of wine, and I'll tell you exactly why musicals are ruining local theater," says Adam Palafox.

Palafox is the founder of Sonoma County's Actors Basement Theater Company, and the one who posted the original message on Facebook. Though admitting to some concern that he might be targeted in the future as the guy who put a hit out on the proverbial golden goose, he's agreed to elaborate while taking a lunch break from his day job as hospitality and sales manager at Pellegrini Wine Company's Olivet Lane Vineyards in Santa Rosa.

As an actor and director, Palafox—who interned and served as dramaturge with San Francisco's acclaimed Campo Santo—has shown a strong interest in developing new works and putting fresh spins on classics. At Campo Santo, he worked on the development of new plays by Sam Shepard, Naomi Iizuka, Octavio Solis and others.

In his work with Actors Basement, a nomadic company that performs sporadically, usually in alternative spaces or "black box" theaters, Palafox produced and directed a number of original works, and hopes to bring a pair of developing projects—Ghosts of Santa Rosa and Conversations with Our Fathers—to the stage in the next year or two. Palafox has become discouraged lately with what he sees as an increasing lack of opportunities for artists eager to do something outside the mainstream.

To make the point, he pours me a glass of 2013 unoaked Chardonnay.

"Chardonnay is a perfect metaphor for what's going on in the theater community in the North Bay, particularly Sonoma and probably Napa County," says Palafox. "Years ago, when people were saying that Chardonnay was destroying the wine industry, they didn't mean we should do away with all Chardonnays. They meant that the trend toward big, oaky, buttery, ridiculously over-the-top Chardonnay was closing the boundaries of what the wine industry had to offer and what wine drinkers knew about wine.

"Chardonnay," he continues, "can run the gamut, from the crisp notes you have here to the super-oaky, and neither is good or bad. But when you have a majority of people focusing on producing what they consider to be the cash cow, then it hurts the overall industry because it shrinks the marketplace. It leaves out the people trying to do something different."

In Palafox's view, musicals, oaky and delicious, have not only become the big buttery Chardonnay of the North Bay's theatrical tasting room, they've become so popular that theaters are becoming afraid to take chances with anything else.

"I'm not suggesting that theaters stop doing musicals," he says. "I'm saying let's look at the boundaries we've created for ourselves by depending so much on musicals. Let's show the diversity of what theater really is, and put more energy into making theater everything it can be."

He admits there are exceptions.

"Main Stage West has been doing small, original works and challenging new plays, and they are doing it very well," he says, "but they can do it because they have a small theater with relatively low overhead. Straight plays cost less to produce than musicals. And they've built an audience that is interested in what they have to offer. They've done it right."

Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater, which produces musicals and straight plays, has also found a way to make it work, having just closed the seventh in a string of consecutive sold-out shows that were extended due to audience demand. And in recent months, a new company devoted to small, nonmusical plays has emerged. Left Edge Theater, founded by Argo Thompson, launches its inaugural season this September at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, with four straight plays, most of them premieres or relatively new works.

"I believe there is an audience for new works, and unusual works," Palafox says. "But you have to reach them, and you have to earn their trust, and then you have to keep that trust. I think a lot of theaters in this area, excepting Cinnabar and Main Stage West and Marin Theatre Company, have forgotten what their audience is, or are just catering to the part of their audience that only wants the familiar and the safe."

Spreckels Theater Company recently added encore performances of the musical Mary Poppins, one of the biggest hits they've ever had. The crowd-pleasing Poppins was staged in the 500-plus-seat auditorium, while Spreckels smaller 99-seat venue next door, where the company's smaller musicals and straight plays are performed, rarely has a full house. Doesn't that prove that the audience for small, original works is a fraction of what it is for musicals? Isn't it a theater's responsibility to give the audience what it wants?

Palafox pours another glass of wine.

"It's a matter of return on investment," he says. "At one time, Chardonnay was very accessible. It was inexpensive to produce and affordable for the consumer. But the cost of producing it kept going up, so the cost of a bottle in stores went up, and what once started out as an approachable item started pricing out consumers. And then they went elsewhere."

So the less affluent consumers were forced from the table, and wandered off to see what's on tap at the brewhouse down the street?

"Exactly," Palafox says. "Musicals are popular, so companies do a lot of them because they have to pay the bills. They get addicted to those larger audiences. But musicals are also expensive. The return on investment is often lower, so they have to charge more, pushing away folks with less money to spend. When the cost of doing those musicals becomes so expensive they can no longer afford to produce them at the same level of quality, then they lose their affluent audience too. And they've already lost their less-affluent audience.

"And then," Palafox says with a shrug, "they're out of business, which is why I say that musicals are destroying local theater. Musicals are an addiction, and we have to stage an intervention. I'm not saying we should have some prohibition on musicals. They are part of the landscape, and they have something to offer. Let's definitely do musicals.

"I'm just saying," Palafox concludes, sipping his wine, "that we need to do musicals responsibly."

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