Michael Shaw, the artistic director and co-founder of Dezart Performs, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he helped start the theater company back in 2008.
“I was living in Los Angeles, so I was running the theater with my co-founder at the time,” Shaw said. “I went back and forth … and was still holding down my job in Los Angeles. I realized for it to grow, I needed to be here full-time. I needed to be entrenched in the community, because in order to be successful, you need to be in the community and get support for a nonprofit.
“I thought going into it that it was an avenue to explore new scripts. I really went into this thinking, ‘No stress; it’ll be fun. It’ll be an outlet to explore my creative side as an actor’—and the first four years, it was exactly that. But when you decide to take it to the next level, there are responsibilities that come with that. Things mushroomed and grew.”
Things mushroomed and grew so much, in fact, that Dezart Performs is outgrowing its home, the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. That’s why Shaw recently announced Dezart was embarking on a campaign to raise money for a new and bigger theater to call home.
Dezart Performs is not alone. Coachella Valley Repertory announced last year it had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas movie theater building in Cathedral City and turn it into the company’s new home, after outgrowing spaces in The Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage. Meanwhile, Desert Theatreworks outgrew its space at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert and just moved into a new space at the Indio Performing Arts Center.
Yep: Local theater companies are on the move.
When Shaw (pictured here, at the far left) and co-founder Daniela Ryan began Dezart Performs, the company placed an emphasis on finding and developing brand-new plays. However, in recent years, Dezart Performs has shifted its focus away from new plays, and toward edgier fare. For example, the 2016-2017 season included Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, a play based on a real-life haven for transvestites in the 1960s, and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a play that tackles issues of race, housing and gentrification.
“Our season has an obligation to deliver socially relevant and provocative story lines. We’ve always tried to do that—and our audiences didn’t expect that in our little town a few years ago,” Shaw said. “They say, ‘I really love A Chorus Line,’ and didn’t expect to see Clybourne Park, which not only uses the F-word quite often, but also uses the C-word. When I read the script, I thought, ‘Oh my God! They’re going to pull out pitchforks and torches!’ (But audiences) loved the fact they were challenged and, in the context of the storyline, felt (such language) was necessary. The audience is there with you. That’s exciting. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done Clybourne Park, and wouldn’t have expected that.”
Shaw said he’s enjoyed watching the Coachella Valley theater world grow and prosper.
“All of the theater directors are friends,” he said. “We all communicate; we all get together and see each other’s shows; and we all support each other. We make an effort to support each other, because we need more than one theater. You can’t have just one hamburger joint or one grocery store. We all have that same belief in supporting theater in the community.”
Dezart’s fundraising campaign for a new facility is in its initial stages, Shaw said.
“What we’re doing is announcing the pledge drive and setting in motion the path to achieve all of the things we need to for us to say, ‘We have now secured a facility, and we’re now in renovation,’” he said. But we’re a few years off from that. We’re establishing a position for a director of development, fundraising, and consulting to put us in a place where we, as an organization, can solidify the foundation and the people we need to make it happen. It means bringing on more staff, funding that staff, and taking a number of things off my plate so I can continue to grow in my role as the artistic director. I wear many hats, but I’m also only one person. Even with the support of volunteers, we need to start thinking ahead and ask, ‘What do we need to do to allow us to grow our programming?’”
The Coachella Valley Repertory, currently based at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, was also founded in 2008. It’s the only company in the valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with the Actors’ Equity union.
Founder and artistic director Ron Celona said the theater has grown well beyond what was originally planned.
“We were 2 years old, using outside venues, before we were able to rent our own space,” Celona said. “Our first big milestone was moving into (a space in) The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, which was an empty shell. We hired a contractor to build our 86-seat theater, lobby and box office. We expanded to the next unit, building offices for staff. … The first hire was a box-office staff member, and little by little, we have grown to be an eight-full-time-staff company. It might be called show business, and it’s certainly a business—and it needs to be run like a business.”
Celona said business success led to CV Rep’s current status.
“We started as a non-union theater that contracted Equity actors. A few years back, the accomplishment of the company as a business allowed us to become a full-fledged Equity house. It makes Coachella Valley Repertory the only Equity house in the Coachella Valley,” Celona said. “What that does is gives us national coverage.”
Celona said the CV Rep production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 2013 marked a key moment in the company’s history.
“That particular production was a turning point for Coachella Valley Repertory. Why? Because of the recognition of its production values and the cast,” Celona said. “Basically, we got a wide word of mouth, and it spread like wildfire. People who had never heard of us started to check us out. Prior to that, it was very much a small, contained following. Our subscription base was around 300, and afterward, we shot up to 700 to 800 subscribers the following year. Each year since, we’ve grown by about 200.
With that increase in subscribers, and 8,000 people attending the 2016-2017 season shows—in an 86-seat theater—it’s time for CV Rep to move into a bigger space.
“We have signed an option with the city of Cathedral City to purchase the old IMAX movie theater and two adjoining restaurants—the building and the land,” Celona said. “We have until June 2018 to execute that option. Basically, what that means is we’ve had a capital campaign since October 2016 to raise the money we need. The total campaign is a $6 million campaign. We’re just shy of our first $1 million as of right now. We need at least a percentage of that ($6 million) campaign to enter the agreement and break ground and build a state-of-the-art playhouse.”
Celona said he’s proud of the mark that CV Rep and the valley’s other theater companies have left on the valley.
“I think any arts organization in the community … we’re all making a difference,” Celona said. “The difference is to enlighten, inspire and educate our community to be a better place to live in, and (for us to be) better human beings in the world. Theater has always been a mirror to its community.”
Desert Theatreworks has grown in popularity and size since the community-based theater company was formed 2013, in part because the company produces a wide variety of shows, according to artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez.
“In our first season, we had around 2,000 people who came through and bought tickets. Last year, we had 8,000 people who bought tickets,” Phillips-Martinez said. “We’ve tried to do a diverse amount of productions, and not just things that are interesting to us. What we try to do is broaden our audience with every show that we do, or pick a different type of show in our season that will bring in different audiences and keep them coming back.”
Phillips-Martinez cited a 2015 production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone as a show that furthered Desert Theatreworks’ reputation.
“We did it in September that year, when the audiences aren’t always bountiful, and it was nice to get that critical response—and the audiences just kept coming back,” He said. “It was a big hit for us, and it was a different type of show. … We staged and choreographed nearly every number and theme transition. It was all original and a lot of fun.”
Phillips-Martinez said he’s had to battle commonly held assumptions about community theater.
“The public perception that community theater is of a lesser quality is a challenge,” he said. “… The work will speak for itself. If you focus on quality, you can put on whatever you want in your space, and your audience will trust you. That’s what the original challenge was—changing the perception of what community theater is.”
I could hear the excitement in Phillips-Martinez’s voice when he talked about Desert Theatreworks’ move from the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center to the Indio Performing Arts Center.
“We had outgrown the (Desert Theatreworks space at the Arthur Newman Theatre). We had asked for more space, and they had more to give, but for whatever reason, they were not willing to do that, and it’s fine,” Phillips-Martinez said. “Our customers wanted us to stay there and wrote more than 700 letters to the city of Palm Desert, but after much deliberation and trying, it didn’t happen.
“The city of Indio offered us the space. A solution was made quickly, and the show must go on. We love the space, and the city of Indio is our partner in producing our shows. They’re helping us promote our shows as well. It’s very nice to get a municipality’s support in producing shows, because it gives (us) some new support that we didn’t have before.”
The Indio Performing Arts Center has long had challenges attracting tenants and audiences. However, Phillips-Martinez said that it’ll work out just fine for Desert Theatreworks.
“One of the advantages that we have is we have such a good track record of producing shows, and (a large) number of shows we’ve presented, which is 32 main-stage productions,” he said. “Most theater companies that are local only do three or four a year; we produce eight to 10. If you’re looking for viability and sustainability, (the larger number of shows) is more attractive in sustaining a place like that. The possibilities are good.”