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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.


Michael Shaw (far left) and the company of Dezart Performs' Casa Valentina watch as makeup artist James Geier demonstrates makeup techniques on actor Dale Morris. COURTESY OF CLARK DUGGERWhen 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?’”


CV Rep's Ron Celona and Gary D. Hall (left) sign the option agreement to purchase the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City with city officials Joe Giarrusso and Tami Scott (right).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.”

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley has always had a love affair with the performing arts, reflected in street names like Sinatra, Shore, and Hope.

Admit it: We’re star struck!

With the new Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, and the emphasis by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership on developing a thriving local arts community as an economic driver, the goal is to attract and keep talented people here.

We have neighbors whose names you might not know, but they’ve been blessed with outstanding training, experience and vision.

Daniela Ryan, 47, of Palm Desert, is one such example. Married, with two children, 9 and 11, she recently stepped back from her leadership position at Dezart Performs, the company she started seven years ago, to focus on raising her children.

“I actually put an ad on Craigslist three years after coming to the Coachella Valley when my husband got a job here, because I was frustrated trying to find something locally where I could act or direct,” she says.

“Dezart (One) Gallery, in Palm Springs, was the one response I got. They wanted to develop a theater in the Backstreet Arts District, so I agreed to try to write something I could perform. After three years of doing nothing but nursing and napping babies, the next year, I did my show and met (artistic director) Michael Shaw, and Dezart Performs was born.

“The response has been terrific, and I’m hoping to work with them again, and with other local theater companies, both acting and directing.”

Daniela began in the biz by attending children’s theater auditions at age 7, along with her sister and friends. “I just got thrown into it. I got the part of Peter (in a play version of “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”) because I was the only one with short hair! But even when I would forget my lines, the audience never let me go.

“Until I had kids, I had always either been in a show or studying (theater at the University of California at Berkeley). I wanted to hone my craft even if I couldn’t make a living at it. I waitressed, bartended, and the worst job I ever had was in a shoe store. I was 16 and worked part-time as the ‘box boy.’ Size 10 men’s shoes are heavy, and getting them on the top shelf was a challenge. After three weeks, I was fired, after being told I couldn’t do the job because I was a ‘girl.’”

Daniela has also taught acting, and one of her basic tenets is: “If you’re looking for the exit, you’ll find it; if you’re driven to act, you should just do it.”

If she could do anything she wanted, Daniela would direct. “You have to be intelligent, thoughtful and ambitious to be a good director. The director can change the course of a whole play. The actor is given the vehicle; it’s more myopic. The director can shape the entire product.”

While Daniela is proud to have helped make Dezart into a success, she is realistic: “The local media is just beginning to recognize local talent. This community deserves a thoughtful, serious theater company.”

When it comes to training in the performing arts, Sky Valley resident Wendy Girard, a life member of the famed Actor’s Studio inducted at age 18, has a powerhouse background as actor, director, producer, and teacher, lauded by stars like Al Pacino and Martin Landau.

“I didn’t plan to be an actor. I was a big fan of Elia Kazan, and that was what I wanted to do when I grew up—to direct. But in those days, women weren’t directors.

“I read in the D.C. paper that auditions were being held for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. I thought if I snuck into the back row and watched, I could learn what a director does.

“When the auditions were over, the director said I should come up and audition. I was cast on the spot, at 15. I figured acting would help me understand what a director does from the inside out. After that, I just kept getting cast.”

Wendy met her former husband, John Strasberg, when he was guest actor at the Arena Stage in D.C. “We moved in with each other same day.” At 18, she moved with him to New York, living with his father, Lee Strasberg. “We stayed in Johnny’s old room, where Marilyn Monroe had also stayed!

“I had never heard of Actors Studio or ‘The Method’ style of acting. I didn’t know that one of the ‘rules’ was that nobody talked to Lee unless he initiated the conversation. I just walked up to him one day and started talking about improv—he was apoplectic. But he became like a father to me.”

She studied with Strasberg for 13 years and the renowned Stella Adler for several more.

Wendy started producing at 19, an off-off-Broadway production, but “I had gotten caught up in acting to make a living, so it was a few years before I directed anything.”

Among other productions, Wendy worked on Spaceship Earth: Our Global Environment (which won two Emmys) and helped create an Academy Award-nominated project produced by Sting, Burning Down Tomorrow. She conducts professional acting/presentation classes in the Coachella Valley.

Wendy came to Sky Valley (north of Palm Desert and east of Desert Hot Springs) during her mother’s final illness and to recover from a serious accident, and now divides her time between the valley and L.A.

“I’m going back to acting, but I still prefer directing whenever I can. I have a stack of several film scripts I’d like to direct. One even takes place in the Coachella Valley.”

As for women now directing films, Wendy says, “When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award in 2010 for ‘a guy film’ (The Hurt Locker), that really opened the door. It just takes persistence.”

Wendy quit high school, much to the consternation of her college-educated parents. “School was boring for me.”

Yet her advice to young people interested in performing arts as a career contradicts her own life experience: “Everyone should finish school and go to college. If you want to have a long career in this business, you need a broad education and should be able to talk on any subject under the sun for at least 20 minutes. I’m still working on biology.

“If you look at actors who are successful, they are very smart, have an insatiable curiosity, and they love learning.”

Wise words from a neighbor.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Being a brand-new startup sometimes has its advantages. Just ask the folks at the Desert Rose Playhouse.

The next play on the boards for the LGBT and gay-friendly company—British playwright Joe Orton’s controversial (during its debut in 1964, at least) Entertaining Mr. Sloane—was originally slated to open this week. But the play wasn’t quite ready, so artistic director Jim Strait and managing director Paul Taylor decided to push the opening back a week. Then came a last-minute casting change, so Strait and Taylor decided to delay the opening yet another week: The show is now scheduled to debut on Friday, March 1.

“We’re determined not to put up a show unless it’s up to a certain standard,” Strait says.

Of course, an established company could never do what the Desert Rose has done—at least not without upsetting season-ticket holders and sponsors.

“We have no subscribers,” Strait says. “So our schedule is our own.”

That flexibility allowed the Desert Rose’s inaugural show, Dirty Little Showtunes—a gay-themed musical revue/comedy that debuted in San Francisco and features … well, dirty little showtunes—to enjoy a nearly unprecedented run.

“It opened on July 21, and we were going to do four shows per week for seven weeks,” Strait explains. “Well, people kept coming to it.”

So Desert Rose kept extending the play. It finally closed as 2012 closed, after an amazing 24-week run.

“It kept going,” Strait says. “It wasn’t always profitable, but it was always fun.”

After a recently concluded four-week run of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little will come Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

“It’s a very early gay play,” says Strait. “Joe Orton was of the bad boys of British theater. He only wrote five plays before his lover killed him with a hammer. … Audiences in the West End were just aghast (at the play).”

The play focuses on a middle-aged woman named Kath, who takes in a young man named Mr. Sloane. Kath’s father immediately dislikes Sloane; meanwhile, Kath begins to take a sexual interest in Sloane. And so does her brother, Ed.

Strait compares the piece to “Britcoms” like Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances.

“It’s not Ozzie and Harriet,” he says while emphasizing that the play is not that dirty, and is appropriate for all audiences.

Ryan Dominguez, who performed in Desert Rose’s Dirty Little Showtunes, recently joined the cast as Mr. Sloane. Valorie Armstrong plays Kath, and Hal O’Connell plays Ed. Another Showtunes performer, Terry Huber, plays the father of Ed and Kath.

Strait concedes that the play is not the easiest show to produce. It features a fair amount of unfamiliar British slang. And then there’s the play’s length.

“It’s a three-act play, with two intermissions,” he says. “It’s a serious evening of theater.”

After the abbreviated nine-show run, the Desert Rose will produce The Boys in the Band, before concluding the company’s first season with a yet-to-be-determined show.

It’s been an up-and-down journey for the Desert Rose, which was founded by Strait and Taylor—two theater veterans—in 2010 in an effort to fill the void after another LGBT company, the Thorny Theatre, closed. They started raising money, and planned on taking over a Cathedral City building as the Desert Rose’s home. However, the election and the competition for charity dollars with other local causes led to a slowdown in donations; meanwhile, code changes meant the building they wanted was in need of more bathrooms.

Therefore, Strait and Taylor switched courses and found The Commissary in Rancho Mirage, and rented it out last year. They moved in to the spot in May, and converted it into a showroom. Then came their Desert Rose’s first full show, Dirty Little Showtunes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While Strait and Taylor are still seeking donations, and keeping their eyes open for a permanent home for Desert Rose, Strait says they’re happy to be focusing on theater.

“This is pretty much a grassroots kind of thing,” he says. “It’s really quite charming.”

The Desert Rose Playhouse will perform Entertaining Mr. Sloane, barring any further schedule changes, at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $25, and shows take place at The Commissary, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance