News Column

Good Company Players gives new measure for success

June 28, 2013

YellowBrix

June 28--About this series

For six weeks, Bee reporter Donald Munro has explored the story behind Good Company Players and its leader Dan Pessano. Today is the last of a 3-day series:

Wednesday: Another opening, another show -- as GCP celebrates its 40th anniversary of theater in the Valley, the conveyer belt of new productions never stops.

Thursday: GCP is the Pessano family business -- and the recent economic slump has been tough. Without GCP, the company, the Tower District and the Fresno theater scene wouldn't be the same.

Today: How do you measure success in a life? He might not be a household name in New York, but in many ways, Dan Pessano is a theater superstar.

Now available

"The Company We Keep" is a 20,000-word enhanced e-book with nine chapters tracing GCP's 40 years through the central character of Dan Pessano. From an extended history of the company's early days to the successes of some of its brightest stars, the book looks at the challenges of keeping a theater company afloat and asks: What's next for the GCP? It is now available for $2.99 at the iBook, Kindle and Vook.com bookstores and will be available soon through Nook. To learn more about how to access the e-book, go to fresnobeehive.com.

More online

View a collection of videos of Good Company Players and the people who have made it happen over the years.

Part 3

How do you measure success in a life?

By one standard, geography, Dan Pessano didn't move far. California always has been his home. By another, national recognition, his fame is regional. Most of the theater elite of Broadway -- the ones who clink glasses at pre-Tony parties and gossip at Sardi's Restaurant about the newest casting call -- have never heard Pessano's name.

But there are other ways to measure success. Against the odds, Good Company Players has survived to celebrate its 40th anniversary -- an amazing

feat for a for-profit, family-owned theater endeavor. For all of those years, Pessano has spent nearly every waking minute doing something he loves. And by other standards -- the lives he so greatly influenced, the impact he's had on the community, the careers he's helped launch -- Pessano soars. Add all these measures of success together, and Pessano is in some eyes as much a superstar as someone like GCP alum and the Tony Award-collecting Audra McDonald.

Sharon Leal, who went on from GCP to star in movies and TV, emphasizes that Pessano could very well have had a different life path if he hadn't chosen to stick with his adopted hometown. "He's made of that stuff," she says. "He's as amazing as the outstanding directors and producers I've worked with."

Some among the arts scene in Fresno look down on GCP's output, dismissing it as "community theater." The words are always said with a slight, tight lilt, as if it's something you have to endure, like an annual physical. Yes, some productions don't come close to reaching the heights. But some completely overpower the touring musicals that come through the Saroyan Theatre. The Roger Rocka's stage might be tiny compared to Broadway, and the company can't afford fancy moving sets, but the venue is perfect for some of the intimate shows that Broadway blows up to obscene proportions. Such GCP productions as "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" could easily have gone out on the road.

There's another standard by which people measure success in our culture: money. The Pessanos -- Dan, his wife, Laurie, and his daughter, Emily, -- have never rolled in it. They share a small country home in Clovis handed down from the parents of Laurie. ("We don't need no stinkin' house on the Bluffs," she says with a laugh.) He drives a 12-year-old Saturn, and in it he hardly ever turns on the A.C. The carpet in the business office is so old it has surely turned a different color than the one the original manufacturer intended. In some of the bad years at GCP -- attendance dove between 20% and 30% in 2008, the height of the economic downturn -- Dan and Laurie sunk their own money into the company.

Simply put, running a local theater is not the most lucrative endeavor.

"I think that is an understatement," Pessano says in a moment of reflection. "It's interesting for me to be at odds with Good Company Players at times. There is the personal family responsibility and there is the fiduciary company responsibility. They are side by side, and I have heard myself say, 'I am not going to let the company cost you guys (Laurie and Emily) your future.' I don't think it will. I don't want to hang crepe in any way, but that's the reality of it."

GCP alum Heidi Blickenstaff, who made it to Broadway, has struggled herself with the question of what success really means. "When you choose to be an actor, there's a lot to consider," she says. "Is it important to you to be famous? To only work in New York City? To only work in TV? Or in movies?"

Pessano's impact on her can't be understated, she says. "The effect he's had on my life and the human being I am today, just based on him being alive in the world and doing what he loves, meant that I became a person who always keeps my word, who always shows up prepared, who always tries to be kind to people -- to everyone, to the crew, to the other actors, to the ushers -- not just when I'm on stage. And I think I am a drop in the bucket of people he has touched that way. That cup runneth over for him. He might not have won a Tony award for directing, but I think his impact is so widespread and vast. He has a little army of us all over the world."

One of the big revelations in Blickenstaff's "[title of show]," which made her a Broadway star, was that she had stage fright as a little girl -- and still has it today. Pessano was one of the first to recognize this and help her with it.

In May, Blickenstaff sang for Barack and Michelle Obama at the Ford's Theatre Annual Gala in Washington, D.C. As she waited to make her entrance, she felt the familiar stage fright start to enfold her. She flashed to a memory: She is onstage at Roger Rocka's as Annie about to sing "Tomorrow." When she glances over, she can see Pessano as Daddy Warbucks, standing just offstage, silently talking down her jitters. Blickenstaff snapped to the present, walked onto the Ford's Theatre stage, and all was well.

"He helps me be strong all the time, and he doesn't even know it," she says.

Parallels

Here's one more way of defining success. For Pessano, it overrides all others. He has two families: his wife and daughter; and the staff and company members with whom he has forged such close bonds over four decades.

You could watch Emily grow up in "Fiddler on the Roof," the current production at GCP. She has played in "Fiddler" three times: first as an ensemble member, then as one of Tevye's younger daughters, and finally, this time, in one of the show's leading roles.

Over the years, Pessano has for GCP six times played the role of Tevye, the much-put-upon father of five girls who struggles with changing times in Anatevka. Emily plays Hodel, the second oldest daughter in Tevye's family. Hodel's eldest sister pains Tevye when she wants to marry a poor tailor. He soon acquiesces, realizing he can't stand in the way of true love. Hodel is a bigger problem. She wants to marry Perchik, a poor student sent to Siberia by the authorities.

There is a parallel, of course: a father-daughter one. Hodel wants to join Perchik in Siberia and marry him. Though he protests and blusters, Tevye eventually backs down with this daughter as well. He joins her at the train station. They don't know when they'll see each other again. In the show's most poignant farewell, she sings "Far From the Home I Love."

On opening night of "Fiddler," just moments after the finale and curtain call. Pessano comes offstage with a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead, the trace of a tear in his right eye. His big, white beard looks like it could use a good night's sleep. He sits in an office directly offstage. He's not the kind of leading man to hold court after a performance or whoop it up with his fellow cast members. "I'm sort of a loner," he says.

The role of Tevye is a natural for him, and after all these years, he's burrowed into it in a way few actors can. He was 39 when he first tackled the role, but it took on much more meaning after Emily was born.

In the show, the Pessano characterization -- the moment he starts making the role his own -- starts with the first quivers of his wrist in the song "If I Were a Rich Man." (He masterfully injects an air of weariness into the song -- this is, after all, a man who just dragged his own milk cart home sans horse.) But never does he play the "oy vey" Jewish stereotype. From his accent (oddly flat, at times almost sounding Bostonian) and tempo of his delivery (again, flat and stacatto) to his distinct mannerisms (not so much shaking a fist at God as waving hello), he makes the role his own.

There is a bit of Pessano in Tevye, of course. An actor always finds that commonality. They both have a colorful way of using words, for one thing. It's easy to imagine Pessano preceding some of his more convoluted one-liners with Tevye's trademark phrase, "And the good book says ..." And Pessano often projects a sense of beleaguered warmth, the result of his natural reserve and harried schedule.

As you'd expect with a Pessano -- any of the three of them -- there's a part of him consumed with technical issues and that perfection for which they're always striving. On this night, there was a botched musical cue in the last scene. He notes it, grimaces, moves on.

Pessano relates a story. In the dressing room after the final dress rehearsal, one of the men congratulated him on the way he wrung every last laugh from the audience. He told him admiringly, "You really milked it tonight." What Pessano wanted to say in return is that he's done this show enough to know and admire how deftly it uses humor -- from Tevye's ongoing conversations with God to Yenta the matchmaker's perpetual drone -- to balance the darker elements of the script. He wanted to say every audience is different, that you have to know -- just know! -- how to play them for laughs, and for sorrow, while never going campy or over the top. He wanted to say that like a virtuoso musician, he's played these notes often, but every time, there's something new and fresh to discover. He wanted to say all that, but he didn't.

What he did say: "Well, I am a milkman."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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