News Column

Sierra Rep shows off how shows go on

June 29, 2014

By Nan Austin, The Modesto Bee

June 29--SONORA -- Sierra Repertory Theatre gave a curtain call to its behind-the-scenes players, showing off extensive costuming and production facilities at its East Sonora headquarters.

"You go to the plays, but you really don't realize everything that goes into it," volunteer Patti Gerner told visitors to the professional theater group's first-ever open house Saturday.

SRT wants to celebrate its 35th year by calling attention to its craftsmanship, said Bev Handelman, development director. "We really want to educate our audience," she said. "We're not a theater in a box."

The reference was to large performance venues, like the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, where trailers pull in with all the staging, costumes and props. Sierra Rep, by contrast, designs and builds everything from scratch for its eight or nine productions each season.

An open room lined with mirrors serves as rehearsal space for full ensemble dance routines. Its dimensions stretch the distance of either stage, allowing actors to gauge the space while practicing their moves. Actors from New York City say they rarely get that, noted SRT Board President Bill Green.

Sierra Rep each season brings in actors and other artists from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, while others audition via YouTube. Those union actors earn $425 a week, while nonunion locals make $200 to $375 a week, Green said. Rehearsals are about eight hours a day, six days a week.

"So, you can see that's not much (money)," he said. "You'll see an awful lot of people trying to break in. They do it because they love it."

It helps that the Tuolumne County welcome for out-of-towners includes homestays courtesy of willing volunteers. For "The Sound of Music," the actor playing Friedrich von Trapp is staying with the Baums. The musical is set in wartime Austria.

Bill Baum said he enjoys the variety of characters he hosts. For this production, he has something extra to offer his guest. "I have all the paraphernalia. I have the songbooks, everything," said Baum, who grew up in the World War II-era in a German-speaking area of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Such authenticity brings the production to life, Green said. For one play, the props department found 1959-era Conyers magazines to hang in a stage-set rack.

"No one in the audience could see they were 1959 magazines, but the actors will know. It's all those thousand and one things that make it exactly right," he said.

It is a passion of props manager Matt Sweetland, who said he researched the proper tackle to catch catfish for the current set, knowing only one member of the audience might ever notice. "But for that one person, that makes it real," he said.

Sweetland prepares everything from drapes for the fake windows to faux food for the tables. "They build the house and I move in," he said, showing visitors how spray foam insulation forms the basis for a dozen tempting cupcakes.

He rules a corner of the production shop, where tiny models and paper sketches become artful forgeries of real rooms.

"It's all faux. Everything we do is faux," said set painter Annette Keegan, while waving a feather she uses to simulate marble. A fly swatter produces spatters. A scrunched plastic bag gives detail. A bumpy roller adds texture. "Every wall has to have texture," she said. Plain walls don't look real to an audience.

Split rectangles of fiberboard give the porous bumps to make brick walls look real. For dingy dock areas, a wooden piling gets lumps of carpet padding covered with cheesecloth. Sawdust is added to the paint to give it an aged, irregular surface.

"That's some of the fun of it. We have to come up with stuff on the fly," said Scott Roscoe, shop foreman.

Baum said he was amazed, returning for a forgotten item minutes after a final show, to find workmen ripping the set to pieces. "Same night -- gone!" he said. Baum walks in on "the strike," when the stage is cleared, salvaging everything possible for the next show.

What might be reused lands in the warehouse -- "Granny's attic on steroids," Handelman calls it. Walk inside and a slim path offers the only open space as far as the eye can see. Couches stand on their sides. Doors and wooden rails of all kinds lean into piles. A fake fireplace sits under hanging Christmas decorations. Shelves laden with boxes appear to hold up the packed second story.

With a budget of $1,500 to $2,000 the norm for a play, nothing goes to waste, said technical director Jeff Cooper.

Costumes, too, get recycled when possible, said costume shop manager Bina Bieker, standing in front of a 20-foot rack of clothes made in-house for "The Sound of Music." The shop designs, fits and sews the costumes, washes them between shows and repairs them as needed.

"It has to look just as good in the last production as the first," Bieker said.

As does the lighting, managed by Peter Leibold. "I want the audience to not see the light, just feel the lighting," he said, sitting before a bank of computer buttons and dials in the sound booth overlooking the theater.

All together, Sierra Rep has 14 full-time employees, 14 part-timers and roughly 75 active volunteers, working with an annual budget of $1.7 million, Handelman said.

About a quarter of that funding comes from more than 500 donors, and the rest from ticket sales, Green said, which is why musicals are a staple. Serious dramas bring in about 3,000 viewers; musicals sell three times that many tickets, he said.

"We're quite a unique situation among theaters," Handelman said. While a large number of small, professional theaters have closed in the last decade, she said, "We've survived, and not just survived, but thrived."

Bee reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.


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Source: Modesto Bee (CA)

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