News Column

Capital Stage moves into 10th season

September 4, 2014

By Marcus Crowder, The Sacramento Bee

Sept. 04--As Capital Stage enters its 10th season this weekend, the provocative professional theater company celebrates a legacy of forging its own way.

But it can no longer be considered an upstart. Once the newest and smallest professional arts organization in the region, now it's neither. It is, however, confident in its understanding of what it is and what it does.

The company was founded by Stephanie Gularte, Peter Mohrmann and Jonathan Williams in 2005, with the trio branding their work "bold" and "intimate." The three worked as actors, directors and managerial staff of the company, with Gularte taking the lead as artistic director.

Certainly most of the 55 productions they've staged have been in a progressive, contemporary vein, featuring modern playwrights and challenging themes. The company persevered through the recession that severely damaged numerous arts groups. Capital Stage has maintained steady growth and development characterized by consistently intelligent, thorough marketing.

"It's an incredible feeling to have achieved the level of success and stability that we have while doing the kind of work that we really believe in," Gularte said.

The intimacy has been a useful necessity, what with its first home being the claustrophobic, 115-seat lower-level theater on the Delta King in Old Sacramento next door to a raucous murder mystery dinner theater. In 2011 Capital Stage moved to 2215 J St., a former midtown armory retrofitted into a flexible, modern, 125-seat performance space.

That move positioned the company to embrace a future of growth and stability. However, last year Gularte decided to step down from her artistic director position and away from the day-to-day duties of running the company. The board launched a national search for her successor but ultimately didn't have to look far when Williams, Gularte's husband and then the company's technical director, asked to be looked at for the artistic leadership position. Hiring Williams gave the company institutional continuity, and Erin Lucas was added as a managing director.

Williams took over at the beginning of this year. . The 2014-15 Cap Stage season, which opens this week with Williams' production of Nina Raines "Tribes," for the first time features plays selected by someone other than Gularte.

Sitting at a midtown restaurant near the theater, Williams reflected on Capital Stage's past, present and future.

"Thinking about all the hours in the trenches with Stephanie and Peter and myself, there's a lot of pride and a great feeling," Williams said. "The biggest thing I've been thinking about lately -- and it's the most profound piece to me as I'm settling into the producing artistic director position -- is how Capital Stage is really becoming a Sacramento institution. It's a part of the city fabric."

The company has grown steadily while honing an artistic aesthetic. The Capital Stage budget for 2014-15 will be $805,000, up nearly 20 percent over the 2013-14 budget. The current season has 1,477 subscribers, the most in the company's history.

"Before, if I wanted to call a company meeting, I called Peter and invited him over to our house. Now a company meeting means that we are bringing in more than a dozen people," Williams said.

With four full-time employees and six part-time year-round employees, the company will also employ approximately 80 contract artists and crew members on a per-show basis during the season.

"Any arts organization has to carry that balance back and forth between the artistic goals and the financial needs and strike some kind of balance," Williams said.

Cap Stage has produced plays by major name writers such as Neil LaBute ("Reasons to be Pretty" and "Fat Pig"), John Patrick Shanley ("Dirty Story"), Theresa Rebeck ("Mauritius" and "The Scene") and Sam Shepard ("True West" and "Fool for Love"), along with less-known playwrights including Liz Duffy Adams ("Or,"), Adam Bock ("The Typographer's Dream") and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb ("Hunter Gatherers").

When in the first year Cap Stage did the warm and fuzzy "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," it left the company members feeling cold and clammy, so they drew a line in the sand for themselves.

"We decided we had do this on our terms or just stop," Williams said. "If there was an audience here in Sacramento and people came and we were supported and we were able to make it work, then great."

The company made seasonal adjustments with "Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)," "It's A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" and David Sedaris' sarcastic "The Santaland Diaries," but it found a groove in works with an edge that also entertain.

The company made that approach work to the point that Williams and the staff are now formalizing what was simply anecdotal.

"I have a binder that I carry around and I call it 'How to Capital Stage,' " Williams said.

"We're creating the job descriptions that were previously unspoken because we started out so grass roots."

Williams observed that theater has been better able to creatively adapt to modern economics than other art forms, with playwrights writing smaller-cast plays, which are more cost-effective to produce.

"The way that theater has evolved has really helped companies like ourselves, B Street and STC as well," Williams said.

"We survive because we are 125 seats. We know what that audience is. We're not trying to fill the Community Center Theater, which is really hard to do," Williams said.

"Understanding the audience but having an evolving product that we're able to provide without ever betraying what the art form is, that is a big part of it. It feels like a really healthy theatrical environment here right now, especially for the size of the city."

As Capital Stage approached its 10th season, Williams said one of the biggest questions they've asked themselves is whether the theater will continue if the founders all move on.

"I no longer have any doubt in my mind that Cap Stage is going to survive," Williams said. "The brand is really strong, who we are is really well defined, that's going to continue on now."



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Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)

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