Showstopping changes ahead for Sonoma Arts Live

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Sonoma Arts Live is making a few New Year’s resolutions.

Earlier show times... a higher number of performances spread more widely throughout the year... an immediate transition from the former alliance of different theater troupes into a single theater company... and a decided move toward more artistic and thematic consistency in its choices of plays and musicals. Those are just some of the changes that will be coming in 2016 as Sonoma Arts Live institutes a number of new initiatives as the local theater organization launches its sixth year at the Sonoma Community Center.

One of the biggest changes – a winter series of three shows plus a high-profile youth musical – begins in mid-January with a 2002 play by Nora Ephron, the late writer of the hit movies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” and the bestselling memoirs “Heartburn” and “I Feel Bad About My Neck: and Other Thoughts About Being a Woman.” Titled “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” the anthology-style play was co-written by Ephron’s sister Delia, and will kick off what Sonoma Arts Live hopes will be a robust season of programming during a time of year when the organization’s offerings have, in the past, been relatively slim.

“We did a big survey last summer, and we asked our audiences what they wanted,” says Jaime Love, Sonoma Arts Live’s executive artistic director. “One of the things they wanted was more material in the winter. A lot of the people who come to our shows go away in the summer, so they said, ‘Why don’t you do more shows in the winter, when there isn’t so much going on?’”

The notion meshed well with the Community Center’s existing January through March schedule. So, according to Love, a winter season was conceived and put together fairly rapidly – though not without a few late nights making calls and sending out emails to assemble the right team members, directors, artists and tech people, and talk them into spending their winter holidays planning and putting on an array of appropriately-themed shows.

“Fortunately, theater people are crazy, in a good way,” laughs Love, “and everyone was excited by the idea, and excited by the shows we ultimately decided to do in our first winter season.”

The launching of the new series coincides nicely, Love points out, with another big change for Sonoma Arts Live: The evolution from its previous incarnation as an “alliance” of theater companies taking turns producing and presenting shows under the SAL banner, to a single theater company to be known, for continuity’s sake, as Sonoma Arts Live.

“It’s a very big leap,” she says. “We started in 2010 as a collective of four or five theater companies. Over the years, some of those companies went and others came in, but under the old system, when a company had the space for a show, it was their space. That was sometimes a wonderful thing, and sometimes a work-in-progress.”

To put it bluntly, the quality of those productions varied widely, acknowledges Love, which made the building of a faithful, regular audience a bit of a challenge.

“When building a brand, you need consistent quality, because that’s what leads to consistent funding,” Love explains. “And though it really was several different groups doing different things, people coming to see shows at the Community Center just saw it all as Sonoma Arts Live, and they had a hard time settling in and being able to depend on some level of artistic consistency.”

During that time, Love says she worked hard to respect each company’s right to individual artistic expressions, and she speaks at length of how impressed she became with how hard every company, and the artists within those companies, worked to create meaningful theater.

“It was a great way to start, and I think we brought some truly memorable theater to the community,” she allows, “but in order to keep growing, we needed to make a change. We had a large fundraiser, and one of the things we heard over and over from supporters was a desire to see a bit more oversight and consolidation of artistic leadership. It was pretty clear it was time to just make it all one big theater company, which will choose, cast, staff and produce all of the shows we present in the future.”

As such, Love has been reaching out to directors and actors from outside the pool of artists who’ve become regulars at Sonoma Arts Live, and occasionally adding co-productions to the lineup, such the upcoming “Gideon’s Knot,” which Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions will present at their own theater first, and then bring for four performances to Sonoma.

“We’ll get to see the work of great directors like Barry Martin of Lucky Penny, and Carl Jordan, who does a lot of work in Marin and Santa Rosa,” Love says. “He’ll be doing something here in one of our future seasons. It’s a win-win for all of us.”

There will, of course, be a spring and summer and fall series, which Love says will be announced soon. And though it might seem like just a cherry on top of the whipped-cream-pie, Love says that the additional decision to move the showtime of all Sonoma Arts Live’s evening shows from 8 to 7:30 p.m. may have the greatest impact of all the company’s new changes.

“Broadway is doing it, too,” Love says. “They were finding that their client base in New York was getting older, and many of them were traveling in from New Jersey or Long Island or wherever, and it has just become clear that their audience wanted shows that begin and end sooner. And we’ve found that that’s what our audience here has been asking for, so we decided, if it’s good enough for Broadway, it’s good enough for us.”

Email David at david.temple ton@sonomanews.com.

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