New blood

Is the local theater scene strong enough to include two new companies?

Four years ago, water inundated the space where the Riverfront Theater’s Bacchus lounge resides.

Back then, it was the lower floor of the River Gallery, which has since moved to Sierra Street. The doors and walls still show mud and discoloration from the water and debris that rushed into the building when the Truckee River overflowed its banks during the 1997 New Year’s flood.

Riverfront Theater executive director Bob Barsanti, technical director Brian Hurley and Hayley McCaw, who will be coordinating the children’s theater program, have been cleaning and fixing up the place since moving in last month. The theater is the realization of a 10-year dream for Barsanti, who has lived in Reno all his life. He has worked with several area theater groups, including Brüka Theatre, which is located next door to the Riverfront Theatre on Virginia Street.

Barsanti said the Riverfront will have a 99-seat black box theater and will feature a lot of theater-in-the-round productions. A full season is planned, which kicks off next month with an English comedy, Charlie’s Aunt. Future productions will include The Glass Menagerie, the musical Damn Yankees and an on-stage version of It’s A Wonderful Life. The theater is considering performing one-act plays outside of Java Jungle on First Street during the summer.

Barsanti envisions the Riverfront Theatre as a performing arts center for theater, dance and other forms of expression, as well as a place where people can just hang out and soak in all the artsy ambiance. He said Area-51 Dance Theatre and the Truckee Meadows Community College Theatre Department are considering holding some performances there.

“I want to just continue getting the arts out in the community and [to make] going to see a show a cool thing to do,” he said.

The Riverfront isn’t the only new face in the crowd. Black Curtains Theatrical Productions also hopes to make its mark in the local theater scene. It plans a full season, starting with a one-night show Jan. 14 at the McKinley Arts Center on Riverside Drive. The group states that its objective is “to introduce new aesthetics into conventional repertory, and to strive for a fusion of the arts that will ensure the theatre’s continued prosperity in the 21st century.” The group’s first play, Sarasponda, opens next month.

Both companies strive to provide theater that they feel audiences can’t get anywhere else in town. This is certainly an admirable goal, but will audiences respond by attending their shows? Is there enough interest to support all theater groups in the area?

“That’s the million-dollar question: Is it too many groups?” said Paul Kiser, executive director of the Actory Theatre Arts Centre in Sparks. “My attitude on it is: It’s a supply-and-demand thing. If it is too many, hopefully the ones that are best will survive. The reality is, the ones that have the best financial backing are the ones that will survive.”

There are plenty of people who want to build new theaters, Kiser said, but not enough interest in putting money into attracting talent or developing theater programs.

“If the city, county and state … really want to create a powerful theater program, there’s going to have to be some investment and money in theater companies—in people, not buildings,” he said. “That’s the key problem I see right now, is that people are willing to put the money into buildings and not into programs and not into people. That’s going to make the difference.”

Barsanti isn’t wasting time in finding financial support. He said he’s been talking to local businesses about corporate sponsorships for upcoming plays. He also plans to talk to the city’s redevelopment agencies about establishing the downtown area—which encompasses the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, Brüka Theatre, the Riverfront and the still under-construction Lear Theater—as a theater district.

Brüka Theatre takes a cautious yet optimistic approach toward its new neighbor.

“If they’ve got money to try to get something going … and they’re using the environment of a downtown theater district, I would hope that they would be supportive of us,” said Scott Beers, Brüka’s artistic director.

Barsanti said that the Riverfront and Brüka are working together to make sure that none of their plays will be in competition with each other. The Riverfront’s focus seems geared toward more familiar territory, with productions such as The Glass Menagerie and Damn Yankees, whereas Brüka occasionally ventures into more provocative material, like Bent and its upcoming production of The Homecoming.

The Riverfront shouldn’t have much trouble attracting attention with a neighbor like Brüka, which has been enjoying a successful season so far. The group’s last two productions, Little Murders and Clue, played to packed houses, the latter play selling out its entire five weekends.

Once the new kid on the block, Brüka appears to be establishing itself in the local theater scene. Beers thinks the addition of new theater groups is a generally positive thing for the community.

“With all these groups coming up, it’s going to bring up the level of quality,” Beers said. “I think competition is very healthy in anything, and I think it will push projects together. I think there will be more collaborations.”

A case in point: Brüka and Renaissance Projects, formerly based in Carson City, struck up a partnership last year. Renaissance Projects now makes Brüka’s space its home, and both companies have combined their talents. Renaissance Projects artistic director Mary Bennett often performs in Brüka plays.

Although most theater companies hope to attract locals and tourists to their productions, at least one theater group is reaching out to audiences outside of the Reno-Tahoe region.

Kiser said the Actory has been sending out press releases and related publicity to markets with a sizeable theater-going population, such as Sacramento, San Francisco and Ashland and Medford in Oregon. He hopes the theater will be able to attract visitors to the area who would like to see a play that they can’t see in their areas.

“We’re trying to push this region,” he said. “Not to say we’re trying to ignore [local audiences], but once again, we would like to see the market expand.”

Although Kiser knows how difficult it can be for a theater to attract an audience, he doesn’t consider new theaters a threat.

“I think that if anybody can turn on new people to start coming to see theater, what happens is people want to see more theater, and so I think that’s always a positive thing,” he said. “It would be real easy for me to be a naysayer … but when we started out, we had a lot of naysayers to us, and we’re 3 1/2 years down the road, and look at where we’re at.

“You have to be positive, and you have to be optimistic to even get the thing off the ground. I do think that [more theater] is positive and that the end result can be a larger market for all of us.”

Barsanti said he thinks it’s a good time for local theater, and that the area, downtown in particular, will benefit from the new groups.

"[I]t just seems that downtown, with everything that’s going on down there, the way that downtown can come alive again is for the people that live here … to make an investment in it," he said. "I think people are ready to see some neat things, and we’re going to be ready to show it to them."