Sierra School of Performing Arts
On May 9, Artown’s Board of Directors selected the Sierra School of Performing Arts from a pool of four groups vying for ownership of the Lear Theater. The exact details of the transaction are yet to be finalized, though Artown Board Chair Oliver X told the RN&R on May 15, “It will most likely be a non-cash transaction, or, if there’s any cash transferred, it’ll be nominal, like a dollar.”
For the youth-focused performing arts group, the gift of real estate signifies a giant leap after a 13-year string of hard-won milestones. Local parents Lisa Gunderson, Ann and Davyd Pelsue and Janet Lazarus started the organization in 2005.
“We wanted to create an outlet for [our children], a platform for them,” said Lazarus, who has a master’s degree in theater from UCLA and has worked as a professional actor.
The group borrowed the stage at Galena High School for its first play Wonderland, The Musical Misadventures of a Girl Named Alice. Next, the group began offering summer performing arts camps.
“We thought that we had something really good going, so we expanded to doing a production called Broadway Bits,” said Lazarus, who’s now producing artistic director, one of the nonprofit’s two employees. “We condensed four or five Broadway shows into 25 minutes and put them all together.” Broadway Bits went on for five years.
“Kids that grew up doing these got really good,” said Lazarus. Other theater companies would call to ask for young-actor recommendations. Lazarus’s son got a job with Lake Tahoe Shakespeare while still in high school.
In 2013, the group staged its first full-length Broadway musical in its largest borrowed venue yet, Bartley Ranch, with 403 seats and lawn seating capacity for an additional 600.
“We were really scared that we wouldn’t have an audience,” Lazarus said. That year, audiences numbered about 150 people per night. The following year, the group’s production of Fiddler on the Roof sold out Bartley’s seats. “People began to realize we put on really good shows,” Lazarus said. “Opening night was OK, but after opening night, there were lines.”
The Lear Theater—which was built in 1939 as a church and has changed hands several times, belonging most recently to Artown, has been closed since 2002. The building will require renovations to the tune of an estimated $5-7 million. Lazarus listed some of the projects on the task list—new seating, lighting, sound, control booth, bathrooms, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, paint, and alterations to the stage—and added, “We just have to figure out how to keep it dry. It’s in a flood zone.”
Ideally, Lazarus said, the group will end up with a 300-seat theater that will serve as a permanent stage for her company and also host productions by other groups.
A target opening date for the Lear has not yet been set, and details of the organization’s capital campaign have not been released. For now, Sierra School of Performing Arts is on track to stage its August show, Legally Blonde, at Bartley Ranch, and Merry War Theatre Group, another local company without a permanent home, is planning to stage The Taming of the Shrew on the Lear’s Classical revival-style front steps.