Will the show go on?

Between the loss of downtown venues and Lear Theater politics, local theater companies are engaged in some real-life drama

Bob Barsanti and his Reno’s Riverfront cohorts set up stage for what may be their second-to-last production in the Cal-Neva building.

Bob Barsanti and his Reno’s Riverfront cohorts set up stage for what may be their second-to-last production in the Cal-Neva building.

Photo by David Robert

“It was a little bit of a shock, but we’re hanging in there,” said Bob Barsanti, founder and director of Reno’s Riverfront Theatre Company. Barsanti found out two weeks ago that the Riverfront may soon lose the space it calls home, that is, a sectioned-off square on the first floor of the Club Cal-Neva’s Nevadan Tower, the former Onslow casino.

The news came when Cal-Neva chief executive officer Jeff Seary told Barsanti that the city of Reno is interested in buying the tower in order to redevelop that block of downtown. The Cal-Neva bought the closed tower in 1999 and spent close to $500,000 refurbishing it. If the city goes through with the purchase of the building, the tower would close until repurchased by the redevelopment agency.

“Most of that area of town is dark … the buildings are empty,” said Doreen Soto, special projects manager for the Reno Redevelopment Agency. “We are recommending to the City Council that they look at a plan for development that includes a mixture of elements with some retail and some housing while incorporating a venue for the performing arts. We’re looking at getting the block moving forward.”

Barsanti said he understands that the area near the Truckee River is salable property and that the city would do good to rejuvenate the not-so-thriving heart of downtown.

“I know that the Cal-Neva’s intent to sale was a business decision and not a personal one,” he said. “And I know the city definitely wants arts and theater to be part of downtown. I’m trying to look at the situation as an opportunity for us to find a bigger and better place.”

In the immediate panic that followed the ill tidings, Barsanti tried to think of other venues that might suit Riverfront’s needs. If the city buys the building, the company would likely move out in June.

“I approached the Theater Coalition about using Lear Theater,” he said. “The Lear doesn’t have a production company, and we might fit in there. People also keep bringing up the Golden Phoenix. Those are the two options right now.”

But the Theater Coalition doesn’t see relocation into the Lear Theater as an option. Riverfront does not have the kind of money they would need to purchase the Lear, not to mention that the estimated completion date is who-knows-how-far into 2004. And when it is completed, the objective is to make the Lear available to all local theater companies, not just Riverfront.

Susan Mayes, executive director of the Theater Coalition—the advocate of all local theater companies and overseer of Lear renovation—said that many of the local theaters want exclusive rights to the Lear, even to the extent that they do not want the Lear to be rented out to local businesses for seminars during the day. Yet, the only way for the Lear to continue promoting local theater will be to maintain a constant revenue source through business rentals and low-cost rents paid, in part, by the theater companies.

“Reno Little Theatre wants the Lear Theater to be theirs,” Mayes said. “Actors Conservatory wants it to be theirs. Riverfront wants it to be theirs. The Lear Theater cannot meet all the needs of all the theatre companies all at the same time.”

Not putting much hope into a home at the Lear, Barsanti hopes he can get a generous donor to help fund another theater that Riverfront can call their own.

“We’re going to keep plugging along,” Barsanti said. “Everybody’s doing everything they can to keep us up and running.

“Everybody’s rallying to the cause. It’s a great feeling."