Arts imitate life

Sacramento is seeing hard times both on and off the stage

Jerry Lee (right) and Tyler Wipfli play the Baileys, who try to help working-class folks in Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of <i>It’s a Wonderful Life.</i>

Jerry Lee (right) and Tyler Wipfli play the Baileys, who try to help working-class folks in Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Photo by Barry Wisdom Photography

When the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Michael Laun gave a pre-show speech at a performance of It’s a Wonderful Life earlier this month, he described Sacramento as “our own little Pottersville.” As I reflected on Laun’s comment, I recalled the untold thousands locally who lost their homes to foreclosure in recent years, and many thousands more who barely escaped that outcome.

As everyone knows, the play’s story features George Bailey as the head of a family-operated credit union, a bighearted (and often forgiving) lender helping working-class folks own a home, a man who considers suicide when it appears he will go bust financially. After the events of the past decade, this story clearly resonates with Sacramento audiences in ways that other holiday standards (like Scrooge) apparently do not.

Other local theater companies went with surprisingly similar choices this year. Buck Busfield wrote an original piece (Spinning Into Light) set in a failing textile mill in a 1950s company town, a dangerous place where the machinery periodically mangles an employee. In the version of the show I saw on opening weekend, the finale included an announcement that the textile mill would close, and all employees would lose their jobs. (That ending got cut after the first weekend, and an existing scene in which prospective lovers exchanged longing looks became the new ending.)

Capital Stage revived The Santaland Diaries, a solo show depicting the misery of a cynical temp worker performing with forced joviality as a Christmas elf in a department store (based on an essay by David Sedaris, who packs the Mondavi Center in Davis whenever he visits).

Do you think there is a common theme here? I do.

We are in the midst of an economic “recovery” that is simultaneously a shakeout. Things are humming in Silicon Valley, which has a highly educated and entrepreneurial workforce (and some of the highest home prices in the nation). Newly rich tech titans are scooping up homes and sometimes evicting longtime renters (who in some cases have staged street protests). Many Bay Area municipalities have an average home price over $1 million.

The economic recovery’s new jobs are primarily for the college-educated; consequently, inland counties have seen fewer of them. The California Department of Finance recently released statistics showing that only 28 percent of Sacramento County adults have a bachelor’s degree (as compared with 79.8 percent in Palo Alto). Sacramento now faces the prospect of having 70 percent of the workforce competing for a dwindling percentage of jobs for applicants with a high school or a community college diploma.

The unemployment rate in some Bay Area counties is already low (3.9 percent in Marin County, 4.1 percent in San Mateo County), but it is only recently that unemployment in Sacramento has finally dipped below 7 percent. And unemployment in Sacramento is still higher than in an economically distressed Bay Area city like Vallejo. Other Central Valley cities still have double-digit unemployment: Stockton and Modesto are at 10.7 percent.

This economic scenario is reflected in the arts—on and off the stage. Locally, the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera have staged no performances this season, and gone on “hiatus” (though behind-the-scenes efforts are under way to revive both). It’s not that the classical audience has disappeared. Touring orchestras at the Mondavi Center routinely draw capacity crowds. But funding a professional orchestra in Sacramento (and performing in the aging, acoustically dubious and expensive-to-rent 2,400-seat Community Center Theater) has long been problematic. And there just aren’t enough local companies or private donors to turn to for philanthropic support.

On the bright side, Sacramento’s small Actors’ Equity Association theater companies, which perform in cozy venues seating 100 to 270, face a somewhat easier task. They are able to cobble together sponsorships from local law offices and lobbying firms to keep their small-cast productions on the boards. Which helps explain why the local theater scene is so much healthier than the “serious music” scene.