Life on the wicked stage
After five years of producing plays on a historic riverboat moored in Old Sacramento, the Delta King Theatre braces for big changes
Live theater in Sacramento just became a bit more professional—and more competitive. It’s the result of several upgrades that artistic director Stephanie Gularte, also a busy actress, is ushering in at the Delta King Theatre, which resides on a historic 1927 riverboat in Old Sacramento.
“Beginning immediately, we are under contract with Actors’ Equity”—the union that represents theater professionals—“as a ‘small professional theater,’ or ‘SPT,’” Gularte explained. That means that from now on, there will be at least two Equity artists involved with each Delta King production.
This puts the Delta King Theatre into the same general category as the B Street Theatre in Sacramento and the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, both of which are covered by SPT contracts. The Sacramento Theatre Company (STC), an older organization, works under a League of Regional Theaters (Category D) contract with Actors’ Equity. The big kid on the block, albeit seasonally, is Music Circus, which hires many union professionals for its nine-week summer series of musicals in Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion.
And there’s another major change in store at the Delta King: “We will be creating a not-for-profit organization that will be under contract to perform aboard the Delta King,” Gularte said. “Up until now, the theater has been a for-profit operation, a department within the larger operations” of the old riverboat, which also has a restaurant, wedding hall and bed-and-breakfast inn. Taking the theater into nonprofit status means that the theater can apply for grants and receive tax-deductible donations, which typically make up 30 percent to 40 percent of a professional theater company’s budget. Music Circus, STC, the B Street Theatre and the Foothill Theatre Company all are nonprofits.
And still another change: “The Delta King Theatre will be offering season subscriptions,” Gularte said. “We will be selling them for our new season, which starts in September. I should have the play selections completed by the end of April.” That gives the Delta King Theatre yet another feature in common with Music Circus, STC, B Street and Foothill.
Those changes, which involve boosting the Delta King Theatre’s budget, are a gutsy strategy on the part of Gularte, who began her affiliation with Sacramento’s only theater with portholes back in August 1999. At the time, Gularte was an independent artist, holding a degree in theater from California State University, Sacramento, but not a union card, and looking for a space to stage her community-theater production of the play Crimes of the Heart. She connected with the Delta King’s owners, who had leased out their 115-seat downstairs theater on an intermittent basis to several local nonprofessional groups.
Gularte and the Delta King’s owners must have seen some mutual opportunities. The Delta King put Gularte on staff at the end of 1999 to oversee productions in the theater, hoping that the foot traffic from theater patrons would spill over into the old boat’s restaurant and bar. The Delta King, which once plied the water between Sacramento and San Francisco on a daily basis, has been moored in Old Sacramento permanently since the 1980s.
The Delta King’s owners gave Gularte some straightforward directives, i.e., don’t lose money at the box office. So, Gularte initially set out to establish a theater that would support itself entirely through box-office revenue, without subscriptions.
Easier said than done. The course Gularte pursued at the Delta King Theatre basically parallels what was attempted at B Street Theatre a few years earlier. The B Street started out as a for-profit operation in 1991 and enjoyed several hits early on, drawing largely on the star power of actor and founder Tim Busfield, who still was enjoying the glow of an Emmy award for his work in the ABC-TV series thirtysomething and of his supporting role in the film Field of Dreams.
But five years after its founding, the B Street staged several shows that didn’t click at the box office, and without a pad of subscription income to cushion the monetary loss, which triggered a financial crisis. The theater survived mostly because Busfield wrote several large checks to keep the doors open. The B Street soon reorganized as a nonprofit (along with the Fantasy Theatre, a touring children’s-theater company Busfield had founded in 1986), programmed more romantic comedies and the very popular but decidedly low-brow fart-fest Escanaba in Da Moonlight and gradually maneuvered its way onto stable financial footing.
The B Street began offering season subscriptions in 1996 and initially got just fewer than 400 takers. But the subscription base grew steadily, to the point that the B Street boasted more than 5,800 subscribers in 2003.
Gularte thinks that developing a subscriber base at the Delta King will help even out the bumps in the road as the theater closes one show and opens the next. “Currently, we have to build excitement for each new show,” she said. “The buzz really gets going around the fourth weekend. At that point, we’ve had four weeks of a great show but a light box office. Then we get two weeks of great business at the end, but, by then, we’re in production for the next show. We need to have more seats filled earlier to get the word going.” And having subscribers with tickets in hand will help make that happen, Gularte believes.
Throughout the past few seasons, Gularte also has learned what works—and what doesn’t—on the Delta King. “Doing productions that really fit our [limited] space is crucial,” she explained. “When we try to make a show fit our space, but the show isn’t right for our small stage and low ceiling, we end up falling short in the area of production values.”
That’s been the case with some of the Delta King’s holiday productions, which put a lot of actors onstage, with not enough elbow room left for action. Shows that involve a small cast and use a single set—like the upcoming production of Yasmina Reza’s play Art—seem to fit the Delta King best.
Gularte also has learned to trust her instincts. Early on, she picked several frothy comedies because she figured they were “boat material”—lightweight entertainment that she wasn’t personally excited about but thought would click with the good-time-oriented crowd that frequents Old Sacramento.
But to Gularte’s surprise, she got better audience response with some of her darker choices. Plays involving ghosts and rising tension have done quite well on the boat during the October-November time slot, particularly The Woman in Black, which was set in a haunted English mansion.
“The Woman in Black was not a show I thought would be a blockbuster,” Gularte admitted. The language was fairly sophisticated, and the ending was pretty scary. “But it did extremely well,” she added. “It was very encouraging to learn that we can do highly theatrical productions like that and draw a big audience.” A production based on the Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw also did well.
Of course, the Delta King’s best-selling show to date is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a musical revue that covers dating, marriage, divorce, and love late in life. The show opened in January 2003, and Gularte has bumped other productions twice to revive it. She may revive it yet again to boost subscription sales.
“I was concerned that the success of the show might be a mixed blessing,” Gularte said. She worried that some of the Delta King’s regular ticket buyers might drift away because of the extended run of I Love You.
“But the big benefit is that a lot more people know about the Delta King Theatre because of that production,” Gularte said. “And it put us in the position of becoming an Equity house and making this not-for-profit move. It moved us along the road I wanted to be headed. For those reasons alone, it was certainly worth doing. We continue to hold the regional exclusive rights to it. We’re still getting phone calls, asking for it.”
The Delta King Theatre’s transition from community theater to Equity house mirrors Gularte’s progress as an actress. She turned professional in December 2001, after appearing in Richard Broadhurst’s play Benched at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Since then, Gularte has worked as a leading actress at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in San Jose, the Marin Shakespeare Festival and the Aurora Theatre in San Francisco. She also appeared in Two for the Seesaw at the Sacramento Theatre Company this spring and in The Memory of Water at the Delta King more recently.
She won’t be making that many appearances onstage in the near future. “I’ll be directing more,” she said. “It’s very difficult to run the theater when I’m in a show, because we don’t have a big staff. There are a lot of things I’m ultimately responsible for, and it isn’t fair to everyone else when there’s one person in the cast whose attention is all over the place.”
Gularte stressed that the upgrades at the Delta King are not all about her. “I’m trying to create a company,” she explained. “Producing theater is a huge undertaking that I couldn’t do all on my own. What’s making it possible to continue this growth is the energies of people who are now involved, like Adrienne Sher, Ken Figeroid, and Jonathan Rhys Williams,” each of whom has been active as an actor, director or set builder in Delta King shows.
Gularte also feels that working as an actress in the Bay Area and seeing what goes into productions there has helped her and reinvigorated her in terms of what can be done. “There are small theaters in the Bay Area that do tremendous work and bring all the elements together,” she said, “including sound design, costumes and lights—things that we should be giving audiences in our area.”