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September 2, 2009

Can't the sun come out tomorrow? Is Willows Theatre really facing closure?

A few years ago, I took my son to see the Willows Theatre Company present its version of Annie, and then my sister and I went to see Gypsy. I'm not an Annie fan, and the Annie anthem, "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" easily becomes a sound worm in my head that I cannot get rid of.

But it was a great show to take my son, then in first or second grade, to. That and Gypsy, presented in the company's 210-seat mainstage theater in the Willows shopping center, was top notch. Professional, entertaining. Gypsy, a sophisticated musical biography of the young life of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was great. Over the years, I had occasional contact with the company's former managing director, Andrew Holtz, who was smart, talented, enthusiatic, and, like other members of this company, incredibly inventive.

Sure, Willows might be a "surburban," or "regional" theater. And, sure it might mount some of those crowd-pleasing, Broadway-touring usual suspects. But the company did those shows with an amazing enthusiam and attention to artistry. What's amazing is that you'd go see a big Broadway show, like Annie or Gypsy, with all the song-and-dance razzmatazz, but you would view this spectacle in this very intimate space.


Willows offered this very unique theater experience, some of the most enjoyable of the past few years.


And now the company is pushing that envelope of supposed propriety by--I'm shocked, shocked--allowing actors to appear onstage nude in its production of Hair, the now classic, 1960s hippie, counter-culture musical. The show is sold out, testament to the company's popularity, but with tough budget times that's not enough to prevent possible closure.

Plain and simple, Willows is struggling, like every other arts organization in our area.

Yes, the recession. Willows is a 33-year-old East Bay treasure, a company that has been bringing professional level theater to the East Bay, at its mainstage in Concord and at its newer cabaret theater in Marintez. Willows has dedicated audiences and patrons.


But Willows, according to a press release issued today, needs a sudden infusion of $350,000 before November 1. Or it will have to close its doors.


"For more than a year, we've been struggling to achieve a balanced budget but the reality is that the recession has had a major impact on our operations," said Charles Lewis, board president, and Richard Elliott, artistic director, in a joint statement. "We've cut staff, sharply reduced expenses and stretched every scarce dollar, but clearly it is not enough. Any further cuts could put us out of business for good. Clearly, we need help."

It probably goes without saying, but it doesn't hurt issuing a reminder, that the company could use some help, from fans and long-time patrons.

You can send donations to the Willows Theatre, 636 Ward Street, Martinez, CA 94553. For more information, call (925) 798-1300.

3 comments:

Gary said...

I agree, Soccer Mom. My wife and I have been going to the Wilows for over 10 years, and are always amazed at the quality of the performances. Sure, there are clinkers now and again, due mostly to the choice of show (not a big fan of Elton John, so Aida didn't work for me) but often some amazing pieces of work - like their production of Cabaret, one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen all-time ever.

Cast and direction are always top-notch. We are lucky to have such a rich talent pool here in the Bay Area, with the Willows as a major place to showcase them. HAIR, currently running, is a landmark piece of American theatre, and this production does it proud. Coming up is Brimstone, a new work that got a premiere at the Willows a few years ago, and they are bringing it back - I can't wait to see it again. Really a marvelous and moving work. Which is what live theatre is all about - moving you in ways that movies and TV just can't.

The Willows is a treasure worth preserving. If it isn't, our kids could be condemned to teeny screens and tweeting.

Soccer Mom said...

The Contra Costa Times suggests that Willows' decision a few years back to expand from its Concord base in Martinez may have undercut its audience base.

http://www.contracostatimes.com/top-stories/ci_13263607

And this is not good: "Five years ago, the theater company averaged a 90 percent attendance rate. It budgeted for a 50 percent rate this year, with turnout being closer to 35. The company's last best hope is an increase in individual donations the next couple months to ensure a 2010 season."

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the Willows change their season to more fiscally responsible shows? Other companies are tightening belts that way? Some mid-season, But they still have big shows with big casts, and actually haven't been doing them particularly well. I wish they'd cut back and get more AEA performers in.... guess they have a deathwish... cause I sure don't see any cutbacks onstage. What is really going on? Martinez gave them a grant/loan last year.. so it's not like they didn't know they had to cut back...yet bigger shows, larger casts...