“It’s challenging to play in the pit for three different musicals in a given week,” admits Sonoma-based drummer Quinten Cohen. “But it’s very rewarding.”
A longtime company member and orchestra performer with the annual Summer Repertory Theater Company in Santa Rosa, Cohen says that he looks forward to his yearly participation in the program. It’s one of the few such training programs in America that still incorporates a grueling “true repertory” system, in which five full shows are rehearsed, built, and staged over the course of three months.
Since 1972, when the inaugural company staged alternating productions of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of Infanta,” the Summer Rep Theater Festival – produced on campus at Santa Rosa Junior College – has become a seasonal hot ticket throughout the North Bay. In addition to drawing audiences from near and far, the unique festival has also provided a vital training ground for thousands of aspiring Bay Area theater artists – including many, like Cohen, from the Sonoma Valley.
“I appreciate that they usually have a lot of talented young people working there,” Cohen says. “I think that, in itself, combined with the general high quality of work that goes into it, is what draws a lot of people to it year after year.”
Now in its 45th season, the renowned program builds an annual company of over a hundred performers, technicians and designers, recruited from all over the country. In its 45 years of existence, that’s a collective army of nearly 5,000 theater-loving pre-professionals, many of whom have gone on to professional careers in the theater arts.
Summer Rep’s vast alumni include actor Benjamin Bratt (“Law & Order”), Grace Gealey (“Empire”), Libby Appel (former artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and Thomas Schumacher (president of Disney Theatrical Corp.).
Among the many Sonoma Valley theater artists who’ve participated in the annual summertime ritual are Reed Martin, of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The actor-writer-director performed with Summer Rep in 1984, after which he threw himself into professional clown training, eventually touring the country with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus.
“I played Herbie in ‘Gypsy,’ Andrew Carnes in ‘Oklahoma,’ and also had a small role in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” Martin recalls. “It was a valuable, memorable and interesting experience. If I remember correctly, we put up each show in just two weeks, and worked with incredibly talented people from up and down the West Coast.”
One set designer that year, Martin says, was Robert Barnhart, who’s gone on to be a lighting designer for the Oscars, the Super Bowl and other major events.
“Our recruiting efforts are national,” says James Newman, SRT’s artistic director. “We audition artists at major theater schools all over the country. But we still have a number of company members every year from Sonoma County, and there always seems to be one or two from Sonoma.”
Tony Ginesi, of Illusions Lighting Design in Sonoma, joined Summer Rep in his final year of high school. In 1999, he was selected as part of Summer Rep’s trainee technical team. On such shows as “Sound of Music,” “Bullshot Crummond,” and “Judevine,” Ginesi has worked alongside award-winning North Bay designers Peter Crompton and Theo Brident. Brident, a longtime El Verano resident, has worked on the stagecraft and technical side of Summer Rep since 1995.
Says Ginesi, “Summer Rep gave me more ‘professional training’ than I’d ever had before. It was a very useful experience.”
That was the summer of 2012, when Clair appeared in “Avenue Q,” “Sweet Charity” and “Xanadu,” which required her to dance in roller skates. It was a “tough summer,” she says. “You are opening one show, while still rehearsing for another, and you are going into tech for a third, and have to get it done in time for a fourth show to go on that night,” says Clair. “It’s very challenging, but so incredible.”
Asked what the draw is to such an artistically demanding and physically arduous way to spend a summer, Artistic Director Newman laughs. A big part of the appeal, he says, is that Summer Rep operates like a professional summer stock theater company.
“I think the reason our company members have such a transformative experience,” Newman says, “is that it’s so immersive. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve been involved in a theater where they don’t have to have a part-time job or classes to go to on the side. For many of them, they’ve never been asked to work this hard at anything in their lives. And they do. They work very hard. And that can be life-changing.”
Summer Repertory Theater runs June 24 – August 13.
‘Nice Work If You Can Get It‘ – June 24 – Aug. 13
‘Boeing Boeing‘ – June 28 – Aug. 2
‘Rock of Ages‘ – July 2 – Aug. 3
‘The Little Dog Laughed‘ – July 12 – Aug. 7
‘Merrily We Roll Along‘ – July 15 – Aug. 9