CVIndependent

Sat09192020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Before everything went to hell, the Coachella Valley theater community was enjoying, by far, its most successful season ever.

CVRep was reveling in its first full season in its gorgeous new home, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City. Dezart Performs and the Desert Rose Playhouse were in the midst of sold-out seasons. Coyote StageWorks was getting settled into its new digs at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, while Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks were packing people into shows in downtown Palm Springs and Indio, respectively.

“We started off our ninth season like a rocket,” said Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director and board president of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, which shares space at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Dezart Performs. “We had not just record attendance, but record donations—and we were really growing, which allowed us to invest more.”

The weekend of March 13-15 was going to the biggest weekend during this most successful season ever: Four of the six aforementioned companies were opening shows, while LGBT-focused Desert Rose was entering its second weekend of Beautiful Thing, which had received rave reviews, and Palm Canyon Theatre was embarking on the final weekend of a successful production of The Pajama Game.

But as that weekend approached, the reality of COVID-19 began to set in. The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament was postponed, while Coachella and Stagecoach were delayed until October (before being cancelled altogether for 2020). Disneyland closed—as did all of the shows on Broadway.

Desert Rose Playhouse, Dezart Performs and Desert Ensemble Theatre Company (which, appropriately, was preparing to open a show called How to Survive an Apocalypse) chose to cancel the weekend’s shows, while Desert Theatreworks and Palm Canyon Theatre shut down after Friday’s performances. Only CVRep would make it through the weekend—and on Sunday, March 15, the company’s production of The City of Conversation would become the final full theatrical production the valley has hosted since.

The cancellations devastated the local theater community, both emotionally and financially.

“I will tell you, the amount of frustration and disappointment in coming right up to opening night and having to cancel—I do not want to go through that again,” said Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote Stageworks. “We shut down The Velocity of Autumn the day before we were supposed to open. It’s too hard.”

Now, more than four months later, all of the valley’s theater companies remain in limbo. None of them know what the 2020-2021 season will bring—even though some companies have optimistically announced seasons starting as early as September.

In other words, the theater world is a mess—but the mess has had a silver lining, of sorts: It’s brought the local theater community together.

Some—but, notably, not all—of the desert’s theater companies have banded together to launch the Alliance of Desert Theatres, “a cooperative of producing theater companies in the Coachella Valley that network and take action in order to nurture a vibrant performing arts community,” according to the website. The effort started with a Zoom call back in May, and continues with weekly Zoom calls and subcommittees that look at various initiatives.

“I felt that (the alliance) was going to be a great resource and offer a sense of community and camaraderie to get through this horrible time,” said Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart Performs. “We’re sharing our woes; we’re sharing our strategies. This was an opportunity to really get a sense of what we need to do to survive as a theater community.”


David Cohan, the vice president of the board of directors at CVRep, serves as the Alliance of Desert Theaters’ spokesman. He explained that the alliance grew out of internal conversations taking place at CVRep.

“With everything that is (happening), we felt that this is the time and place where we need to come together,” Cohan said. “Joe Giarrusso, the president of the (CVRep) board, and I started discussing this. I suggested that if nobody was doing it, maybe we should be the ones to organize it. So we put out emails to all the other theater groups and set up an initial meeting. That was the starter.”

Cohan said the alliance’s weekly meetings give participants the opportunity to share information and ideas, and the group is working on possibly pooling some resources. As an example, Cohan said, the alliance has discussed the feasibility of filming productions and streaming them.

“That’s not as simple as it sounds,” he said. “For instance, for CVRep, we are a union theater company, and there are two different unions—one that covers live theater, and one that covers, basically, broadcast theater. … If you’re recording a live performance, but then wanting to stream it, you’re talking about two different unions and two different sets of rules.

“Then you get into technology—how could you do it? How do you do it in terms of equipment? A lot of theaters don’t have recording equipment—and how expensive is it? Besides cameras, what do you need? … There are some people who are much more technically oriented and have been doing research on recording. Could we buy some recording equipment and share it among the theaters? That’s one of the things we’re discussing.”

While it’s been helpful to exchange ideas and share information, Cohan said the sense of community the alliance has fostered has been its biggest benefit.

“The camaraderie has been nothing short of amazing and heartwarming and astounding,” he said. “We’re all working really well together—and it makes for a stronger arts community. We all have a much better appreciation for one another.”

Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz agreed.

“It’s really a huge support system for theater companies,” Abramowitz said. “Even the groups that aren’t necessarily a part of the alliance, it doesn’t mean that the alliance wouldn’t have resources available for those other theater companies. There’s been a need for a very long time for groups to come together to figure out how we can combine resources in a way that is non-competitive and that allows us to grow. We’re all doing great work, and we all support each other, and we all love each other—even though we’re also all very competitive.”

Abramowitz said the Alliance of Desert Theatres fulfills a different purpose than the long-established Desert Theatre League—best known for its annual Desert Star Awards, honoring the best in local theater each year. (Incidentally, Desert Star nominations are slated to be announced on Aug. 1.)

“The Desert Theatre League’s mission is to highlight the work that is being done in the valley,” Abramowitz said. “What’s not a part of their mission is helping us expand, in terms of resources and availability.

“I think the common thread among all of us is … how can we best help each other out when we do not know what our reality is going to be like? The alliance itself is supposed to be equal in terms of participation. That there’s no specific leader; there’s no specific hierarchy. We’ve formed subcommittees to help each other out, whether it’s regarding fundraising, or what possible grants are out there for us, and who could possibly use them. What are the (standard operating procedures) for reopening? What do we think it’s going to look like? Where can we get the best deal on hand sanitizer?”

Shaw said one of the alliance’s goals is to help educate the public about local theater.

“The fact that we are speaking weekly, it’s good that all of our patrons and all of our donors know that we’re doing that, because what we’re also doing is educating the public,” Shaw said. “‘Did you know that there is a LGBTQ theater in the valley? Did you know that there’s a very successful theater in Indio at the Indio Performing Arts Center? Did you know that?’ There are a lot of people who don’t know that. It’ll help open the eyes and educate the public about what the offerings are in the community once we get back up and running. It would have been great to have something like this before, pre-COVID, but we’re all so busy.”

That busy-ness is one of the reasons some of the valley’s theater companies have declined to participate in the alliance—at least for now. Take Coyote StageWorks, for example; the company was listed as a member in the news release first announcing the formation of the Alliance of Desert Theatres, but Yates said he later decided that he needed to take a step back.

“I applaud them. We were in the first three Zoom conversations about setting it up and what it could be,” Yates said. “David Youse is my board president. We talked a lot about it. … It was taking away our focus from keeping our own business alive. It also seemed to be heading in a different direction from what we initially thought the alliance was going to be. We just decided that at this particular moment, it was imperative that we focus on Coyote.

“Some of the talk was in getting buying power on hand sanitizer and that kind of stuff for the theaters. Well, we already have that covered with being at the Cultural Center.”

Yates said he may at some point decide to rejoin the alliance.

“Things may change. I may go back to them and say, ‘All right, now we’re ready,’” Yates said. “But at the time it was all happening, there was too much unknown. We had people saying that they were definitely starting up in November, and I was like, ‘I can’t support that.’ An alliance means that you’re aligned.”


Meanwhile, the theater companies are all trying to figure out how to handle their 2020-2021 seasons—if the pandemic even allows a 2020-2021 season.

Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks, as of this writing, are selling tickets for fully announced seasons, starting in September. Desert Rose is in the midst of a move from Rancho Mirage into a new home—the former Zelda’s nightclub space, on South Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.

Most of the other theater companies have their eyes set on 2021.

“Gosh, we are definitely not opening up this year,” Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz said. “There’s just no way, especially without state or federal guidelines on how a theater company or a performance-art center should operate. We don’t want to give hopes to any of our patrons and then cancel. Right now, we are thinking of the beginning of next year. We’re changing our gala event—which would normally be an event with food, and drink, and song, and a ton of people—to something a little bit more quaint.

“We are (hoping to do a season starting in the first part of 2021), but it will be very short. Instead of doing the gala event and then three full-stage productions, we would be doing a gala event and two stage productions. One of them would be (company founder) Tony Padilla’s show that we want to do for our 10th anniversary, that we did a reading on back in December of last year. Then, we also hope to redo How to Survive an Apocalypse. We have the set; we have everything.”

Dezart Performs’ Shaw is also setting his sights on a scaled-down season in 2021, starting with the show he was never able to open back in March—presented, perhaps, in an unconventional manner.

“Our goal is to produce three shows this season, and start with Every Brilliant Thing, where we left off; how we’re going to present it comes down to money,” Shaw said. “We are looking into various streaming platforms. We’re looking at filming it live and then streaming it as a recording.

“Our second show—for the first time, we’re actually producing a musical. It’s only two actors. … Then we’re doing a brand-new drama by Paul Coates called The End of It.”

Chuck Yates, at Coyote StageWorks, said the set for The Velocity of Autumn remains onstage at the Cultural Center.

“Our plan is, when it is safe for people to come back to a theater, we will do that show,” he said. “We have a couple of other titles in a holding pattern if we get to do more than one show—but at the moment, nobody seems to know when we’re able to do what we do.”

In the meantime, Yates said he’s working with the Cultural Center—which recently started hosting drive-in movies—to possibly hold smaller events outdoors.

“I won’t say they’re full productions, but they’d be some concerts and some other sorts of fun outdoor events for Coyote StageWorks,” he said. “All of that’s in the works right now, just so we can keep doing some things. … We’ve also talked about doing our play-reading series outdoors when it gets cooler.”

Over at CVRep, which has been hosting a steady series of virtual events, the plan is to reopen with The City of Conversation, hopefully in January 2021—but even if that can happen, Cohan said it will be a big challenge to actually pull it off, barring a miracle cure for COVID-19.

“We’re making all sorts of plans,” Cohan said. “We have multiple calls a week where we’re coming up with plans A, B, C, D and E; it just keeps going. One of our plans is, if it is safe enough, and if we think we’ll have the patrons to be able to do it, we will invite people to come back to the theater with enormous modifications to how we do in-person shows—with a very limited seating capacity and socially distanced seating. We’re also talking about making it safe for the actors by having their dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms separated with Plexiglass and all kinds of other things. We’re trying to figure all that out—and then having particular protocols for how people will actually come to the theater, everything from going to fully paperless ticketing to having people arrive at the theater at staggered times so people aren’t waiting together in our lobby.

“We’re thinking about everything. There are very extensive cleaning protocols to the actual seats and every surface, and restrooms, both during the shows, when restrooms will get cleaned multiple times before the show and intermissions, and after the show, as well as all the seats being sprayed down and disinfected between shows. … And then what happens as we approach a show, if an actor comes down with the sniffles, which is not an unusual thing? Can we still run the show? We used to be able to. An actor used to be able to muscle through. But now if an actor has the sniffles, can we still do that?”

Below: Josh Odsess-Rubin and Martha Hackett in CVRep’s The City of Conversation—the final show to be performed in the valley before the March shutdown.

Published in Theater and Dance

We’re not in the business of sharing misinformation here at the Independent. In fact, the whole point of these Daily Digests is to share good info from reliable resources, because there’s a whole lotta crap floating around out there.

However, bear with me as I share a really stupid post from a Facebook friend … that has a really important point embedded within it.

This Facebook friend (a person I don’t actually know; because of the newspaper, I accept friend requests from pretty much anyone with whom I have mutual friends) wrote, in part: “Banning all fun activities while quarantining an entire population is a very, very BAD IDEA. What worked in Chinaor Korea will not work for America. What I feared has already come to pass: an increase in spouse abuse, children abuse, suicidal attempts … and we’re just 4 days in.”

OK … the first part of that post, we can all agree, is bonkers nonsense: Viruses and epidemiology don’t change based on location and nationality. On-the-ground horrific happenings in several countries prove that the social distancing and staying at home we’re enduring right now are, well, REALLY GOSH DARNED CRUCIAL.

However, the second part of that post … it rattled me: While I have not seen any hard evidence that spousal abuse, child abuse or suicide attempts are already on the rise, they’re inevitable consequences of people being forced to stay inside with someone who’s abusive (and stressed to boot). And all this chaos, as I touched upon yesterday, is seriously triggering some people with mental illness.

So … how do we fix this? I don’t have a complete answer for that. I doubt anyone does. And that chills me to the bone.

However, I do have a partial answer: We all need to ask for help if we need it. And we all need to check in with friends, loved ones and neighbors who may need help but be afraid or unable to ask for it.

I participated in two calls with various community leaders today, and this point came up multiple times: We all need to look out for each other in this unprecedented, crappy-ass time. And we need to make sure we reach out when we, ourselves, are in need.

To that end, Palm Springs City Councilwoman Christy Holstege has started a new Facebook group, Coachella Valley Neighbors Helping Neighbors Through COVID-19. The page includes Google Docs where people can sign up to volunteer—and sign up to request needed help.

My friends … if you can volunteer your time, or goods, or anything, please sign up. (Oh, and check out the governor’s Volunteer California site, too.) Even more importantly, if you need help right now of some sort, please sign up.

Beyond this admirable Facebook effort … we need to really live up to the meaning of the word “community” right now. To repeat: Now is the time to be there for each other—and now is the time to reach out if we’re in need.

Please.

Now, for some news:

• For the last couple days, I’ve promised the Independent was publishing a piece that covered the heartbreaking decisions local theater companies endured heading into what was supposed to be one of the busiest theater weekends of the year, as the news got crazier and crazier. At last, here’s that piece, and I am quite proud of it.

• Breaking casino news: Fantasy Springs is closing down through the end of the month (and paying employees during the closure; great move), according to a news release we just received. Meanwhile, the Agua Caliente locations are remaining open for now. Morongo and Spotlight 29 also remain open as of this writing.

Clark’s Nutrition is opening an hour early for elderly and disabled shoppers, at least for the next few days. This is a fantastic idea, and I hope other grocers follow suit.

• If you want or need lunch from Mizell Senior Center, they offered to-go meals today, and may do so in the future. Watch the Facebook page for updates.

• If you suddenly find yourself with extra downtime, why not consider taking a free college course online?

Safeway is hiring in Northern California. The same thing is happening at some local grocery stores, too.

Amazon, too, is hiring in a big way.

• Max Brooks has an important message to share from him and his father, Mel Brooks.

• You’re stuck at home. Museums are closed. But due to the wonders of the internet, you can now visit some museums from home! Even in Paris

• And finally, what happens when a zoo is closed, and they give penguins free run of the joint? Adorableness!

That’s enough for today. Stop hoarding toilet paper. (Really, people. I had to give a friend an extra pack so she could avoid a 25-person-long line at Walmart. Sheesh.) Wash your hands. Check in on someone who may need someone to check in with them. We’re gonna get through this together … and think of the whackadoo stories we’ll all have from this era one day.

Published in Daily Digest

Ron Celona looked weary as patrons entered the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City for the Saturday, March 14, matinee performance of The City of Conversation.

This was supposed to be a bustling, packed weekend of theater in the Coachella Valley. At least four theaters were opening new productions, while two more companies continued successful shows.

But as of that Saturday afternoon, The City of Conversation was the only show still open. Before we entered the theater—not even one-third full—Celona confided that after the Sunday show, CVRep, too, would be going dark.

Barring a miracle, we were watching the last play to be performed in the Coachella Valley by our fantastic theater companies in quite some time.

The production of The City of Conversation was a fantastic. Thanks to a great cast, led by Martha Hackett as old-school liberal activist/socialite Hester Ferris, the play showed how political differences can rip a family apart. It was compelling and riveting—so much so that it managed to make at least some theater-goers temporarily forget the unprecedented weirdness going on outside.

That is, until one of the characters made a joke about an expired toilet-paper coupon.

Celona’s angst over whether or not to let the show go on encapsulates the dilemma our valley’s producers faced heading into the weekend: On one hand, out of an abundance of caution, they could do societal good by closing the theater doors and having people staying home. On the other, they could take precautions and let the amazing, expensive work they’d rehearsed, built sets for and toiled over for weeks and months be seen and enjoyed by people who badly needed a distraction from the outside world.

As of Thursday, March 12, when the Independent started reaching out to local theater professionals, all six shows were slated to go on as scheduled—with the aforementioned precautions.

“We are offering hand sanitizer to people who have bought tickets,” said Chuck Yates, whose Coyote StageWorks was set to open The Velocity of Autumn the next night in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. “For those who haven’t bought tickets yet, we don’t know if they will come.

“It’s a huge financial impact. Theater is never easy, and this is particularly hard. … There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do. All of the small theaters here, like us—nobody is in a financial situation to handle this, so we are opening The Velocity of Autumn. … It’s got heart; it’s funny; it’s beautifully written. It’s perfect for our community.”

The play—about an 80-year-old artist who’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails (!) to keep her family from removing her—would have been a lovely distraction for people who needed it. But these are unprecedented times.

Yates called back later in the day on Thursday to let us know he’d changed his mind.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But we will try to figure out alternative dates. Right now, we’re biding time, waiting to see what the news brings. Maybe we can do it in a few weeks or months, or maybe next season.”

Robbie Wayne, the producing artistic director at the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, told us on Thursday he intended to continue the run of Beautiful Thing, which had opened to rave reviews the weekend before.

“You’re not given a class on how to do this. Nobody knows how to handle this, so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I’m trying to be as informed as possible about this—everyone’s trying to figure it out. We haven’t had a large number of refund requests, but we are trying to figure out how to do this—it’s a dilemma. We don’t want it to be about the money, but that has to be taken into consideration for the venue. As of right now, we are removing snacks; we offer hand sanitizers; we are scrubbing the place down; and we are telling people stay home if you don’t feel well. But we also want to keep some normalcy in our lives.

“We want to be responsible for helping to curb this outbreak … It’s a hard place to be in. I have the TV on all the time. I go with whatever my gut tells me at the end of the day, because 24 hours can change everything. It is minute by minute now, because there is so much to consider.”

Wayne’s words were spot-on: The next day, he made the decision to suspend the weekend’s shows.

“We have staff members and patrons with compromised immune systems, so I went with my conscience. There are no winners in a situation like this, unfortunately,” Wayne said.

Over at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, the same dilemma played out: After announcing on Wednesday that the “curtain will go up!” on the weekend’s opening of—yes, really—How to Survive an Apocalypse, the next day, executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott announced the show would not go on, at least for opening weekend.

“We are so proud of our team for their magnificent work on this play,” they said. “This was a hard decision, but we feel it is the right call during this unsettled and confusing time.

That meant that as of Friday night, three of the six shows were still open: Palm Canyon Theatre’s The Pajama Game, and the opening night for Desert Theatreworks’ The Producers went on as scheduled, along with CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

“We have scrubbed the theater down,” Celona said on Thursday, March 12. “We have a cleaning crew coming in after every performance. We have purchased professional wall-mounted sanitizing dispensers for the lobby and the theater area. Our theater is 208 seats, so we are less than the 250-seat gatherings that are being cancelled, and we are about 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The bottom line is, when our accountants say we have to close, we close, and when the county of Riverside says we have to close, we close.”

The morning after those Friday-night shows, both Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks announced they would go dark. CVRep followed two days later.

“I hope if someone has a ticket to a live theater event, and the show is closed due to the virus, that they would consider donating the money to the theater instead of asking for a refund,” Coyote StageWorks’ Yates said. “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations.”

Published in Theater and Dance

Welcome to the first-ever Coachella Valley Independent Daily Digest. The goal for this Daily Digest is to round up reliable, vetted news related to COVID-19 and the accompanying societal changes. There’s too much unreliable information floating around on social media (and even coming out of some elected officials’ mouths)—and in this space, we'll sort through it all to get to truthfulness and sanity.

In addition to news updates, we’ll also highlight good things happening—specials from local businesses (that REALLY need your support right now), enlightening comments from members of the community, and so on. Please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have anything you think should be included.

And with that ... here's the news.

• As we were getting close to clicking send on this, the Palm Springs Unified School District announced it would be closing schools the next two weeks. They're moving up Spring Break, essentially. Parents are receiving this message right now: "Hello PSUSD families. This is Supt. Sandy Lyon. I wanted to provide you with an update on the coronavirus situation as it relates to our District. You may be aware that over the past day, there has been an increase in the number of confirmed cases here in the Coachella Valley, and there are a number of tests pending that could result in several other confirmed cases. Additionally, both the Riverside County Department of Health and Governor Newsom issued a directive to suspend gatherings of over 250 people. As a result, Palm Springs Unified School District is moving its two-week spring break. It will begin on Monday, March 16."

• Eisenhower Medical Center announced earlier today that visitors will no longer be allowed at EMC for the time being. More on what EMC is doing to protect the community can be found here.

• As of this writing, local theaters have made a split decision on whether to stay open or not. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, Coyote StageWorks and the Desert Rose Playhouse have cancelled or postponed shows this weekend, Palm Canyon Theatre, CVRep and Desert TheatreWorks are letting the shows go on. Read more about this in the second installment in the Independent's Pandemic Stories series tomorrow (Saturday).

As for that first Pandemic Stories installment: Kevin Fitzgerald talked to the owner of Piero's PizzaVino about the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tourney, and how that devastated her and her staff. Piero's is one of the few local restaurants to have a pop-up location at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, alongside big names like Nobu and Spago.

• As for closures and cancellations: The Palm Springs Gay Softball league has suspended practices and play through March, and the national NAGAAA Cup tourney the league was hosting at the end of March is cancelled. Other recent cancellations/closures include the Palm Desert Food and Wine fest, all Certified Farmers Markets through at least March 30 (though the Palm Springs Cultural Center remains open for now), the Palm Springs Library (though the Palm Desert Library remains open), and shockingly, The Abbey down in West Hollywood.

• From our partners at CalMatters: As the coronavirus toll rises, so do concerns about health-care workers' safety.

• Earlier today, President Trump declared a national emergency. The press conference was ... well, fascinating. At one point, after Trump said he didn't take any responsibility for the pandemic, a reporter from PBS asked him about his firing of the national pandemic response team. His response was that he didn't do it, and that this was a "nasty question." As for that firing, Snopes says it's true that it happened.

• Support local businesses! If you're comfortable with going out (while taking all the precautions that you should be), local bars and restaurants need you right now. If not, order food from a local restaurant on GrubHub or one of the apps!

• Alternately, consider buying gift cards from local businesses. Some places are offering 20 percent bonuses.

• If you found this email helpful, forward to a friend, or have them email us and we'll add them to the list. Please consider supporting the Independent, too ... we could use it!

Until tomorrow ... stay safe; support local business, and wash your hands!

Published in Daily Digest

Michael Shaw, the artistic director and co-founder of Dezart Performs, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he helped start the theater company back in 2008.

“I was living in Los Angeles, so I was running the theater with my co-founder at the time,” Shaw said. “I went back and forth … and was still holding down my job in Los Angeles. I realized for it to grow, I needed to be here full-time. I needed to be entrenched in the community, because in order to be successful, you need to be in the community and get support for a nonprofit.

“I thought going into it that it was an avenue to explore new scripts. I really went into this thinking, ‘No stress; it’ll be fun. It’ll be an outlet to explore my creative side as an actor’—and the first four years, it was exactly that. But when you decide to take it to the next level, there are responsibilities that come with that. Things mushroomed and grew.”

Things mushroomed and grew so much, in fact, that Dezart Performs is outgrowing its home, the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. That’s why Shaw recently announced Dezart was embarking on a campaign to raise money for a new and bigger theater to call home.

Dezart Performs is not alone. Coachella Valley Repertory announced last year it had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas movie theater building in Cathedral City and turn it into the company’s new home, after outgrowing spaces in The Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage. Meanwhile, Desert Theatreworks outgrew its space at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert and just moved into a new space at the Indio Performing Arts Center.

Yep: Local theater companies are on the move.


Michael Shaw (far left) and the company of Dezart Performs' Casa Valentina watch as makeup artist James Geier demonstrates makeup techniques on actor Dale Morris. COURTESY OF CLARK DUGGERWhen Shaw (pictured here, at the far left) and co-founder Daniela Ryan began Dezart Performs, the company placed an emphasis on finding and developing brand-new plays. However, in recent years, Dezart Performs has shifted its focus away from new plays, and toward edgier fare. For example, the 2016-2017 season included Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, a play based on a real-life haven for transvestites in the 1960s, and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a play that tackles issues of race, housing and gentrification.

“Our season has an obligation to deliver socially relevant and provocative story lines. We’ve always tried to do that—and our audiences didn’t expect that in our little town a few years ago,” Shaw said. “They say, ‘I really love A Chorus Line,’ and didn’t expect to see Clybourne Park, which not only uses the F-word quite often, but also uses the C-word. When I read the script, I thought, ‘Oh my God! They’re going to pull out pitchforks and torches!’ (But audiences) loved the fact they were challenged and, in the context of the storyline, felt (such language) was necessary. The audience is there with you. That’s exciting. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done Clybourne Park, and wouldn’t have expected that.”

Shaw said he’s enjoyed watching the Coachella Valley theater world grow and prosper.

“All of the theater directors are friends,” he said. “We all communicate; we all get together and see each other’s shows; and we all support each other. We make an effort to support each other, because we need more than one theater. You can’t have just one hamburger joint or one grocery store. We all have that same belief in supporting theater in the community.”

Dezart’s fundraising campaign for a new facility is in its initial stages, Shaw said.

“What we’re doing is announcing the pledge drive and setting in motion the path to achieve all of the things we need to for us to say, ‘We have now secured a facility, and we’re now in renovation,’” he said. But we’re a few years off from that. We’re establishing a position for a director of development, fundraising, and consulting to put us in a place where we, as an organization, can solidify the foundation and the people we need to make it happen. It means bringing on more staff, funding that staff, and taking a number of things off my plate so I can continue to grow in my role as the artistic director. I wear many hats, but I’m also only one person. Even with the support of volunteers, we need to start thinking ahead and ask, ‘What do we need to do to allow us to grow our programming?’”


CV Rep's Ron Celona and Gary D. Hall (left) sign the option agreement to purchase the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City with city officials Joe Giarrusso and Tami Scott (right).The Coachella Valley Repertory, currently based at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, was also founded in 2008. It’s the only company in the valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with the Actors’ Equity union.

Founder and artistic director Ron Celona said the theater has grown well beyond what was originally planned.

“We were 2 years old, using outside venues, before we were able to rent our own space,” Celona said. “Our first big milestone was moving into (a space in) The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, which was an empty shell. We hired a contractor to build our 86-seat theater, lobby and box office. We expanded to the next unit, building offices for staff. … The first hire was a box-office staff member, and little by little, we have grown to be an eight-full-time-staff company. It might be called show business, and it’s certainly a business—and it needs to be run like a business.”

Celona said business success led to CV Rep’s current status.

“We started as a non-union theater that contracted Equity actors. A few years back, the accomplishment of the company as a business allowed us to become a full-fledged Equity house. It makes Coachella Valley Repertory the only Equity house in the Coachella Valley,” Celona said. “What that does is gives us national coverage.”

Celona said the CV Rep production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 2013 marked a key moment in the company’s history.

“That particular production was a turning point for Coachella Valley Repertory. Why? Because of the recognition of its production values and the cast,” Celona said. “Basically, we got a wide word of mouth, and it spread like wildfire. People who had never heard of us started to check us out. Prior to that, it was very much a small, contained following. Our subscription base was around 300, and afterward, we shot up to 700 to 800 subscribers the following year. Each year since, we’ve grown by about 200.

With that increase in subscribers, and 8,000 people attending the 2016-2017 season shows—in an 86-seat theater—it’s time for CV Rep to move into a bigger space.

“We have signed an option with the city of Cathedral City to purchase the old IMAX movie theater and two adjoining restaurants—the building and the land,” Celona said. “We have until June 2018 to execute that option. Basically, what that means is we’ve had a capital campaign since October 2016 to raise the money we need. The total campaign is a $6 million campaign. We’re just shy of our first $1 million as of right now. We need at least a percentage of that ($6 million) campaign to enter the agreement and break ground and build a state-of-the-art playhouse.”

Celona said he’s proud of the mark that CV Rep and the valley’s other theater companies have left on the valley.

“I think any arts organization in the community … we’re all making a difference,” Celona said. “The difference is to enlighten, inspire and educate our community to be a better place to live in, and (for us to be) better human beings in the world. Theater has always been a mirror to its community.”


Desert Theatreworks has grown in popularity and size since the community-based theater company was formed 2013, in part because the company produces a wide variety of shows, according to artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez.

“In our first season, we had around 2,000 people who came through and bought tickets. Last year, we had 8,000 people who bought tickets,” Phillips-Martinez said. “We’ve tried to do a diverse amount of productions, and not just things that are interesting to us. What we try to do is broaden our audience with every show that we do, or pick a different type of show in our season that will bring in different audiences and keep them coming back.”

Phillips-Martinez cited a 2015 production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone as a show that furthered Desert Theatreworks’ reputation.

“We did it in September that year, when the audiences aren’t always bountiful, and it was nice to get that critical response—and the audiences just kept coming back,” He said. “It was a big hit for us, and it was a different type of show. … We staged and choreographed nearly every number and theme transition. It was all original and a lot of fun.”

Phillips-Martinez said he’s had to battle commonly held assumptions about community theater.

“The public perception that community theater is of a lesser quality is a challenge,” he said. “… The work will speak for itself. If you focus on quality, you can put on whatever you want in your space, and your audience will trust you. That’s what the original challenge was—changing the perception of what community theater is.”

I could hear the excitement in Phillips-Martinez’s voice when he talked about Desert Theatreworks’ move from the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center to the Indio Performing Arts Center.

“We had outgrown the (Desert Theatreworks space at the Arthur Newman Theatre). We had asked for more space, and they had more to give, but for whatever reason, they were not willing to do that, and it’s fine,” Phillips-Martinez said. “Our customers wanted us to stay there and wrote more than 700 letters to the city of Palm Desert, but after much deliberation and trying, it didn’t happen.

“The city of Indio offered us the space. A solution was made quickly, and the show must go on. We love the space, and the city of Indio is our partner in producing our shows. They’re helping us promote our shows as well. It’s very nice to get a municipality’s support in producing shows, because it gives (us) some new support that we didn’t have before.”

The Indio Performing Arts Center has long had challenges attracting tenants and audiences. However, Phillips-Martinez said that it’ll work out just fine for Desert Theatreworks.

“One of the advantages that we have is we have such a good track record of producing shows, and (a large) number of shows we’ve presented, which is 32 main-stage productions,” he said. “Most theater companies that are local only do three or four a year; we produce eight to 10. If you’re looking for viability and sustainability, (the larger number of shows) is more attractive in sustaining a place like that. The possibilities are good.”

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley has always had a love affair with the performing arts, reflected in street names like Sinatra, Shore, and Hope.

Admit it: We’re star struck!

With the new Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, and the emphasis by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership on developing a thriving local arts community as an economic driver, the goal is to attract and keep talented people here.

We have neighbors whose names you might not know, but they’ve been blessed with outstanding training, experience and vision.

Daniela Ryan, 47, of Palm Desert, is one such example. Married, with two children, 9 and 11, she recently stepped back from her leadership position at Dezart Performs, the company she started seven years ago, to focus on raising her children.

“I actually put an ad on Craigslist three years after coming to the Coachella Valley when my husband got a job here, because I was frustrated trying to find something locally where I could act or direct,” she says.

“Dezart (One) Gallery, in Palm Springs, was the one response I got. They wanted to develop a theater in the Backstreet Arts District, so I agreed to try to write something I could perform. After three years of doing nothing but nursing and napping babies, the next year, I did my show and met (artistic director) Michael Shaw, and Dezart Performs was born.

“The response has been terrific, and I’m hoping to work with them again, and with other local theater companies, both acting and directing.”

Daniela began in the biz by attending children’s theater auditions at age 7, along with her sister and friends. “I just got thrown into it. I got the part of Peter (in a play version of “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”) because I was the only one with short hair! But even when I would forget my lines, the audience never let me go.

“Until I had kids, I had always either been in a show or studying (theater at the University of California at Berkeley). I wanted to hone my craft even if I couldn’t make a living at it. I waitressed, bartended, and the worst job I ever had was in a shoe store. I was 16 and worked part-time as the ‘box boy.’ Size 10 men’s shoes are heavy, and getting them on the top shelf was a challenge. After three weeks, I was fired, after being told I couldn’t do the job because I was a ‘girl.’”

Daniela has also taught acting, and one of her basic tenets is: “If you’re looking for the exit, you’ll find it; if you’re driven to act, you should just do it.”

If she could do anything she wanted, Daniela would direct. “You have to be intelligent, thoughtful and ambitious to be a good director. The director can change the course of a whole play. The actor is given the vehicle; it’s more myopic. The director can shape the entire product.”

While Daniela is proud to have helped make Dezart into a success, she is realistic: “The local media is just beginning to recognize local talent. This community deserves a thoughtful, serious theater company.”

When it comes to training in the performing arts, Sky Valley resident Wendy Girard, a life member of the famed Actor’s Studio inducted at age 18, has a powerhouse background as actor, director, producer, and teacher, lauded by stars like Al Pacino and Martin Landau.

“I didn’t plan to be an actor. I was a big fan of Elia Kazan, and that was what I wanted to do when I grew up—to direct. But in those days, women weren’t directors.

“I read in the D.C. paper that auditions were being held for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. I thought if I snuck into the back row and watched, I could learn what a director does.

“When the auditions were over, the director said I should come up and audition. I was cast on the spot, at 15. I figured acting would help me understand what a director does from the inside out. After that, I just kept getting cast.”

Wendy met her former husband, John Strasberg, when he was guest actor at the Arena Stage in D.C. “We moved in with each other same day.” At 18, she moved with him to New York, living with his father, Lee Strasberg. “We stayed in Johnny’s old room, where Marilyn Monroe had also stayed!

“I had never heard of Actors Studio or ‘The Method’ style of acting. I didn’t know that one of the ‘rules’ was that nobody talked to Lee unless he initiated the conversation. I just walked up to him one day and started talking about improv—he was apoplectic. But he became like a father to me.”

She studied with Strasberg for 13 years and the renowned Stella Adler for several more.

Wendy started producing at 19, an off-off-Broadway production, but “I had gotten caught up in acting to make a living, so it was a few years before I directed anything.”

Among other productions, Wendy worked on Spaceship Earth: Our Global Environment (which won two Emmys) and helped create an Academy Award-nominated project produced by Sting, Burning Down Tomorrow. She conducts professional acting/presentation classes in the Coachella Valley.

Wendy came to Sky Valley (north of Palm Desert and east of Desert Hot Springs) during her mother’s final illness and to recover from a serious accident, and now divides her time between the valley and L.A.

“I’m going back to acting, but I still prefer directing whenever I can. I have a stack of several film scripts I’d like to direct. One even takes place in the Coachella Valley.”

As for women now directing films, Wendy says, “When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award in 2010 for ‘a guy film’ (The Hurt Locker), that really opened the door. It just takes persistence.”

Wendy quit high school, much to the consternation of her college-educated parents. “School was boring for me.”

Yet her advice to young people interested in performing arts as a career contradicts her own life experience: “Everyone should finish school and go to college. If you want to have a long career in this business, you need a broad education and should be able to talk on any subject under the sun for at least 20 minutes. I’m still working on biology.

“If you look at actors who are successful, they are very smart, have an insatiable curiosity, and they love learning.”

Wise words from a neighbor.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Being a brand-new startup sometimes has its advantages. Just ask the folks at the Desert Rose Playhouse.

The next play on the boards for the LGBT and gay-friendly company—British playwright Joe Orton’s controversial (during its debut in 1964, at least) Entertaining Mr. Sloane—was originally slated to open this week. But the play wasn’t quite ready, so artistic director Jim Strait and managing director Paul Taylor decided to push the opening back a week. Then came a last-minute casting change, so Strait and Taylor decided to delay the opening yet another week: The show is now scheduled to debut on Friday, March 1.

“We’re determined not to put up a show unless it’s up to a certain standard,” Strait says.

Of course, an established company could never do what the Desert Rose has done—at least not without upsetting season-ticket holders and sponsors.

“We have no subscribers,” Strait says. “So our schedule is our own.”

That flexibility allowed the Desert Rose’s inaugural show, Dirty Little Showtunes—a gay-themed musical revue/comedy that debuted in San Francisco and features … well, dirty little showtunes—to enjoy a nearly unprecedented run.

“It opened on July 21, and we were going to do four shows per week for seven weeks,” Strait explains. “Well, people kept coming to it.”

So Desert Rose kept extending the play. It finally closed as 2012 closed, after an amazing 24-week run.

“It kept going,” Strait says. “It wasn’t always profitable, but it was always fun.”

After a recently concluded four-week run of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little will come Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

“It’s a very early gay play,” says Strait. “Joe Orton was of the bad boys of British theater. He only wrote five plays before his lover killed him with a hammer. … Audiences in the West End were just aghast (at the play).”

The play focuses on a middle-aged woman named Kath, who takes in a young man named Mr. Sloane. Kath’s father immediately dislikes Sloane; meanwhile, Kath begins to take a sexual interest in Sloane. And so does her brother, Ed.

Strait compares the piece to “Britcoms” like Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances.

“It’s not Ozzie and Harriet,” he says while emphasizing that the play is not that dirty, and is appropriate for all audiences.

Ryan Dominguez, who performed in Desert Rose’s Dirty Little Showtunes, recently joined the cast as Mr. Sloane. Valorie Armstrong plays Kath, and Hal O’Connell plays Ed. Another Showtunes performer, Terry Huber, plays the father of Ed and Kath.

Strait concedes that the play is not the easiest show to produce. It features a fair amount of unfamiliar British slang. And then there’s the play’s length.

“It’s a three-act play, with two intermissions,” he says. “It’s a serious evening of theater.”

After the abbreviated nine-show run, the Desert Rose will produce The Boys in the Band, before concluding the company’s first season with a yet-to-be-determined show.

It’s been an up-and-down journey for the Desert Rose, which was founded by Strait and Taylor—two theater veterans—in 2010 in an effort to fill the void after another LGBT company, the Thorny Theatre, closed. They started raising money, and planned on taking over a Cathedral City building as the Desert Rose’s home. However, the election and the competition for charity dollars with other local causes led to a slowdown in donations; meanwhile, code changes meant the building they wanted was in need of more bathrooms.

Therefore, Strait and Taylor switched courses and found The Commissary in Rancho Mirage, and rented it out last year. They moved in to the spot in May, and converted it into a showroom. Then came their Desert Rose’s first full show, Dirty Little Showtunes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While Strait and Taylor are still seeking donations, and keeping their eyes open for a permanent home for Desert Rose, Strait says they’re happy to be focusing on theater.

“This is pretty much a grassroots kind of thing,” he says. “It’s really quite charming.”

The Desert Rose Playhouse will perform Entertaining Mr. Sloane, barring any further schedule changes, at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $25, and shows take place at The Commissary, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance