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July 17, 2019
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Spreckels Performing Arts Center: More than meets the eye

  • Spreckels Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller and Jennifer Griego PR person for the center discussing future events in Sheri's office. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Janet and Lanny Lowery
May 3, 2019

Finally, getting behind the scenes in the Spreckels Performing Arts Center at eight o’clock on a Monday morning.  Jennifer Griego, Advertising/Marketing Coordinator for the Spreckels Theatre Company, gave me an hour and a half tour of the Performing Arts Center.  This journey took me back sixty-five years ago when I had the run of San Luis Obispo’s Little Theater as my parents rehearsed for their current play.

Theaters, backstage and beyond the audience’s area, lurk gothic-like mysterious passageways and secret rooms and strange objects hanging above, behind, and under what most of us know as the theater.  My guide did not disappoint as she led me through the dark halls to reveal some of Spreckels’ secrets.  Of course, the spell of the theater, the magic of creating illusion, comes dangerously near to being dissipated by looking so closely at its housing.

Before we began the tour, in the upstairs office, Griego explained about the company staffing.  Sheri Lee Miller serves as Artistic Director; this means that she is responsible for the entire operation, and she directs some of the productions.  Eddy Hansen, Technical Director, works also on the Creative Team as Lighting Designer and as a Set Designer.  Gail Shelton is the Box Office Coordinator, a title that covers all things in the office and at the ticket booth.  Production Coordinator Elizabeth Bazzano is a recipient of awards for her work as a set designer.  She also works as a Scenic Artist and Prop Master.  Harry Roberts, the House Manager, is the dapper gentleman who keeps everything running smoothly while the audience is in the building.

While six people comprise the company staff, twenty-seven people, including three members of the staff, make up the Creative Team.  Some of these people have more than one role.   Jessica Johnson, Sound Designer, as Sound Operator works out in the audience so that she knows exactly what the spectators are hearing.  Mary Jo Hamilton, backstage, has the hair-pulling task of being the Stage Manager ensuring that all of the actors appear on cue with all needed props and costumes.  If that is not enough by itself, she also serves as Projection Technician.  Patrick Taber works as Backstage Crew and is part of the five-man Build Crew.  Pamela Johnson, Costume Designer, has thirty years experience of mentoring in the costume, hair, and makeup arts.  She works with volunteer costume creators and offers costume skills classes.

Augmenting these thirty-some paid positions, a corps of hard-working, dedicated volunteers, “many of whom have been working at the Center since it opened in April of 1990,” help to make the show go on.  These “volunteers contribute their time and talents in all phases of Center activity—ushering, marketing, phone reception, technical assistance, mailing, and party planning.  Our volunteers have logged more than 48,000 hours and are a major contributing factor in the Center’s continuing success.”

Downstairs, the tour begins in the lobby, a place that I have visited many times these past thirty years as a member of the audience.  The Box Office sits in the northeast corner, always staffed by cordial volunteers.  The Snack Bar, on the southeast side, offers an assortment of beverages and light repasts.  Look for House Manager Harry Roberts assisting volunteers there before the show begins and during intermission.  On the different walls, large-sized posters tantalize customers with coming attractions.  On the west side, leading into the main theater, a wall of plaques honors donors including the Voice’s own Judson Snyder.

The tour now moves into the unknown as Griego leads me into a room just north of the innovative Bette Condiotti Experimental Theatre.  Actors not onstage in the small theater, wait here reviewing lines, following the progress of the play, or idly chatting calmly awaiting their call to the show.  The room is used for rehearsal and some storage.  More show posters decorate the walls.  And, ah, secret passageways to the Condiotti Theatre are revealed.  

In the Condiotti, I see the set for an upcoming play, which ignites the cub reporter’s story mind ablaze: how does this set contribute to the story?  Get out of that right-brain and pay attention to the guide as she points above on the south wall to the control room.  And I learn that this theater seats “125 patrons and presents more unusual programming as well as productions by local arts groups, schools and civic organizations.”  And I recall sitting next to an actor the previous week in 6th Street Playhouse’s small theater that told his actor friend that he loves working in this up close space here and at the Condiotti.

Back to the Spreckels’ maze, as my guide takes me further south.  I think we must be ready to plunge into the Copeland Creek as we enter the set building room.  Old props and posters hang on the walls.  The workroom appears to be a combination wood shop, metal shop, paint shop and machine shop.  A huge factory door on the east wall allows for deliveries of large objects such as the ship for ambitious productions like “Peter Pan.”  Griego explains how a permanent staff, the five-man Build Crew, have projects to keep them busy year round.

We head west along the south end of the building to see dressing rooms, waiting rooms, makeup rooms, and the costumer’s shop.  Actors and other backstage workers follow the production as wall speakers keep everyone apprised of the progress of the show.

And now, the big moment, I make my first appearance on stage in the Nellie Codding Theatre.  So many dance, musical, and theater performances have entertained local audiences these past thirty years.  My solo act in the dark begins as I look out on the 550 seats, and I feel no apprehension as not one seat holds a spectator.  Griego pulls me out of my reverie to tell me about the new lighting system and the plan to replace the curtains, a rather expensive endeavor.  The Performing Arts Center, completed in 1990 for $10 million dollars, requires constant updating.

Somehow, through a variety of passageways, we arrive upstairs on the north side and walk through the major control room.  Some relic machinery contributes to the mausoleum effect and stands in contrast to the modern equipment.  Technology has always been a major part of theater productions, and while the performers continue to reprise classic productions such as “Hamlet” or “The Nutcracker,” the technology must be modern and innovative.  Griego overwhelms me with facts and figures.

One important ingredient is money, and Griego explains the Endowment Fund Campaign.  “The Center Endowment is a project designed to raise funds to be held in trust with the interest each year providing support to operate the Center.”  Four important outcomes from the Fund revenue allow the Center to: “Maintain our policy of affordable ticket prices, subsidize rental rates for community groups, help to support operations and programming for education and children’s programs, and reduce significantly, if not eliminate, the use of City tax dollars toward the Center operational costs.”

Ninety minutes’ tour hardly captures all of the subtleties needed to run this wonderful operation.  And one article cannot do justice to the great things happening at Spreckels.  One last thing to be mentioned, and worthy of its own article sometime in the near future, “The Spreckels Performing Arts Center Arts Education provides a comprehensive experience for those young people who are interested in Theatre.  They are taught dance, voice, and acting techniques by top professionals from the Bay Area.”  At the 30th Season Announcement Party, when singer Maureen O’Neill walked on stage, many of her Spreckels students roared with excitement and thundered with applause.  We knew that she had all the traits of a good teacher, and we noted that she must be the subject of a future story.

Tour completed, Jennifer Griego, facing a full day of work, handed me several brochures which she highlighted to help me reference many of the important people and activities that make up Spreckels Performing Arts Center.  Knowing that we had barely scratched the surface, I walked outside and sat on the Judson Snyder Commemorative Bench in front of the theater.  I think that he hauntingly spoke to me, “A bit of an overwhelming assignment for a cub reporter.”  And I thought how fortunate our community is to have this wonderful theater with all of its fine productions and programs.