Marin’s Community and Regional Theaters Are Bringing Local Productions to Life

A group quietly walks from a parking lot along dark garden pathways in Ross to the top of the sloping property for the Marin Art and Garden Center, where a theater company transformed a large barn into a theater in 1940 and still offers over 100 performances there each year.

The more than 90 years of productions are evident upon entering the barn, where the vibrant walls are strikingly painted a warm shade of red and stacked up with a display of three rows of neatly framed colorful theater posters with little space left on the walls. 

The Friday night performance was Reservations, written by Joe Brison, part of the Ross Alternative Works (RAW) program. This Ross Valley Players program features new works from emerging Bay Area playwrights. This Friday night, a small group of actors took to a small stage set up as a hotel room to explore the themes of what it means to be an artist, the creative process, and how to intervene in an attempted suicide through absurd situations, relatable characters, and even some humor. 

An hour and a half later, the audience gave a round of applause to the six-person cast, including the two understudies, and filed out, passing by volunteer ushers and concession workers. The 13-person production team had collaborated for several weeks preparing for the performances, and some were working backstage that evening. The seats emptied, and the audience walked back to their cars in the dark of the night. This small community within Marin County had shared a moment in time created between actors, producers, directors, production teams, and an audience. The darkness made the night sky’s stars even more apparent.

Where are they doing it? 

Reservations Performance
Reservations, The Ross Valley Players. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Marin residents regularly visit the red barn in Ross and look forward to the annual trek up to The Mountain Play Association to see a musical performance in Mount Tamalpais’ outdoor Cushing Amphitheatre or weekend venture over to Novato Theatre Company to see a show or a picnic at a Marin Shakespeare Company performance. Searching for Theaters in the directory of cultural organizations pulls results that reflect the wide variety of theater organizations.

142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley has placed creativity as the core around of wide variety of performance programs, including live musicals, a 15 year history of an ongoing Tuesday night comedy, fine art classes, exhibitions, and noon-time curated selection of classical music performances, and main stage concerts — taken from a broader arena, rock to bluegrass, Irish band, etc. 

“We centered Throckmorton’s brand on the quality of performances with a focus on creating memorable experiences where performers build rapport with their audience,” said 142 Throckmorton Theatre’s Artistic Director Lucy Mercer. 

Those not into the theater scene may not know that there’s a national gem under your nose. Not your typical community theater, Marin Theater Company (MTC) operates locally but has a broader reach with national and global audiences. Their writer Lauren Gunderson is in residence with the company through the support of the Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Program administered in partnership with HowlRound. Her work is often premiered here in Mill Valley and then travels to other theaters. According to Marin Theatre Company, Gunderson has been one of the most-produced playwrights in America (American Theatre Magazine) since 2015. Meredith Suttles, managing director, appreciates how Gunderson is constantly working with women and amplifying the voices of women and their stories.

Who is doing it?

The community that came together to attend, produce and perform Reservations with the Ross Valley Players represented a broad range of local and regional participants. The lead actor, Evan Held, recently studied performing arts and now works in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s education department. His understudy David Noel, who also played the supporting role of a police officer, recently returned to acting after retiring from a long career in healthcare information technology management.

Ross Valley Player’s Executive Producer Allan Casalou has been impressed with the range of several generations that show up to participate in productions — from young, college-aged students through well into 70s and 80s. They’re doing it all. 

“Some have worked with us for 30-40 years, and some are brand new,” said Casalou. “We want to do shows representing more of Marin County’s diversity. The upcoming performance of Enjoying Native Gardens has a majority Latinx cast.”

Marin’s community theaters are welcoming to all types of people with a variety of interests. If you’re a fan of the enduring appeal of William Shakespeare’s work, then The Marin Shakespeare Company welcomes you. And according to Marketing and Communications Director Abbey Campbell, the company is standing behind this message of inclusion by developing The Marin Shakespeare Artist Bill of Rights to demonstrate justice and equity and how they are welcoming to all people of all backgrounds.

Marin Shakespeare offers two shows with 36 performances each for a total of 72 performances each summer in their Forest Meadow outdoor location at San Rafael’s Dominican University. The rehearsal commitment is four weeks with Mondays off, a theater tradition from the days of traveling groups who use that as the day to travel to the following location. 

How can others get involved?

West Side Story, 142 Throckmorton Theatre
West Side Story, 142 Throckmorton Theatre. Photo by AJ Brady.

Local theaters welcome audiences to hundreds of performances happening at community and regional theaters throughout the county each year, encouraging everyone to buy single tickets or subscribe to a season. But there are also many more ways community members engage with theaters: working as actors, in the many production jobs, or volunteering.

Ross Valley Players and many other theaters open cast announcements to anyone interested. Many auditions are in person and often require a 1-minute monologue. Casting calls are found only online, often on Facebook, and through Anyone interested in joining the local theater community theater as an actor shouldn’t be intimidated by the term “equity actors,” used for those who are part of the Actors’ Equity Association labor union because there are non-equity opportunities there are many openings for volunteers (directors, stage managers, choreographer, musicians, playwright, etc.)

At Ross Valley Players, there are 130 other volunteers throughout the year — mainly in the front-of-house staff of ticket takers, ushers, and concessions. There is a culture of volunteerism for ushers throughout the county, and these ushers often move from show to show, as do managers for front-of-house. Often, the front-of-the-house volunteers donate one night to each performance at many theaters. The Ross Valley Players is also always looking for new scrips, board members, and front-of-the-house help. Ross Alternative Works pays royalties to selected playwrights. They usually pay the acting and production members because it’s a big commitment. On average, many performances are a 10-12 week commitment, 5-7 weeks of rehearsal, and five weeks of performance.

Allan Cassalou shares his tips for newbies: “Easiest point of entry is come see a show! See how it is, and introduce yourself. Become a member, which is reasonably priced and shows interest. Or, come to a casting call!”

Abbey Campbell from Marin Shakespeare adds, “Ushering offers an excellent opportunity to check out their performances, but their Shakespeare Guild is also a fun way to get to know their community.”

The Shakespeare Guild is a group of volunteers who brings potluck food to the hungry actors and production team members during rehearsals and shows with potluck meals. The theater company also needs volunteers for special events, office work, backstage costume changes, help with changing the scenery, and the board of directors. Marin Shakespeare pays actors and other positions like dramaturges, battle choreographers, intimacy coordinators, costume designers, staff, carpentry, and tech.

Lucy Mercer at 142 Throckmorton Theatre agrees that ushering is a great way to volunteer to know the crowd and get a taste of a particular theater community. Throckmorton also invites volunteers to come and build sets with their resident artist Steve Coleman. Young people can apprentice in performance tech roles. 

Marin Theatre Company ushers are also very committed and often coordinate with their friends to schedule their regular night. Some are in Mill Valley and Marin, but others travel across the bridges to support and participate in what’s happening at the theater.

Taking a class is another way to get involved. Many local theaters include education opportunities where lessons are available for young or aspiring actors, such as the Stapleton School of the Performing Arts and 142 Throckmorton Theatre. Marin Theatre Company also offers opportunities for those learning the craft from those who have mastered it. The theater recently gave students at Tamalpais High School the opportunity to work alongside union members. The Company also invites students to apprentice with propers and dramaturges. They also have project-based volunteer needs, including day-long projects as needed — reorganizing, spring cleaning, volunteer teams, and local postering.

Why get involved?

Marin’s local performing arts theater culture celebrates creativity, diversity, empathy, and maybe some magic that occurs each performance people come together for a moment in time for a shared experience. 

“The theater provides a little respite from our lives, which are always go, go, go. We can stop and begin to look at things from a new perspective,” said Lucy Mercer.  “It provides and opportunity to bring people together to create something, to be human together, suspend time, and come into the magic.”

Pamela Coddington is a Marin resident who is interested in exploring the environmental effects of our everyday decisions. She is a volunteer for Marin Organic.

Twitter: @MarinOrganic