Edgy impresario? Ego-driven arbiter of the arts? Temperamental producer? Though the nouns impresario, arbiter and producer work; adjectives like edgy, ego-driven and temperamental have no place in describing Lucy Mercer. She’s simply, well, nice; really nice. “I think I’m a problem solver” is how Mercer defines herself. And her solution to a somewhat dormant nighttime Mill Valley was to put her life savings at risk by purchasing the 90-year-old Odd Fellows Lodge at 142 Throckmorton Avenue. Then, after transforming it into a gem of a 300-seat community theater, she’s attracted the likes of, among others, Joan Baez, Robin Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Dana Carvey, and, just recently, Woody Allen who appeared with his New Orleans Jazz Band.
According to her, she’s only just begun. In 2007, the 52-year-old longtime Mill Valley resident plans to create the nonprofit Mill Valley LiveArts Foundation to, in her words, “see that this place continues if I keel over” and also to serve as a “think tank” for moving 142 Throckmorton Theatre into the future. As for its beginnings, Mercer leaves no doubt as to who was responsible. “Was I the lunatic who started it?” she asks rhetorically. “Yes, I was that lunatic.”
Was there an initial plan for 142 Throckmorton Theatre, or did it just evolve? My primary desire was to provide downtown Mill Valley with more community space. I wanted to vitalize the community and I believed the arts offered the ability to do that. Arts are wonderful threads that run through everything we do in our lives. Establishing the (theater) building downtown was a way of restoring a sense of ownership and place to the broader community. For a small community like Mill Valley, the downtown is our center point and a reflection of our greater values. I believe every community needs places where they can gather to reflect, to rejoice, to gain information. Our individual homes provide refuge and support our independent lives —however a dynamic community provides a multitude of opportunities to draw together. And I felt that the theater had the ability to do that.
Do you personally select the acts appearing at 142 Throckmorton? If you’re filling the house five or six nights a week, that’s significant time commitment. As artistic director, I have elected to program a wide variety of top artists from many fields. It has been a steep learning curve—there are so many incredibly talented people. I spend an enormous amount of time researching and listening and then I ultimately rely on my intuition. Because of our size we cannot pay the amount of money that many artists ask for—so I look for opportunities to present them that may appeal to them in other ways. I might agree not to advertise their name or I might provide them rehearsal space prior to a large show of theirs. I also ask our audiences to become collaborators in the creative process—a rehearsal or a staged reading is an opportunity to see this vital process at work. Instead of attending solely as a critic the audience becomes an associate, an important component of the end product.
Without advertising, how do you sell out almost every night? Quite often these evenings result in more satisfaction and connection between the audience and the performer than the practiced or final product can accomplish. And the natural result of this is audiences who return and are willing to explore other shows. Our website, 142throckmortontheatre.com, will usually list our upcoming shows about two months ahead. It’s very simple. Also, at the theater or the website people leave their e-mail address and we give them a heads-up when a particular group or guest is about to make an appearance.
Currently, how many are on your e-mail list? Approximately 6,000.
Name a few groups or individuals that have made memorable appearances at 142 Throckmorton Theatre? 142 Throckmorton Theatre was honored with membership in Z Space’s Western Coast Presenters Commissioning Initiative. This allows us, among other things, to present some of the incredible work coming out of Word for Word. One of this past year’s highlights was their production of Amy Tan’s Immortal Heart. I am looking forward to their newest production, which is scheduled in February 2007.
We also have an abundance of master musicians who have given us some phenomenal concerts. The theater’s acoustics are superb for music and voice. A favorite of mine is Phil Fath, who was the chief clarinetist for the San Francisco Opera and Symphony. When he plays, the exuberance in his body translates immediately to the audience and he’s truly a pleasure to watch. Another memorable performance was the illusionist/magician Patrick Martin. He lives locally and is one of the world’s top ten magicians. His friends and family were able to see his show for the first time when we presented it two years ago—in addition to all of the magicians who traveled in just to see him!
Mark Pitta hosts our Tuesday Night Comedy shows—Mark Pitta and Friends. We collaborate to produce a high-quality show every week. Mark is one of the best hosts that I have seen onstage and his creative juices and abilities go far beyond his hosting and stand-up. The show has had many memorable moments, including the spontaneous addition of many local star comedians, including Dana Carvey, Robin Williams and Brian Copeland. And it has spanned a loyal following among the community who make up the audience.
What are 142 Throckmorton’s ticket prices? Our ticket prices range from $15 for Mark Pitta & Friends to an average of $25. The prices are dictated by the cost of the performer and their supportive needs. I have strong feelings about keeping our prices affordable and our programs accessible to our entire community. This requires sponsorship and underwriting for some of the programs. We are actively seeking community members who are interested in helping with this endeavor.
It’s been two years now that 142 Throck-morton Theatre has had significant prominence. Looking back, is there a secret to what you’ve accomplished? I don’t know that there is a particular secret. The big picture, taken as a whole, can be quite daunting. My philosophy is brick by brick. I hold on to the big picture, but each day I try to add value on a scale that I can accomplish that day. Each daily step adds to the next and eventually tips the scale and the dream becomes a reality. I don’t do this alone; it has been a labor of love and a love for our community that drives us to hold on to the best of dreams rather than settle for something midway. In today’s world it is particularly important to understand the value each step or brick contributes to the whole. It’s the idea that they can’t make a difference that keeps many people from taking that first step.
What are the tall mountains you want to climb in 2007? In order to ensure that 142 Throckmorton Theatre can provide and grow our cultural collaborations, we have organized as a not-for-profit corporation. 2007 is a pivotal year in solidifying this organization. We are seeking dreamers, planners, skilled people who can envision our community as a reflection of the values we all hold important. People who can and are willing to take action. I have great hopes that 2007 will bring together the best of us in this pursuit—for conversations, brick-laying, and great hikes up that tall mountain.