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All grown up: The evolution of the SLO Little Theatre to SLO Repertory Theatre 

After two days of auditions, only 15 actors had shown up. Only four of them were men, and no one was quite right to play the male leads of Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in the upcoming production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

So Kevin Harris, managing artistic director for the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, picked up the phone and called every local actor he could think of. No one bit. Then Harris did something he had never done before, at least not on the Little Theatre’s behalf. Some money (not a lot) changed hands and voila! The nonprofit community theater paid for the professional acting services of recent Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) grads Toby Tropper and Cameron Rose, and the show was a hit.

click to enlarge GROWING TOGETHER:  Kevin Harris, who as a local kid acted in productions of shows like 'Evita' and 'A Chorus Line' going back to the ’90s, now serves as managing artistic director for the newly renamed SLO Repertory Theatre. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • GROWING TOGETHER: Kevin Harris, who as a local kid acted in productions of shows like 'Evita' and 'A Chorus Line' going back to the ’90s, now serves as managing artistic director for the newly renamed SLO Repertory Theatre.

“They were young and hungry so they came up and did it,” Harris said. “The show ended up grossing more than any other show we’d done and it was completely because of the performances of those two guys, that was what made that show work.”

At $300 a pop for the run of the show plus housing, Tropper and Rose were a steal. But what may seem like a small moment marked a turning point in the evolution of the Little Theatre. Since that 2014 show, actors from PCPA and beyond have gradually graced the stage. Over the ensuing years, the audience took notice and season ticket sales boomed, increasing by almost 50 percent. The theater’s budget nearly doubled, and at the end of the current 70th season, it’ll bring in close to $750,000, putting itself in the top 3 percent of nonprofit theaters in the country.

Still, it was time for the SLO Little Theatre to take on a new role.

“Why else are we doing it if we’re not wanting to change something or challenge the art form?” Harris said.

And, indeed, changes are coming to the theater, starting with a new name: The SLO Little Theatre will now be known as the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre, with only one word differing from the old name. But it’s a word with a message: The theater is going professional and employing all paid casts and crews for main stage productions as it sets it sights on a bigger and brighter future complete with a brand new theater. 

Let’s put on a show

Once upon a time—specifically, back in 1947—a group of seven theater-loving folks in SLO really wanted to put on a show. So they rented a small hall on Monterey Street and staged a production of Blithe Spirit, a comedy featuring an eccentric clairvoyant and a temperamental ghost. That was technically the first performance of what would later become the SLO Little Theatre, named for the Little Theatre movement of the ’20s and ’30s, which strived to provide experimental centers for the dramatic arts, free from the trappings and creative limitations of commercial theater.

click to enlarge TALENT:  Back in 2014, PCPA alumni Cameron Rose and Toby Tropper starred as Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in the theater’s production of 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile.' They were the first guest actors to be paid in the theater’s history. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO REPERTORY THEATRE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO REPERTORY THEATRE
  • TALENT: Back in 2014, PCPA alumni Cameron Rose and Toby Tropper starred as Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in the theater’s production of 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile.' They were the first guest actors to be paid in the theater’s history.

Michael Simkins, president of the Little Theatre’s board, has been involved with running the theater for the past eight years. But he’s sat in the audience since 1988 and has seen the evolution first hand.

“It has evolved from being a completely volunteer-based community theater to a semi-professional theater with paid staff and a mix of volunteer and professional performers on the stage,” Simkins said. “As a result, the quality of our productions has increased steadily.”

Harris came on to lead the theater in 2008, though his roots go back to the ’90s when he acted in productions of Evita and A Chorus Line as a teen. When Harris was hired, he was the sixth director in five years and his job description didn’t initially include artistic control, so the quality of performances varied from show to show. A few years after that, things started to change. In addition to adding the “artistic” to Harris’ managing director title, the board whittled down its goals to encompass providing the best quality theater and expanding its education program. By 2014 when Harris hired Tropper and Rose, the theater was also in the practice of paying play directors a competitive fee for their services.

When Tropper was cast in the titular role in Picasso at the Lapin Agile three years ago, he was thrilled.

“I’d always wanted to work there,” Tropper said. “I felt honored to be one of the first guest actors. It’s never felt like community theater; it’s always felt like a professional theater.”

click to enlarge WORK IN PROGRESS:  Kevin Harris (right) directs actors (left to right) Erin Parsons, Cameron Park, and Tom Ammon during rehearsal for a production of 'Our Town,' showing through May 28. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • WORK IN PROGRESS: Kevin Harris (right) directs actors (left to right) Erin Parsons, Cameron Park, and Tom Ammon during rehearsal for a production of 'Our Town,' showing through May 28.

Tropper, who has since gone on to act at the Great American Melodrama in Oceano (currently in its production of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, returned to SLO last year to act in the role of the impish and charming trans emcee in Cabaret. He thinks SLO is ready for this next step.

“I’m really excited to be a part of the next chapter,” Tropper said. “There’s such a sense of family there.”

Harris acknowledged that theater has come to a standstill, of sorts.

“Once our audience has a certain expectation for a level of a performance, it’s very difficult to go back—it’s impossible to go back,” Harris said. “We can’t move backwards, and we can’t stay where we are. We can no longer pay some actors and not pay other actors. That’s not sustainable, and we don’t want to do that.”

So starting with the theater’s first main stage performance of the 2017-18 season, The All Night Strut! in August, everyone from cast and crew will be paid. For union represented actors, $700 a week is the minimum. On the other side of things, a freelance director might be paid anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for the run of a show.

While the theater will still rely heavily on its pool of local actors, Harris said next year, anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of actors could come from out of the area. Actors Travis Mitchell and Timothy J. Cox along with director Lawrence Lesher will come from New York to do Rounding Third in

click to enlarge BACK IN THE DAY:  The former SLO Little Theatre’s first production was 'Blithe Spirit,' put on in 1947 by a group of seven local actors. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO REPERTORY THEATRE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO REPERTORY THEATRE
  • BACK IN THE DAY: The former SLO Little Theatre’s first production was 'Blithe Spirit,' put on in 1947 by a group of seven local actors.

November. The new season will also bring some familiar out-of-town names like Ron Clark and Jody Hovland from Iowa City, who guest directed When the Rain Stops Falling and Tuesdays with Morrie last year, respectively. Harris met the duo, who founded the Riverside Theatre, during his time studying and working in Iowa City.

“I held my breath until they asked me back,” Hovland said. “While we are there, it truly feels like an artistic home. The environment there is joyful and nurturing, and at the same time, the expectations are very high.”

Look for Clark and Hovland on the respective playbills of Rabbit Hole in the fall and The 39 Steps in the spring. The way Harris sees it, there’s now one more place in the limited sphere of live professional theater where people can do good work and get paid for it.

“It’s super small; everyone kind of knows each other,” Harris said of the country’s national theater community. “People are always looking for new places to hang their hat, and this is a great place to do it. “ 

For the love of theater

click to enlarge BREAKING CHARACTER:  Director Kevin Harris and actor Stuart Wenger (right) take a break from a rehearsal of 'Our Town' with young actors Elliot and Phineas Peters (left.) - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • BREAKING CHARACTER: Director Kevin Harris and actor Stuart Wenger (right) take a break from a rehearsal of 'Our Town' with young actors Elliot and Phineas Peters (left.)

But what about the dentist in SLO or the mom driving kids to soccer practice in Nipomo, who secretly yearn to deliver a searing monologue or belt out a Broadway show tune without tying it to their livelihood?

While the newly minted SLO Repertory Theatre’s annual auditions will remain open to all, the competition has decidedly increased. However, for those who are green to the stage or want to act just for the fun of it, community theater is still alive and well in SLO County.

In the early 1990s, Mary Meserve-Miller was a stay-at-home mom with two small kids in SLO feeling a little isolated from the grown-up world. As a way to get out of the house for a bit when her husband could watch the kids, she auditioned for and was cast in Steel Magnolias at the Little Theatre in 1992. The bite from the theater bug was so intense that she memorized the whole script.


Meserve-Miller went on to work as a fundraiser for the theater, and the death of Frank Sinatra inspired her to create and direct the Legends series in 1999, shows that served as tributes to musical greats. While her time there ended in 2011, Meserve-Miller now helms Central Coast Theater Works in Nipomo, which sprouted up in 2015. Earlier in May, her Legends series was resurrected there with a tribute show to James Taylor. For Meserve-Miller, the draw of community theater is that it’s for everyone of all ages and levels of experience.

click to enlarge LIFE:  In SLO Repertory Theatre’s current production of Our Town, Emily Webb (Erin Parsons, left) and George Gibbs (Cameron Parker, right) talk from neighboring windows. Elsewhere in town, Simon Stinson (Gregory Gorrindo, center) leads choir practice. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIELLE DUTRO MCNAMARA
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIELLE DUTRO MCNAMARA
  • LIFE: In SLO Repertory Theatre’s current production of Our Town, Emily Webb (Erin Parsons, left) and George Gibbs (Cameron Parker, right) talk from neighboring windows. Elsewhere in town, Simon Stinson (Gregory Gorrindo, center) leads choir practice.

“It gives an opportunity for the community to get together and get involved in live theater in a way that’s filled with camaraderie, and you’re learning a craft, too,” Meserve-Miller said. “You can judge the health of a community based on the vitality of the arts there.”

On the other side of the county, a group of thespians laid claim to Morro Bay earlier this year when they formed By the Sea Productions. The group is made up of the former Pewter Plough Players, who parted ways with the Cambria theater when management changed. Janice Peters, secretary of By the Sea’s board, was actually the mayor of Morro Bay in her former life and chose to focus her retirement on her first love: acting. The company will do a staged reading May 26 to 28 of Seven, a show that follows the stories of seven women around the world and their struggles with domestic violence.

“It’s a creative outlet,” Peters said of community theater. “People don’t understand it till they see it. Your neighbors and friends are up there, doing it. It’s such a great addition to a community, and you can see it right in your backyard.”

The h(art) of downtown SLO

So SLO will have one more spot that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to the arts. That’s all well and good, but why must the name change too? The reason’s simple, really: cold, hard cash.

See, the theater’s lovely spot rented from the city on Morro Street was originally a library and later a government building. It was never meant to be a performing arts space, but in the world of community theater you make do with what you’ve got—and for more than 20 years the theater has worked out. But there’s only one rehearsal space, which gets tricky for overlapping productions. And there simply isn’t room for all the kiddos who want to enroll in the SLO Rep’s Academy of Creative Theatre, with nearly every class, camp, and workshop coming with a wait-list.

Despite its cozy, intimate space where nary a seat has a bad view, the Little Theatre has stopped being quite so little. For the past few years, the theater has been preparing to fund and build a brand new building at the intersection of Monterey and Nipomo streets, across from the SLO Children’s Museum, which could come in at anywhere from $5 million to $7 million. But a recent feasibility study showed Harris and the rest of the theater staff that most people took the word “little” to indicate a children’s or community theater, which it hasn’t truly been in years. And most people surveyed wouldn’t pour in donations for a new building to house a community theater, a term that doesn’t really match with what the theater has become anyway.

REP SLO:  	Catch a show at the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre this summer. 'Our Town' runs through May 28, a staged reading of 'The Great God Pan' shows June 2 and 3, and 'Oliver!' opens June 16 and closes July 9. For more listings and information, visit slolittletheatre.org. (Look for the new slorep.org to launch in early June.)
  • REP SLO: Catch a show at the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre this summer. 'Our Town' runs through May 28, a staged reading of 'The Great God Pan' shows June 2 and 3, and 'Oliver!' opens June 16 and closes July 9. For more listings and information, visit slolittletheatre.org. (Look for the new slorep.org to launch in early June.)

“We can’t stay where we are and we have to move forward,” Harris said. “This town is in such need of a professional, regional theater.”

While the new building’s groundbreaking date is up in the air and hinges on the city’s parking garage project on Palm and Nipomo streets, Harris said they’ll likely launch their capital campaign in the fall and hope to be in the new space by 2021. The idea of more and better art for SLO is wafting in the air, as the SLO Museum of Art launched a capital campaign for its new $15 million building in January, which is slated to break ground at the current downtown address on Broad Street in 2019.

“There does seem to be a shift in a prioritization of the arts in the community in the past few years,” Harris said. “Our idea is that it’ll feel like the heart of the arts district as the theater should be a true gathering place for the community. San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre will be a real option to see great theater. I’m hoping that people will be proud of it.”

Though Arts Editor Ryah Cooley be but little, she is fierce. Send story ideas to rcooley@newtimesslo.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year the SLO Repertory Theatre put on a production of 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile.' The show was staged in 2014. The run dates for the upcoming productions of 'The Great God Pan' and 'Oliver" were also corrected.

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