The audience sat transfixed as a small group of convincing actors portrayed the characters in “Admissions,” Joshua Harmon’s often-intense drama about elite schools and white privilege. It seemed appropriate that one of the most critically acclaimed and popular productions in the history of the Los Altos Stage Company served to open its 25th anniversary season last month.
Bus Barn Theater, the theater company’s venue at the Hillview Civic Center, housed buses for the local school district decades ago. For more than 40 years, it has served as an intimate setting for performances that feel as if they’re being given in one’s living room.
In affluent Los Altos and its driven personalities, “Admissions” clearly resonates. The play tells the story of one family’s hyperconscious efforts for diversity in elite schools – but not at the expense at their white son, who they hope will get into Yale University. When the son, inspired by a sudden burst of idealism, announces he wants to lead by example and enroll in community college instead, his parents will have none of it.
“It’s on pace to be our best-selling play ever,” said Gary Landis, Los Altos Stage Company’s director for the past eight years.
Some longtime theater enthusiasts credit Landis for elevating the quality of productions since taking the helm.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” said Vicki Reeder, a longtime avid local theater supporter, fundraiser and actor. “He had this knowledge about theater. Productions have become more diversified.”
Landis’ choices of productions strike a balance between the crowd-pleasing and the crowd-challenging.
“I appreciate plays that explore gray areas,” he said.
“The theater does a good job of finding that balance,” noted longtime supporter Eileen Eng.
Reeder acknowledged that some theatergoers have been “very bothered” by “Admissions” and its scenes of intense family arguing. But the box-office receipts (it did turn out to be the biggest seller) validated Landis’ choice.
The 25th anniversary season features several other well-chosen productions that clearly entertain while provoking thought: Next on the calendar is “Miracle on 34th Street” (Nov. 1 through Dec. 22), followed by “Oslo” (Jan. 23 through Feb. 16), “Sunday in the Park with George” (April 9 through May 10) and “Steel Magnolias” (June 4-28).
Reeder, president of the theater’s board of directors, has devoted much of her life over the past three decades to community theater in Los Altos. She looks back on the theater’s history with a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s an amazing success story,” she said. “It’s amazing considering the tiny staff – everything we do is small, in human and financial resources.”
Despite the small size – the Los Altos Stage Company’s annual budget is approximately $500,000, compared with regional rival TheatreWorks’ $8 million – Landis is proud of his theater’s consistent quality.
The actors, he said, are paid, respected professionals committed to local theater.
Reeder was part of a group of residents who rescued operations in the mid-1990s after the demise of the Los Altos Conservatory Theatre, or L’ACT. That group, founded by Foothill College drama professor Doyne Mraz in 1978, enjoyed a good run before financial deficits began to plague its operators in the early 1990s.
At its outset, L’ACT secured a six-month loan from the city for the former Bus Barn. The building, with room for 100 seats, was renovated to add plumbing and air conditioning.
Forty-one years later, the building is still being used as a theater.
Longtime community leaders and former city council members Roy and Penny Lave, among other supporters, led an effort to save the theater through the fledgling Los Altos Community Foundation.
“We financed the restart by selling the assets (stage props, costumes) of the theater to the city – a deal pulled off by Dave Reeder (Vicki’s husband and another former council member),” Roy recalled. “We used those funds to pay off the debts of L’ACT.”
Bus Barn Stage Company came together in 1995 with support from the city, Los Altos Community Foundation and the Los Altos-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
The Laves raised funds by founding Los Altos Theatre Enthusiasts (LATE) – a large group of supporters Roy said was “LATE for the Bus (Barn) because we were usually late for the theater, not leaving pre-parties in time. This group still exists, run by Vicki.”
At the Laves’ urging, Vicki Reeder took on a more prominent leadership role.
She led fundraising efforts for years through her coordination of the annual Los Altos Follies, which spoofed political and current events, with Reeder writing much of the witty material.
Local resident, musician and actor John Sylvester has performed alongside Reeder in several Follies productions.
“One of the best decisions I’ve made,” said Sylvester about getting involved in the theater. He also serves on the board. “I enjoy the personal relationships – it’s become a very important part of my life.”
With supporters believing the annual event had run its course, the Follies ended 25 years of shows with final performances last year.
A new audience
Committing to a more direct name and acknowledging the city’s support, the theater group opted for the name change to the Los Altos Stage Company in 2013.
Landis said goals ahead for the theater company include reaching out to new theatergoers.
“The opportunity and challenges have been around diversifying audiences,” he said. “A core community in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View have been supporting theater a very long time.”
To generate interest from the younger set, the Los Altos Stage Company has expanded to include Los Altos Youth Theatre productions and summer camps. There’s also a conscious effort to engage students in acting roles. Quincy Shaindlin, 17, played a prominent role in “Admissions,” highlighted by an impressive rant clocked at 17 minutes.
Theater leaders, however, expressed frustration with staging productions in a small, fairly cramped building. While small can be intimate, it also can be limiting.
Reeder and other backers see a new performing arts center as the holy grail.
Reeder indicated that a new, state-of-the-art facility would raise the profile of the Los Altos Stage Company to a whole new level.
“A new facility would elevate the value of productions,” Landis agreed. “If the community is interested in having higher-caliber work, it means getting behind (a new theater).”
There have been preliminary discussions, and a new theater is included among the ideas in the Downtown Vision project. But such a new venue may have a price tag as high as $30 million.
“There has to be a political will and a groundswell of really affluent people who are here (for it to happen),” Reeder said. “We can’t raise the $30 million.”
In the meantime, the Los Altos Stage Company keeps humming along with strong, steady support from its base of theater-lovers.
“Live theater gives me an opportunity to connect with actors in a way that movies and television cannot,” Eng said. “I can feel the emotions of the actors that are on stage, and the story comes alive. There are the actors, set design, lighting, maybe music. There are no camera angles, no close-ups, like film. It’s up to the actors to draw you into the story and it can be amazing.”
“As Doyne once said, ‘This theater was the only regular public cultural activity in Los Altos,’” Roy Lave recalled. “It was almost an essential for Los Altos Community Foundation to save the theater.”
Lave added that he is “blown away by the quality of performances ... and by the talent and dedication of those who make the theater work today. And this is done on the proverbial shoestring.”
Supporters have scheduled a new fundraising event, “Sunday in the Street with Los Altos Stage,” 4-8 p.m. Oct. 27 at two adjacent private homes in Los Altos. The outdoor party benefit for Los Altos Stage Company’s youth education programs will include cocktails, strolling performers and a short program featuring vocalists Jocelyn Pickett and Charles Morgan.
For more information on the fundraiser and the theater company in general, visit losaltosstage.org.