Whither the Willows: Why Did This Theatre Die?
by Gary Carr
By now, most people in the Bay Area theatre community are aware that The Willows Theatre Company, after a run of 35 years, is out of business. The Willows Board filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on August 16.
Cast members of The Willows’ latest (and last) production, Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” were notified on August 13 that the final week of the show, August 15-18, had been cancelled. Cast members reported receiving a phone call giving them 30 minutes to remove their belongings from the theatre in Concord.
I am, that is, I was the publicist for The Willows, on and off, from 2004 until the sudden closing two weeks ago. The first I heard of the shut-down was when I read Lisa White’s Contra Costa Times online article, “It’s Curtains for the Willows Theatre,” on Monday afternoon, August 13. Thank God for Google Alerts.
Many people knew that The Willows was on shaky financial ground, but what theatre isn’t? The Willows had been through serious money problems before, closing its 210-seat Concord mainstage in 2009 and moving everything to its second space, the 150-seat Campbell Theatre in Martinez. A new artistic/managing director team took over in 2010 and reopened the Concord stage in 2011. The shows, as they say, went on—in both venues.
And then the lights went out.
How could this have happened? Potential culprits abound: declining and aging audiences; hard economic times; misjudging audience preferences; cannibalizing the same base of supporters with two theatres; fiscal mismanagement and overspending; corporate funding drying up; lukewarm community support; a board beset by too many problems coming at them too fast; perhaps even a publicist who couldn’t build a case for “9 to 5,” the musical version of a 1980s Dolly Parton film—you can choose any or all of them.
It’s probably too early for the autopsy, but in my view, at least right now, the demise of The Willows was caused by a series of Big Ideas that proved to be unsustainable.
“A Brief History of the Willows Theatre,” which appeared in each printed program for many years, recounts that “in the spring of 1977, Theatre Concord, a program of the City of Concord, began producing plays and musicals in the new Willows Theatre. Nine years later, Theatre Concord became CitiArts Theatre, the first company in Contra Costa County to operate under a seasonal contract with Actors Equity Association. In 1994 CitiArts Theatre became an operation of The Benefactors, a non-profit corporation organized in 1974 to support quality live theatre in Concord, and the company is now known as The Willows Theatre Company.” In later years, The Willows estimated that it served over 70,000 patrons annually.
The Willows was dedicated to developing and producing “contemporary American plays and musicals,” although it extended its reach to include works originating in the U.K. as well. It was, therefore, a real stretch for them to stage Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” the only non-U.S./U.K. show in their history. As for Shakespeare, records indicate a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” in 1987. Former artistic director Richard Elliott once told me, “There are enough companies in the Bay Area doing Shakespeare. We leave the Bard to them.”
The Willows’ stated mission was to “strive to perpetuate the art form of live theatre by creating relationships with playwrights, designers, actors, students and other theatre artists whose work will impact current and future audiences.”
The next part of the mission hints at why the Willows’ demise hurts the theatre community: “We provide a valuable opportunity for first employment for many developing theatre artists.” In addition, since the Willows was an Equity house, many actors over the years were able to work their way toward their Equity card by performing there.
My wife and I became Willows subscribers in 1994, not long after moving to Clayton. The Willows was, in essence, our local theatre, and we found the shows well cast, well directed, and quite simply, fun. For my money, four or five of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen were at the Willows, thanks to excellent casts and direction by Andy Holtz (“Cabaret”), Richard Elliott (“On Golden Pond”), Jon Marshall (“Avenue Q”), and Eric Inman (“Chicago”).
“Chicago” at the Willows Campbell Theatre in Martinez, 2011. Photo: Judy Potter
In our early subscriber days, my wife and I volunteered at the theatre. I read through stacks of unsolicited manuscripts, looking for the next blockbuster in the rough. Kathy organized the mailing lists, using floppy disks that Rich or Andy would drop off at the house. That was the state of technology then: no email, no Zip files, and disks that were truly “floppy.”
In 2004, after I’d started Rising Moon, Andy Holtz, the managing director, and Rich Elliott, the artistic director, contracted with me to do publicity for the revival of the theatre’s outdoor musical, “John Muir’s Mountain Days,” at the amphitheater in Martinez. I was asked to stay on to publicize the next show, the musical version of “The Night of the Hunter.” Both were stretches for a small East Bay theatre—“Mountain Days” was a huge undertaking, with more than 50 in the cast, along with a team of horses. “Hunter” was based on the very creepy film that starred Robert Mitchum as an itinerant preacher who menaced two children and killed their mother. It’s the movie where Mitchum has the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his fingers—hardly a show for the “Hello, Dolly!” crowd, but it showed the Willows wasn’t afraid to take chances on a show that its Los Angeles producer was planning to take to New York.
In 2008, I was again contracted to do publicity for the Willows. By this time, Andy Holtz had left for the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson, and I worked with Rich Elliott and general manager Chris Marshall, the lady who wore a dozen hats and held the place together. I was there from “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Pageant” to the closing of the Concord theatre in 2009, the restructuring under David Faustina and Eric Inman, the reopening of the mainstage in 2010…to what would be the last shows, “Vaudeville” at the Campbell and “A Doll’s House” at the original Willows Theatre.
So, the Willows is gone, joining the now defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose, which died in 2008. San Francisco Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt points out that “a few years earlier AMTSJ had more subscribers than either ACT or Berkeley Rep.” More recently, we’ve seen the departure of the Hapgood in Antioch, Arclight in San Jose, and Woman’s Will in Berkeley.
For many theatre companies, survival is day-to-day, show-to-show. As one artistic director I know told me, “you’re only one flop away from closing the doors.”
“Avenue Q” at the Willows Campbell Theatre in Martinez, 2010. Photo: Judy Potter
Why did the Willows close? Earlier, I listed a series of “culprits” that might have led to its going under, and to varying degrees, they are all probably to blame. But I see the major problem as more than just running out of money. That’s a symptom, not the cause. In my opinion, the Willows went under because it was too ambitious, perhaps even too creative, and certainly too willing to follow a Big Idea.
The first Big Idea was getting a theatre space of its own. The Willows had for years been leasing its space in Concord’s Willows Shopping Center and grew tired of paying rent, along with all the associated issues renters face. (Side note: one positive for a theatre in a suburban shopping center—it solves the parking problem.) As early as 2006, they were negotiating to move to the YMCA building in Danville. While that idea remained on the back burner, Willows management looked north to Martinez and made plans to convert the old train station into a theatre, a plan that at the time found favor with the city of Martinez. The Willows got as far as hiring an architect, developing blueprints and renderings, and starting a fundraising drive. Why Martinez? Rich Elliott and Andy Holtz lived there, liked the town, and thought it—and the train station—would be the ideal place for a theatre.
After the train station idea stalled, the Big Idea focused on another location—an unused auto parts warehouse on Ward Street. Thus, the Campbell Theatre came to be, thanks to a raft of donors led by the very generous Campbell family.
Every successful theatre has (or should have) a guaranteed moneymaker, a “Christmas Carol,” a “Nutcracker,” a “Sound of Music.” Or an “Annie,” the show that guarantees that every parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle of the kids in the cast will buy tickets—and twice that number if you double-cast.
For the Willows, it was the “Nunsense” series, seven slapstick musicals by Dan Goggins (“Nunsense,” “Nunsense Jamboree,” “Mushuga-Nuns,” etc.) featuring five loony nuns. Ending the season with a “Nunsense” show pretty much paid for the rest of the year. “Nunsense” became part of the Big Idea - the original proposal for the Campbell Theatre was for it to showcase nothing but “Nunsense,” year-round. It would make money.
The Willows Campbell Theatre in its early months. The billboard announces it as “The Home of ‘Nunsense’ and the ‘Nunsense’ Museum.” 2008. Photo: Judy Potter
The all-“Nunsense” idea was soon abandoned, but the cabaret concept at the Campbell remained. Was Martinez the right town for it? Would Willows’ subscribers attend both theatres? Or would the finite audience pie be divided in two? Would a cabaret concept have to be marketed differently than a standard theatre?
As the theatre’s fortunes spiraled downward in 2009, the board and management decided the only way to save the company was to close one of the theatres—they chose to shutter the mainstage and move everything to the Campbell.
This turned out not to be a solution. By 2010, a new management team was in place, led by managing director David Faustina and artistic director Eric Inman. They saw that the only hope for sustaining the company was to return to Concord and reopen the theatre there, where the bulk of their patrons were. Which they did, thanks to a fundraising campaign and a lot of volunteer hours, along with a big boost from the local IBEW, who donated the rewiring of the entire mainstage venue.
“Nunset Boulevard” at the Willows mainstage, Nov 2011. Photo: Judy Potter
But for many reasons associated with the city of Martinez, the company wasn’t able to leave the Campbell behind; it had to sustain both theatres. The Campbell was starting to find its audience, but it was too late. What began as a Big Idea ended as Too Big a Task.
Another Big Idea was the amphitheater in Martinez, which was planned to be home to a whole series of outdoor historical musical dramas. “John Muir’s Mountain Days” was only the first, and at first it was extremely successful. It attracted a large audience when first staged at the amphitheater in 2005, but it was very expensive to produce.
A daytime production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” for busloads of middle-schoolers at the John Muir Amphitheater in Martinez, 2010. Photo: Gary Carr
Nevertheless, plans took shape under Andy and Rich for a series of seven musicals that would play in repertory at the amphitheater. The next was “Sacajawea,” the tale of the Lewis and Clark expedition centering on the Native American woman who was their guide. The book and lyrics for “Sacajawea” were by New York playwright Mary Bracken Phillips, with music by San Jose native Craig Bohmler, the same team who had done “Mountain Days.” “Sacajawea” was staged in 2008, but at the Alhambra Arts Center in Martinez, because the amphitheater was in disrepair.
The next in the amphitheater series was to be about the “Big Four,” the industrial barons (Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) who brought the railroads to California. However, the script for it and the other four shows in the series was never commissioned. The amphitheater remained, however, as a continuing burden. The upkeep was too much for the Willows, and the city of Martinez shied away from pumping municipal funds into the venue. Another Big Idea foundered. In retrospect, the historical drama project would have needed a Disney Corporation to make it work.
A third Big Idea is banking on a show to be a hit, or even artistic triumph that will lift the company to new heights and at least break even…and then seeing the show fail. The Willows suffered its share of “one flop away from closing” events. “The Kentucky Cycle,” a two-part, six-hour production asked the audience to come to the theatre twice to see the story work out. It was a wonderful piece, but it asked too much of its audience. On another level, there was the aforementioned “9 to 5: the Musical”—Dolly Parton brought no cachet. Neither did two other musicals based on movies, “The Night of the Hunter” and “The Wedding Singer.”
Ironically, two weeks before the Willows closed, it was named one of the “Best Theatre Companies in the East Bay” by critic Charles Kruger on the Examiner.com and the CBS-5 web sites. Kruger placed it in the company with Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, Aurora Theatre, and Central Works. Indeed, the Willows has, over the years, won more than its share of Drama-logue, Shellie, and Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle awards.
Kruger praised the theatre for “specializing in the great American tradition of the Broadway musical…delivering the old razzle dazzle with grace and style, presenting both classics and new musicals…constantly trying to take theatre to the next level.”
“Chess: The Musical” at the Willows mainstage in Concord, 2011. Photo: Judy Potter
But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to rise to a new level when you’re tied to three very disparate venues—a proscenium house, a cabaret, and an outdoor amphitheater—at a time when the political and economic cards are stacked against you.
It will be interesting to see what rises from the ashes of the Willows…which shards will be reassembled, and by whom.
Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, I am only here to tell the tale from my perspective. Others with deeper experience on the voyage of the good ship Willows are welcome to add their comments, corrections, and insights.—GC
Gary Carr is proprietor of Rising Moon Marketing & Public Relations. Visit risingmoonarts.com.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.