Theatre Histories: Cinnabar Theater
Thursday, November 13, 2014
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
Working on a theatre production often feels like being part of a family. The cast and crew bond in a sometimes inexplicable way and collaboration is fueled by love and a sense of common purpose. Usually the members of this family are not related by blood but sometimes there are exceptions to this rule.
One such exception is Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, which was founded by Marvin Klebe in 1970 as a home for himself, his wife Jan and their four sons after a very public breakup with the San Francisco opera scene in which he had worked as an accomplished baritone. Disenchanted with the quality of work and the treatment of performers in traditional opera, Klebe got on the microphone after a 1967 San Francisco Opera performance at the Stern Grove Festival and said, "We do not like working under these conditions and we're all leaving."
"He defected publicly," says Elly Lichenstein, artistic director of Cinnabar Theater. "It was front-page news."
Cinnabar Theater. Photo: Scott Hess
After his grand exit, Klebe took on cabinet-making to support his family and dreamed of creating an opera environment where the performers were true collaborators allowed to give input. He moved to Sonoma County with his family and soon found that it housed many beautiful, non-traditional performance spaces.
"There were all kinds of old school houses, halls, churches, all manner of interesting old buildings going for a song," Lichenstein says. "[Klebe] just traveled the county and sang in these buildings."
One of these places was an L-shaped Mission Revival-style building on the outskirts of Petaluma. Its warm acoustics enchanted Klebe, but a closer look at the building's history would reveal that it had always had theatre and education in its blood.
The building's first incarnation was as a two-room schoolhouse serving the children who lived on surrounding farms. The Cinnabar School was the oldest public school in Sonoma County, founded in 1859 and named after the Cinnabar railway station, a stop on the old Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway. The word "cinnabar" comes from the scarlet-colored mineral which early settlers erroneously believed to be present in the rocky soil.
Although Cinnabar School had been around since 1859, this building wasn't completed until the fall of 1908 when the community excitedly dedicated the new schoolhouse. It was considered quite modern at the time, with its curvilinear gabled roof and belfry paying homage to California's Spanish missions.
Its two rooms had a connecting library and a basement, for use during rainy weather, in which a wood-burning furnace roared. Pot-bellied stoves provided warmth, and an adjoining windmill pumped water from a nearby well.
In 1958, Cinnabar School moved to a new location and the building was purchased by the local chapter, or "aerie" as they are called, of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles. If its first incarnation cemented its status as an educational center, the second brought it firmly into the world of theatre.
Photo: Courtesy of Don Peterson's 1978 Petaluma's Architectural Heritage
The Fraternal Order of Eagles was founded in 1898 by six Seattle theatre owners. They were competitors who had come together to discuss a musician's strike and ended up forming an organization for mutual support. The first meetings were held on theatre stages and involved much beer and socializing. The organization expanded across the country as touring theatre troupes spread its traditions, and its achievements grew from providing medical care and funeral expenses for its members to advocating for Mother's Day, Social Security, and raising funds for medical research.
It was from this organization, with its strong theatrical roots, that Klebe bought the building in 1970. The family quickly set about transforming the building, painting its green walls red to match its namesake mineral. They built living quarters, a workshop for Klebe's cabinet-making and the 80-seat Cinnabar Theater, which opened its doors in 1972 and became the collaborative space Klebe had envisioned.
"He invited dancers, actors, scenic designers … people from all artistic walks of life," says Lichenstein. "He developed what was the uniquely Cinnabar style [which is] to bring all these different disciplines together to create an ensemble event."
From its early days, Cinnabar featured opera, dance and theatre performances. In 1983, the building expanded to accommodate the growing performance schedule, and the Cinnabar Young Repertory Theater was created to provide performing arts training and opportunities to local youth; this led to the 1988 addition of a studio to the building to support these educational programs. The current season, Cinnabar's 42nd, features drama, musical theatre, opera, youth performances, a concert series and solo performances.
Klebe passed away in 1999 but his wife, Jan, still lives in the residence connected to the theatre and makes the brownies that are sold at concessions. Klebe's sons Kolya and Aloysha help with building and facilities, and their former childhood rooms now house the offices of the theater's administrative staff. Lichenstein, who has served Cinnabar since 1975 as a costumer, performer, general manager and now artistic director, credits the familial spirit of collaboration for Cinnabar's growth over the years.
"Trying to keep that sense of hands-on, 'let's work together and make things happen' is very important to us," she says. "The sense that each artist is respected for what he or she brings to the table; the table is set with a multitude of dishes, and everybody can partake and imbibe and work together with respect."
Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, TheatreWorks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.