Powerful theater productions featuring top-notch talent are in store for audience members next season at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre as it continues its transformation into a professional company that will eventually move to a new downtown home in San Luis Obispo’s expanding cultural corridor.
San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre, as the nonprofit company will now be called, will join the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County in an area along part of Monterey Street anchored by Mission San Luis Obispo. Those organizations are also seeking to expand as part of a push to create what Dominic Tartaglia, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, called “a nice little oasis for the arts.”
“San Luis Obispo’s rich, complex history and vibrant, diverse art scene are an essential part of what makes our city such a wonderful place to live and visit,” Eva Ulz, History Center executive director, wrote in an email. “Without them, we are just another cute beach town!”
Kevin Harris, San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre’s managing artistic director, planned to unveil his company’s new name and logo Thursday morning at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s Good Morning SLO event.
Harris said the former San Luis Obispo Little Theatre is seeking to convince the public that it’s anything but little.
“We are a professional regional theater,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Santa Maria. You don’t have to go to Santa Barbara or up to Monterey to see (high-quality productions). There is a professional theater in town.”
San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre — or, SLO Rep — celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with more than 900 productions under its belt.
During the 2015-2016 season, more than 23,000 people attended 200-plus performances, according to the theater. On average, 94 percent of available seats were filled; more than 100 performances were sold out.
In recent years, the company has seen its annual budget grow from about $300,000 to almost $700,000. Simultaneously, it’s gone from producing 13 plays and staged readings a year to as many as 25 productions.
“That was kind of our ceiling for … what we could do in this space with our resources,” Harris explained.
That success reflects SLO Rep’s efforts to evolve from a company working largely with local volunteers to a professional entity that brings in paid actors and directors from across the country, said Harris, who joined as executive director in 2008. He switched to his current position at the end of 2011.
In 2012, “we restructured our entire staff,” Harris said, and gave “artistic team leaders” such as directors, choreographers, music directors and costume designers a pay increase. (Crew members also receive small stipends.)
2014 signaled another turning point for SLO Rep. That’s when the company hired its first paid actors — Toby Tropper and Cameron Rose — for $300 each for a production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
The decision came after two nights of auditions failed to turn up “the two guys who could carry that show,” Harris explained.
That was a “monumental shift,” he said, since all company actors had worked for free in the past.
“We have tremendously talented people in our local acting community. We don’t have enough of them to fill 268 roles a year,” he explained. “We were reaching a point where the quality of our shows were suffering.”
To attract outside talent, SLO Rep will pay every cast member involved in main-stage productions, holiday shows and gala musicals starting July 1. (Ubu’s Other Shoe staged readings and Academy of Creative Theatre youth performances will continue to be all-volunteer; the After Hours series of late-night shows for mature audiences will be dropped entirely.)
In addition, the company will continue to provide free housing for visiting actors and directors via guest rooms and granny units at 10 to 15 local homes. SLO Rep is also seeking to rent a three-bedroom property near downtown for that purpose.
It will cost $60,000 to $100,000 to pay the actors, Harris said, about 8 to 13 percent of next year’s $750,000 budget.
“That’s a ridiculously small expense to completely change the organization, and it’s a necessary expense,” he said.
To cover that cost, SLO Rep will raise individual ticket prices by $2 to $3, Harris said, with a discount of up to 19 percent for season ticket holders. (Student tickets recently rose $5 to $20 apiece.)
In addition, SLO Rep will offer more performances per production, giving audience members seven or eight more chances to see each show.
The company will also bump up sponsorship levels and create new sponsorships to underwrite the costs of adding live music or bringing in out-of-town directors.
With SLO Rep able to recruit professional actors — instead of having open auditions for each production, the company will hold a general casting call June 3 for the entire 2017-2018 season —audiences can expect high-quality productions with diverse casts, Harris said.
“We’re definitely looking at an entire spectrum of plays we haven’t looked at before,” he said, such as productions that require actors of color or highly trained dancers. “We’re super-duper excited about that.”
SLO Rep eventually plans to present those productions in a two-story, 17,381-square-foot building on Monterey Street, mere blocks from its current location at 888 Morro St. It has leased that 11,000-square-foot building, which features a 100-seat theater, from the city since 1993.
Plans for SLO Rep’s new home, designed by Arroyo Grande architect Bryce Engstrom, feature a 200-seat main auditorium plus a workshop, costume repair area and rehearsal and classroom space.
SLO Rep hopes to start construction on the building on land leased from the city in late 2019 or early 2020, opening its doors in summer 2021. The land is now a parking lot.
“Our No. 1 goal now is for people to recognize that this theater is more of an economic driver than any other arts organization in town,” Harris said. “Once people understand what it is that we do here then I think it will change how they see our plays.”
San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre
“The All Night Strut!,” Aug. 25 to Sep. 17, 2017
“Rabbit Hole,” Oct 6. to 22, 2017
“Rounding Third,” Nov. 3 to 19, 2017
“The 39 Steps,” March 30 to April 19, 2018
“Lost in Yonkers,” May 4 to 20, 2018
“Annie,” June 8 to July 1, 2018
“A Christmas Story,” Dec. 2 to 23, 2017
“The Producers,” Feb. 16 to March 11, 2018