David Blue Garrison leads a cast of performers through improv exercises during rehearsal time at a donated practice space in Sacramento.

The Show Must Go On

Sacramento’s performing arts nonprofits find new ways to engage the community

Back Article Oct 14, 2016 By Dave Kempa

In January 2014, started by a faulty HVAC system, The Alternative Arts Collective of Sacramento lost its theater to a fire. The blaze began in the building’s residential quarters that many of the nonprofit’s actors called home. Founding member and Artistic Director David Blue Garrison was able to run in and save his cat, but that was about all he could do. “Everything that I’ve ever owned was gone that night,” Garrison says. “It was awful.”

The cast and crew for TAAC were devastated. They’d worked so long to find the perfect venue — this black box theater with a capacity of 35, maybe 40, on Arden Way — and now, in the middle of the season, it was all gone.

But as the old industry trope goes: The show must go on.

When money grows tight in a town like Sacramento, nonprofits must get creative to stay afloat. This is particularly true for the performing arts. But the region’s creative nonprofits have risen to the challenge in recent years, finding innovative means to engage the community and fill both seats and coffers. It’s not always easy. After the fire, TAAC took a much-needed hiatus from live theater. But they couldn’t stay away long. Before the year had ended, Artspace 1616, a gallery on Del Paso Boulevard, agreed to host the troupe for their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They packed the house every night.

“The success of it was a dream,” Garrison says. TAAC had spent eight months off the community radar, but from the moment they opened at this gallery they had 80 people a night coming to see the production. “We decided, ‘Oh, we should probably continue this,’” Garrison says. And so the nomadic performances began.

The First Chautauqua Playhouse in Carmichael offered to host their production of “Macbeth.” Then they did a production of “Steel Magnolias” at the Blacktop Comedy Theater in Rocklin, and again at The House of Yes at the Grange Performing Arts Center near Oak Park. No matter where TAAC performed, their supporters came out in force. It was great, but it wasn’t easy.

“I think that it’s hard for some of our core group to be able to stay with us because of some of the locations that we travel out to,” Garrison says. There’s also an element of confusion for actors when auditions are held in, say, Citrus Heights, for a production scheduled to open in downtown Sacramento. “I wish I could provide a more solid home base for the cast and crew,” he says.

Speaking of nomads, even the region’s most celebrated and long-serving arts nonprofits are riding the innovation wave. Sacramento residents may have noticed the bands of classically trained musicians roving the town this past year.

In 2014, after a decade of lackluster ticket sales and dwindling community involvement, the nonprofit Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera made the difficult decision to cancel their fall season. It was a dark time for the arts, but the organization convened and brainstormed new, innovative ways to get the community reinvested in their work. Among those ideas was a year’s worth of pop-up shows performed around the city by their classically trained musicians, now referred to as Music Invasions and Cre8ive Concerts. They were a hit.

According to Julian Dixon, director of community engagement and education at the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, some 44 pop-up acts consisting of 2-16 performers pleasantly surprised Sacramento residents across the city last year. They’d originally been tasked to schedule 15 acts around the community, but were so popular that Dixon had to triple the gigs.

Philharmonic musicians played at farmers markets, libraries, job fairs and family centers. They even played for homeless guests at Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park.

Related: Tweeting the Classics

“We love it. It’s a way for us to connect more directly with our audience,” says Dixon, who also plays principal tuba for the Sacramento Philharmonic. “One gentleman in Friendship Park said, ‘You guys, this is the real deal! We’re getting real, quality music is  here.’”

While the artists do enjoy interacting with the community during these performances, there are often challenges. A lot of the instruments are sensitive to weather conditions: heat, sun, rain. And it’s almost always an acoustic crap shoot.

But the musicians make it work, in large part due to the creative freedom they enjoy during the Music Invasions. The laid-back setting also makes classical music accessible to everyday Sacramentans. “It tears away the formality,” Dixon says. Over the years, he believes, classical performers largely playing in formal concert hall settings cultivated a tradition and formality that became somewhat intimidating to people. “We weren’t creating enough welcoming situations,” he says.

But these public shows tear down that barrier and may affect ticket sales, which last year were the highest the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera had seen in over a decade. Based on these recent successes, Dixon is anticipating some 55 pop-up performances this year, with at least one in each of the city’s neighborhoods.

In the same spirit of intimacy embraced by TAAC and the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, professional dancers in the Sacramento Ballet have been getting up close and personal with residents through live performances in their practice studios.

The ballet’s Snapshots performance appeals to Sacramento’s hardcore ballet fans — according to Artistic Director Ron Cunningham, the ballet invites some of the country’s top choreographers to perform new, exciting works for audiences no larger than 125 people.

“The up-close experience is wonderful and people love it,” Cunningham says. Viewers experience these performances in ways they might not at a formal stage production. The proximity to the dancers allows the audience to witness performers’ facial expressions and muscles working.

And in the same spirit of informality celebrated through the philharmonic’s pop-up shows, the Sacramento Ballet also hosts Beer & Ballet performances in-studio. Dancers perform works they’ve choreographed themselves to an audience that may not have had much exposure to this form of dance, with the hope of interesting them in future productions in more formal settings — while sipping beer in an informal one.

It’s an exciting time for the Sacramento Ballet, with the 62-year-old organization’s move from their Midtown home of 25 years to the site of the former Fremont Elementary School. But that doesn’t mean they, or TAAC, or the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, have any plans to hold back on innovation.

“The thing about our group — I suppose any nonprofit — is about how to keep your mission alive,” Cunningham says. “One needs to always be cognizant and aware of what is going on in your community and how that relates to your operation.”

For TAAC, the 2017 season will remain nomadic, but they have found refuge in the world of film: Last summer, they wrapped up a three-part web series called “Midtown Blue” that enjoyed moderate success, and they’re currently in production of a full-length film based on the series. TAAC continues to remain homeless — but that’s by design. “We’re gonna wait a little bit before we settle down so that when we do find our theater space it’s exactly what we want,” Garrison says. “Sacramento has been very supporting of us. It may be weird for people when we do find a home.”

They’ll surely adapt.