A decade of drama | September 30, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 30, 2011

A decade of drama

Palo Altan wishes a happy 10th birthday to her Pear Avenue Theatre company

by Nick Veronin

The saying may be well worn, but Palo Alto resident Diane Tasca insists there is no better way for her to express what she loves about the stage: "Theater is alive."

The founder of the Pear Avenue Theatre, which celebrated the opening of its 10th season on Sept. 15, explains that while she loves a good TV show or film, there is something much more personal and human about a play.

"It's not only that the performers are in the moment," Tasca said. "The audience and the performers form a kind of unit that is different each night. The actors have give and take with themselves, but they also have give and take with the audience."

That give and take was easily observable on Sept. 16, as a cast of seven men and women performed Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July" to a small crowd of patrons at the Pear's Mountain View venue.

There isn't a bad seat in the small black-box theater. The Pear's 40 seats rise up and away from the ground-level stage, and audience members sitting in the front row can literally reach out and touch those actors who move close enough to the fourth wall.

Michael Champlin, who is playing main character Kenneth Talley in "The Fifth of July," says he loves that the Pear allows him to be so close to the audience. "There is an immediacy to it," he said. "I've been impressed with the theater since the first show that I came to see here."

"You're right in the scene in many ways," Jerry DeRuntz, a longtime patron of local theater, said of the Pear's seating arrangement. "You can really see people's expressions."

DeRuntz has been coming to the Pear since its opening season and first became interested in theater 15 years ago when his girlfriend, Katherine Ingold, suggested that they see a play together.

He was immediately drawn to the stage. "There is a chemistry that happens," DeRuntz said. "Every night the feeling is different."

A fan of theater since 1988, Ingold agrees. She enjoys seeing the same play performed by various theater companies and on different stages. "I get more out of it each time," Ingold said.

And of all the plays she has taken in over the past two decades, and of all the stages — large and small — she has been to, Ingold maintains that many of the best works she has seen have been produced by the Pear.

Both DeRuntz and Ingold say that the players themselves are consistently talented at the Pear, and that the company doesn't shy away from challenging works. "They tackle things that we don't see elsewhere," Ingold said.

Plays produced at the Pear have included not only classics by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw but works by more modern playwrights such as Tony Kushner, Theresa Rebeck, Sam Shepard and Paula Vogel. Each season, the company also presents a new version of "Pear Slices," collections of new one-act plays that are often written by local playwrights.

Palo Alto playwright Sharmon Hilfinger premiered "Tell It Slant," her play with music about Emily Dickinson, here in 2009. Next March, Menlo Park writer Margy Kahn is scheduled to open her new play "Familiar Strangers" at the Pear. It's about an Iranian-American family divided by revolution, culture and the generation gap.

Ingold says the diversity the theater company covers and its high quality of performers are only sweetened by the Pear's intimacy. She takes a seat in the front row whenever she can. "I feel like I'm right in the scene," she said.

Indeed, on Sept. 16, several actors walked right up to the front row of the audience, at times pointing over someone's head at an imagined sunset off in the distance.

Tasca had always hoped her theater would draw regular subscribers, but couldn't imagine at the outset just who those subscribers might be.

Back then, Tasca and her partners were just happy to find an appropriately sized space — 1,500 square feet with a ceiling more than 20 feet high, which allows for two-story sets and plenty of breathing room — at a reasonable price.

Since opening in September 2002, The Pear Avenue Theatre has some ups and downs — particularly at the beginning of the recession, during the 2007-08 season. Google had recently purchased the building where the Pear rents its space; the thespian union, Actors' Equity, was demanding more money for performers' stipends; and ticket sales were down, Tasca says. But she adds that there was never a time when she seriously considered shutting down.

Tasca never expected the Pear Avenue Theatre would make her rich, and over the years she has found many ways of saving money here and there. Whether it is painting sets herself instead of paying a professional, printing only one set of programs and asking audiences to return them at the end of the play or reducing the size of her advertising mailers, Tasca is always thinking of ways to keep her costs down.

"I'm always impressed with how much they do with the set in such a small space," said Sara Sparks, who is working as stage manager for several Pear shows this season. Before starting last season, Sparks was with TheatreWorks. Most shows at TheatreWorks, which is a professional company, had anywhere from 10 to 15 crew members. With the Pear she is usually the only crew person: running the lights and sound board, and helping however else she can during a show.

While there are some things Tasca would like to improve about the Pear — she would like about 30 extra seats and another bathroom for patrons — she is happy with what she has built and thrilled that her company has reached its 10th season.

"We just want to keep things as elegant and classy as we can, given our limited resources," Tasca says.

It's fans like Ingold and DeRuntz that motivate her to keep searching for grants and donations, and even infusing the theater with her own income. Tasca says she has a "sense of responsibility" to her patrons, and she is eager to "surprise and challenge them. The goal is to keep getting better and better."

Info: The Pear Avenue Theatre's production of "Fifth of July" runs through Oct. 9, Thursday through Sunday, at 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, in Mountain View. Its second production of the 10th-anniversary season, "Mauritius" by Theresa Rebeck, opens Nov. 4. For details, go to http://thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.


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