Five dreamers dreamed a dream 35 years ago that lives on with hopes as high as the day they started.
Sierra Repertory Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary season with a production of the sweeping musical “Les Misérables.” Three of the five founding directors of the foothills theater company remain with the group, which has evolved into one of the area’s premier arts organizations since its humble beginning in 1979.
“When you are a kid, you always dream that you are going to turn your dream into something that would last a long time,” said Sierra Rep co-founder and producing director Dennis Jones. “We were wise enough to know that doesn’t always happen. The philosophy for the theater has always been we are not trying to achieve a specific type of theater by a specific type of time. We just want to keep making each show better than the last and growing. The rest will take care of itself.”
Jones, his wife, managing director Sara Jones, and fellow co-founder and resident stage manager Doug Brennan have stayed with the company since the start. Fellow co-founders Kathryn and David Kahn have since left to pursue other interests.
The quintet met while drama students at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and doing summer stock at the Fallon House Theatre in Columbia. Jones said as a 31-year-old, he saw the potential and demand in the region for a year-round company that staged professional productions. Sierra Rep debuted two years later in a 99-seat theater with a production of “Dracula.”
Now 68, Jones said the mission of Sierra Rep has not changed over its more than three decades.
“The passion for the arts is still as bright and still permeates every decision we make about SRT,” he said.
Not that a passion for the arts can’t translate into some impressive numbers. The company has gone from a budget of $30,000 for its inaugural season to an annual operating budget of more than $1.5 million now. In 1991, it expanded its 99-seat East Sonora theater to a 202-seat space. Then, in 1997, the company took over operation of Fallon House.
Other by-the-numbers examples of Sierra Rep’s ongoing success abound:
• 7,764 performances of 281 productions over the years.
• 1,129,471 tickets sold since its inception.
• More than 100 artists contracted each year from across the United States.
• More than 500 donors and 1,500 subscribers annually.
• More than 500 actors auditioned for its latest production, “Les Misérables.”
The company regularly brings in professional actors from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York and beyond for its productions. Some 300 to 500 actors audition for each production, and the company has built a solid reputation in the theatrical community.
“The SRT experience is vast and incredible. The (staff) give so much of themselves it inspires you to bring more out of yourself,” said Cliff McCormick, who will debut with the company in the leading role of Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables. “I’ve worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and there is something special about the environment and spirit and life of SRT. You see it in everyone. It inspires me.”
The company also continues to look toward the future. Early this year, it launched its new education program, SRT Junior, aimed at providing training and productions for a younger audience. Sierra Rep artistic director Scott Viets, who joined the company in 2002, said the theater had been interested in developing an educational program for a while.
“We’ve been wanting to do a children’s program to foster a younger audience,” Viets said. “We wanted to be able to provide education, but quality education. Whether a child wants to be professional or not, this helps to keep the arts alive.”
The company has hired Ralph Krumins full time to serve as its education director. Already the program has exceeded expectations, with nearly 30 students – more than three times the number anticipated – enrolling for the first classes last month, Viets said.
Moving forward, Jones said he hopes the company will continue to grow and thrive. And the dream, as ever, remains the same.
“I think I see a future where the arts continues getting better and better,” Jones said. “As long as live theater remains a staple of the American arts life, we will be here.”