Jack Souza remembers having a full-blown anxiety attack the night he signed the lease on Prospect Theater Project.
He wondered if he had made the right choice, if Modesto could sustain a small theater company that would put on only challenging work. He feared he would let down his small band of supporters.
But 10 years later, the 70-seat theater at
520 Scenic Drive still is going strong. Company members are poised to perform their first show at the Gallo Center for the Arts in May (but then will return to their home base).
He is grateful for the devoted audience members who have stuck with him over the years.
"It does feel like I'm participating in something bigger than me," Souza said.
No one in the region does theater quite like Prospect. While others are performing musicals and time-tested, sunny favorites like "The Odd Couple" and "Noises Off," Prospect has presented more difficult, sometimes dark works by playwrights like Tom Stoppard, David Sedaris, Edward Albee and Conor McPherson. The mission always has been about creating art rather than satisfying the masses.
"We've never been a populist theater," Souza said. "It's never been our aim to present chestnuts to get people in there. We've picked shows based on our conscience."
Tina Driskill, a longtime audience member, said she and her husband keep going to Prospect shows because of the quality of their presentations.
"Almost to a play, the acting has been consistently good," she said. "The whole production, from acting to staging to even the audience seating, has been creative. Everything has been creative and drew us in. We have enjoyed the plays and found them thought provoking. We can always count on a very fine evening of theatergoing experience."
Prospect exists on a bare-bones $65,000 budget -- a pittance compared to the $1.7 million budget of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. The company puts on five plays a year and is run solely by volunteers.
Funding has come from small contributions from individuals rather than one or two major donors. The company got started by members each trying to solicit 10 $100 donations from friends. The group was able to raise enough to purchase the rights to its first play -- McPherson's "The Weir" -- and pay the first month's rent. After that production, the company got enough money to pay a couple of more months' rent, and things rolled on from there.
"I thought it was a brave and ambitious thing to do," said Karen Olsen, a frequent Prospect actress. "I thought it was amazing that they had the guts to do it."
The company faced significant challenges along the way. Only a few years after the theater's founding, a group of actors left to form their own now defunct theater in Turlock. Then Souza and his wife, co-founder Kathleen Ennis, divorced, though both continued to collaborate on the theater.
In 2008, Souza left for nine months to pursue an acting career in New York. But the theater was always too important to abandon, Ennis said.
"The theater's like our child," she said. "We learned the theater is bigger than us. It's not the Jack and Kathleen show."
Paul Tremayne, Prospect's board president, said he is proud that the theater recently had two successful annual fund-raiser dinners. The "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" banquets netted a combined $17,000, which was used to replace carpet, install new lighting equipment and make other improvements. He likes the Gallo Center collaboration because he thinks some of the center's fans will discover Prospect for the first time and some of Prospect's fans will be introduced to the Gallo Center.
Financial issues continue, though, and Tremayne said there is always need for more donors. The theater would like to raise $3,000 now for a new curtain.
Prospect would love to offer youth programs and more theater workshops -- if it had more money and time. Right now, it takes all its efforts to get the shows produced.
Olsen and other Prospect fans are just grateful that the theater continues and is offering a place in Modesto for serious theater. Olsen, who performs in "Collected Stories," opening next week, said she loves the intellectual challenge of appearing in Prospect shows.
"It's a process, it's education," she said. "It makes me feel more alive than I usually do. It's one of the most exciting things in this town."