In 2022, San Jose is known for many things—being the 10th largest city in the country, a tech capital and one of the country’s most expensive housing markets—but live theater may not always be one of them.
Yet, in tandem with the tech metropolis of San Jose are its vibrant theater and performing arts scenes. Even now, after more than two years of pandemic-related adversity—canceled shows, skittish audiences and the squeeze of inflation—the area is blessed with veteran professional theater companies, traveling Broadway shows and local community theater troupes that have withstood the trials of time.
This fall, two San Jose theater companies, City Lights and The Stage, both celebrate their 40-year anniversaries, an accomplishment which finds both companies (and their staffs) grateful and awe-inspired.
“We can’t live without art,” says Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director for City Lights. “I worry that people’s patterns may have changed, so now we have to work even harder to remember how cool it is to have this experience with other folks in the room.”
Mallette first joined City Lights as a consultant back in 2001, at the request of Tom Gough, then the company’s new artistic director. Mallette and Gough had worked together previously at another local theater company and Gough believed Mallette could lend her eye to strengthening the organization.
“If you thought about City Lights at that point in time, from a human point of view, it was like a tween in its maturity,” she shared, noting the financials and operations of the company.
Once she worked through some of the organizational needs, Mallette “fell in love” with City Lights’ potential, soon after joining as the managing director. She held that role for three years, then was promoted to her current role in 2004.
Over the last 18 years, Mallette has strived for new highs, acknowledging that she wants City Lights to “hit its fullest potential” through all the challenges. She notes that, when she first started 21 years ago, the theater company’s budget was merely $172,000, with approximately $60,000 in debt. In the time since, the company was making $1.2-$1.3 million annually without any debt.
“Turning that ship around was really exciting for me. I’m super proud we’ve been able to launch City Lights into a new trajectory, and [to] try to figure out a better way to serve the community,” she says.
Resident scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti joined the company first as a freelancer in 2006, and fully came on in 2012. While he had worked across the Bay Area for a variety of other theater companies and arts organizations, Gasparinetti chose City Lights for a full-time role because of the community and collaboration among the team.
“It was the amount of support I received from Lisa and from the company in general—I was never left alone to wallow in my pain or anything due to an issue,” he jokes. “It was always something that everyone helped to resolve, and I really like that. That was something I hadn’t encountered anywhere else…it pulled me in and made me want to work it and give it all to this company.”
Casting director and patron engagement manager Ivette Deltoro first fell in love with City Lights as a patron, seeing Compleat Female Stage Beauty during its 2011 run. She remembered the excitement of the performance in the small theater space, how the intimacy of the show made her want to work for the company itself.
Just a few years later, Deltoro got that opportunity, joining the company in 2013 as an intern. Even during her internship, Deltoro knew there was something special about the City Lights that encouraged her to stay on.
“Since we are a relatively small staff, interns were included in the decision making,” she says. “I found that to be so beautiful, especially seeing the kind of work being produced and how we were all constantly in conversation about how to move to another level to engage patrons even more and elevate the storytelling.”
That teamwork and collaboration has led to a slew of exciting performances at City Lights over the years, including larger acts like American Idiot and In the Heights, as well as more nuanced performances like Rapture, Blister, Burn and the recent Waiting for Next.
The pandemic, of course, has been hard for many arts organizations, and unfortunately City Lights is no exception. In 2020, the company’s 16 consecutive years of profitability under Mallette’s tenure was halted by shelter-in-place and remote work. Now, she and the company are striving to get back to their positive financial standing.
“There’s such an upheaval in our industry in the Bay Area—people leaving the field, leaving the area,” Mallette says. “This right now has been a really tough time, and a big shake-up in a lot of different ways, but I believe that the core storytelling will always be there.”
Luckily, the company views this time as an exciting challenge, even if the future is unclear. Yet, as Mallette says, she believes now is even more reflective of how much San Jose groups like City Lights, and vice versa.
“We at City Lights focus a lot on our relationship with our patrons,” Mallette says. “What experiences, what feelings does this contact give you, being in the same room with other hearts and minds—that’s something we’ve always focused on.”
Randall King, artist director at San Jose’s The Stage, remembers the company growing right from its start. He was one of the original founding members back in the early 1980s.
At that point, The Stage was a collective grown out of an underground theater troupe of San Jose State University and Santa Clara University students, lovingly called an “underdog city ensemble.” Their first performances took place in the upstairs area of the now-closed Eulipia Restaurant and Bar on First Street. The group found their permanent home just down the street, in a black box theater that hosts more than 30,000 patrons annually.
For King, the move to their current location is just the start of what has evolved over his 40-plus years in Bay Area theater.
“It’s changed in a way that we’ve been doing it, and it’s incredible to see,” he says.
Since its launch, the company has produced 165 productions, including 18 world premieres and 49 new works. King notes that with each and every production, the company has focused on what’s relevant to the community and on how to integrate varied cultures into the programming. Currently, that means working with Trinidadian writer-director L. Peter Callender for a rendition of his play Strange Courtesies, scheduled for February 2023.
“It’s just stunning to see the creative intercourse between these cultures thousands of miles away from one another, working to blend the knowledge we want to do to make this story effective here,” King says.
Associate Artistic Director Allison F. Rich first came to the Stage in 2009 as an actor. In the 13 years since, Rich has melded into the company’s “family.”
“They really go out of their way to invest in artists and young artists, and they help propel them in their careers,” she says. “They gave me some pretty incredible opportunities…they invest in these people, and, thus, the people also invest in this company.”
That also led to some substantial productions at The Stage over the years, including 2016’s Valley of the Heart, 2018’s Between Riverside and Crazy and 2020’s Chicago, which had a sold-out run prior to COVID-19 lockdowns.
With the pandemic, King originally was worried that competition between live performance and streaming would be a losing game, but he believes the midsize theater movement has been all the more inspirational.
“Players don’t have to go to Broadway anymore to be discovered. They can send their plays to someone like us,” he says. “After having survived so much of this, it’s about keeping your finger on the Zeitgeist…what are we looking at to have a conduit to our community? We just continue to swim. This is artist-motivated. It’s got to have the heart to preserve the struggle.”