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Treasure Island opens in Rancho Cucamonga city-supported theatre

May 7, 2010

You don’t often hear this quote: “I’ve been making a living in the theatre for 30 years.” Mireya (Murry) Hepner’s lips uttered that remarkable phrase. She is Artistic Director, or Producer, for The MainStreet Theatre at the 536-seat Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga.

The other phrase you don’t often hear is this: “The City had the idea to build a theatre for its community and to include a professional Theatre for Young Audiences as a cornerstone of its programming.”

Right, the City built the theatre. The City supports the theatre. How novel.

I bring this up because MainStreet, an Equity Theatre for Young Audiences Company, opens Jonathan Bolt’s adaptation of Treasure Island this weekend. The Robert Louis Stevenson play is presented on several weekday mornings for local school kids, and weekends for families. Jeremy Lelliott (Artistic Director of Coeurage Theatre) plays Jim Hawkins in an all male cast. “I wouldn’t mind a little more estrogen around there,” Lelliott says.

Robert Castro made that call. It’s his third directing run at The Lewis Family Playhouse and his second with Lelliott. He once was one of Hepner’s assistant stage managers in New York City. “Treasure Island  is definitely a ‘guy’ piece of theater. But that is also true of the book by Stevenson. The single woman in the book is Jim’s Mother, who is only in the first part of the story.”

The cast: Michael Manuel, Jeremy Lelliott, Larry Reinhardt-Meyer, Matthew Henerson, Mark McCracken, Andrew Ross Wynn

Castro says they have “leaned into that male energy and have been on a wild ride during the rehearsals. That energy, excitement and joy is something that we want to share with the audiences as they go on the journey.”

That said, it’s not a chauvinistic piece. Castro says he was aware of the “guy-ness” of the world of TI, “So I invited women designers, with the exception of our Sound Designer/Composer, to join the creative team. I thought the women would bring another element, another depth to the world of the play.”

Castro says that Hepner, years ago, moved into producing and he aimed for directing. He says they share a “deep commitment to artistic excellence” and the power of theatre to transform the “everyday into the extraordinary.”

Hepner, who’s responsible for MainStreet, oversees dance, comedy, and concert events in addition to theatre. “MainStreet does 3 shows a year – each show does 3 week runs. Broadway at the Gardens does one show a year — usually  a more “edgy” show that uses community members as well as non-union actors from the region.  In addition, we do a couple of Black Box productions in our rehearsal studio – also non-union.”

Hepner remembers getting hired. “The City thought that they might contract with an outside company to bring children’s shows in. But for a variety of reasons it was decided it would be better to create their own company.  I applied for the job – remember that we’re all City employees! – and was lucky enough to be hired and to be in on the ground floor of creating not only the MainStreet Theatre Company but on how the whole operation was going to happen.”  MainStreet is now at the end of its 4th season, and Hepner points out the ongoing need to address a stark reality: “I think people still might not know that we’re here, but we’re working on that.”

Hepner wants MainStreet to be known as the place where kids and families get the highest quality productions of stories that are just for them.  “And by that I mean that we do shows just like any other theatre – it just happens that the scripts we pick are based on stories for children. But we never skimp on the caliber of our artists and we never look down at our audience.”

Hepner also wants it to be known as a great place for theatre artists to work.  “That’s already happening, I think.  The directors, designers and actors who work on our shows are all at the top of their game, and I want to continue to bring people of that caliber here.  I want to become as well known for the quality of our work as the Seattle Children’s Theatre or the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis.“

While the City owns and supports the theatre, its financial support declined this year and last. Still, MainStreet hasn’t had to rely as heavily as some non-profits do on grants and individual donations. “Of course the City can’t continue to fund us at the current level, even with the cuts, so we’re starting to look for more funding.  And as the City cuts the budget in general we are of course affected in all sorts of non-production related ways, in terms of staff time, etc.”

The relationship between the Theatre and City is, by nature, unconventional. MainStreet (and The Lewis Family Playhouse) is part of the Community Services Department (known in other cities as Parks and Recreation). “As far as the City is concerned, MainStreet is a ‘program’ just like the sports teams are a program.  So it’s interesting.  There are about 8 full time staff members who are responsible for the various aspects of the Lewis Family Playhouse – Box Office, Marketing, Front of House, Technical, and Rentals.”

So, in some ways, working for the City has its perks, Hepner finds. “And we’re incredibly lucky to have a ‘government job’ in the arts. In other circumstances it has its challenges, since the world of theatre production doesn’t always fit into the systems in place for other city departments. But in the last 4 years I think we’ve all been figuring out how it fits together, and so far I think we’ve been pretty successful.”

That success gives director Robert Castro the freedom he needs to mount Treasure Island. “We have the opportunity to transform our audiences – into future theater makers, into future theatergoers. And the ideas and questions at the heart of TI – adventure, transformation, and imagination – are all so powerful, so necessary for our lives in the 21st Century.”

Treasure Island at The Lewis Family Playhouse 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga, CA, 91739     (909) 477-2752 Performance and ticket information here.
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