After a decade of memorable work, StageWorks Fresno closes its doors
When a Fresno-area theater production is in its final weekend, I usually try to give audiences a last-minute reminder with a little Facebook tradition of mine.
Pictured above: Daniel Rodriguez, Melinda Parrett and Joel C. Abels in ‘Next to Normal.’
“Happy closing to StageWorks Fresno,” I posted last month on my page as the company of “The Book of Will” prepared for the production’s final performance on Sept. 22 at the Fresno Art Museum.
I didn’t realize at the time how apt that statement was.
The StageWorks board of directors voted several weeks ago to close the doors as of Sept. 30. The decision was kept secret until patrons and sponsors were officially notified with a mailing that went out Wednesday. (Well, as secret as these things can be amongst a tight-knit theater community that includes observers who had noticed that a 2020 season had not yet been announced.)
In the letter that went out to subscribers and supporters, founder and artistic director Joel C. Abels wrote: “There comes a point where the financial burdens create stresses that simply outweigh the good artistic work.”
The closure is a blow to the Fresno-area cultural scene. StageWorks was the only company that brought in occasional professional guest artists who were members of Actors Equity to add to the talented community-theater pool of performers in the area. It was often a front-runner in terms of staging and design. And it premiered smaller, cutting-edge titles that often soared.
For Abels, the move is wrenching. But it’s been a long time coming.
“I do want people to know that this was not a rash decision,” he says. “This was not a flippant, last-minute decision. I have pondered this, and cried about this, and prayed about this.”
The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.
He spoke with me in a wide-ranging interview a couple of weeks ago that touched upon the company’s struggle to find a sustainable and reliable funding stream, and the difficulty of producing non-profit theater in a region where significant corporate and institutional support is hard to come by.
“It burns people out,” he says. “It’s finally burned me out.”
We also reminisced about the company’s decade-long importance to the local theater scene and its numerous artistic successes. Starting from the company’s inaugural “[title of show]” in 2011 (still one of its strongest and most special productions) all the way through to this season’s big and boisterous “Mamma Mia,” intimate and affecting “La Cage Aux Folles” and moving “Book of Will,” StageWorks brought many memorable and beautifully rendered titles to Fresno.
“There have been bumps in the road,” he says. “There are things I would have liked to have done differently,” he says. “But for the most part, it has been a wild, wonderful, deeply moving experience to be at the helm of this theater company and just take the journeys we have been able to take.”
The decision to shut down comes down, in the end, to one thing: not enough money. (“Doesn’t it always,” Abels says with a laugh.)
Only about 35% of a non-profit theater company’s revenue should come from ticket sales, he says. The rest has to come from sponsorships and individual giving. While the budget per season varied depended on the number of shows produced (usually between three and four), the average annual budget was about $300,000.
The problem wasn’t ever really about box office, he says, even though the company brought in titles that had the potential to turn audiences off, like “Fun Home,” “Dogfight” and “Casa Valentina.” (The only unqualified box-office disappointment for the company was “The Mountaintop” — a beautiful show artistically — that closed early because of disappointing ticket sales.)
The problem: StageWorks could never capture enough big donors to pay for the infrastructure needed to produce those shows — at least in the way that Abels wanted. Unlike other cities that have more corporate headquarters and a giving class interested in more than funding the local state university’s athletics programs, Fresno’s cultural institutions have long struggled for the level of community funding and support they need.
Abels says he is sure people will ask how the company could close when it sold out the entire run of “La Cage Aux Folles.”
“But La Cage was one of the most expensive shows we’ve ever done,” he says. “And it didn’t pay for itself. But those things can be made up if the institutional money is there. And it’s never been there.”
The result was that Abels and his hard-working designers found themselves working nearly impossible hours at crunch time building and painting sets, perfecting costumes and engaged in the myriad of details that go into presenting a well-produced show. If there had been more money, then more staff could have been hired to take up the slack.
Abels found himself at the edge of burnout.
So did the designers who put so much time and sweat into the productions.
“I always wonder why people answer their phone when my name comes up,” Abels says with a laugh.
The situation, he reflects, was partly personality-driven on his part. He is the type of artistic director who knows exactly what he wants and what it takes to get there.
He also personally directed many of the StageWorks shows. He and J. Daniel Herring were the only directors, in fact, during the company’s entire history (except for “La Cage,” which was co-directed by Herring and Josh Montgomery).
“Working for me can be very rewarding, but it can also be really hard. I have high standards and high expectations. It’s hard for people to keep up with my level of commitment. I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way. It’s just that I feel I have so much invested. I’ve got this personality that pushes and pushes and pushes until designers say, ‘This was fun, but it’s too much. I can’t work at the level you want.’ ”
When I wrote about Abels’ breakneck schedule a few months ago — when he was directing and helping build the sets for “Mamma Mia” while simultaneously preparing for the lead role in “La Cage,” which was opening just a few weeks later — I got a sense of the workload at the company’s scenic shop. People were working really long hours.
“I do try to delegate,” Abels says. “But it’s so hard.”
Then again, StageWorks was always a personal thing for Abels. When he started the company, he was living and working in New York as a professional actor, where he’d moved after saying goodbye to the first theater company he founded, Children’s Musical Theaterworks (which is still going strong). He decided to come back to Fresno for a break and thought it would be fun to do a one-time production of the popular musical “[title of show].”
The production, simply staged at the versatile California Arts Academy, was rapturously received.
“That was the genesis of StageWorks Fresno,” he says. “It was only supposed to be that one show. By the end of ‘[title of show], it had become a season.”
StageWorks would move on to perform at the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum — a staging challenge that its designers seemed to relish — and, of course, the Dan Pessano Theatre at Clovis North High School, a superb and intimate space that Abels and Herring were able time and again to transform into mesmerizing theatrical settings.
In a total of 36 shows, Abels and his team brought an impressive lineup of fresh and challenging titles to town. I ask him if he can narrow the list down to his Top 3 favorites. He can’t, tossing out a string of titles: “Gray Gardens,” “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “[title of show],” “The Mountaintop,” “Fun Home,” “The Full Monty,” “Casa Valentina,” “A Year With Frog and Toad,” “I Am My Own Wife” …
I stop him and say, OK, narrowing it down to three isn’t possible.
“We produced some really great stuff, and I’m so grateful for those memories,” he says.
Is the decision to shut down irrevocable?
Mostly. The StageWorks board already voted to dissolve. (Funds are still needed to help with the costs of shutting down, and a special final cabaret fundraiser will be held Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium.)
Of course, if some deep-pocketed donor (or donors) were to pop up and offer a hefty donation, anything is possible.
“It couldn’t be a Band-Aid fix,” Abels says. “It would take a substantial, long-term commitment for this decision to change.”
One thing is for sure: The loss of the company is a loss for Fresno.
“Yes, I think there will be a hole,” he says. “Things will go on. They won’t be the same. But I have a feeling there are others waiting in the wings to take some of the risks and the titles we have. And I applaud them for that.”
Still, it hurts.
“I will miss it. I will miss our audiences. I will miss our subscribers. I will miss working alongside fantastically talented artisans and performers and musicians that we have had in our employ. I have had the best time and do not regret a single moment.”