It’s a question that has a lot of people in the Napa Valley wondering: “What is the Calistoga Theater Company doing in St. Helena?” The question came up following the ensemble’s recent successful production of “The Other Place” at the First Presbyterian Church in St. Helena.
According to Sharie Renault, artistic director of the company, “It’s a little bit like coming home after a long hiatus.“ For more than a decade Renault was the artistic director of the St. Helena Players, a local group of actors that built a solid reputation in the Napa Valley between 1984 and 1995. Many of the the group’s productions were performed in the church on Spring Street.
Now, according to Renault, the little Calistoga Theater Company is expanding to meet the challenges of the larger upper valley. That’s just part of the reason the group is performing in St. Helena.
When Renault first left St. Helena and moved to Calistoga in 2004, she became involved with the Calistoga Art Center (CAC) as a pottery instructor. But it wasn’t too long before she became fascinated again with building a community theater organization – this time in Calistoga.
Sponsored by the CAC, Renault held acting workshops aimed at attracting local residents who wanted to learn the craft. Calling themselves the “CAC Players,” the new group mounted its first production, called “Silvia” – a comedy about a husband/wife relationship torpedoed by a dog. So successful was the production that it began attracting other residents – many of whom had never considered acting in live theater as a means of expression.
“I had no prior experience before 2012,” said local attorney Kelly Berryman. “It was a workshop with Sharie that intrigued me to explore more deeply.” Berryman’s debut performance was in the production of “The Dining Room” in 2012.
“I was captivated by the interaction between the audience and actors,” Berryman said. “Every show is different. Every audience is different. There really is an exchange of energy and feedback that opens channels for communication, interaction and connection that still art can’t satisfy.”
For Kevin Horowitz, a St. Helena resident and a local contractor, becoming involved in the ensemble as a “tech” was also a bit like coming home. He had been a key member of the old St. Helena Players ensemble and he had loved theater. But, he said, “when Sharie first contacted me to help in Calistoga, I told her there was no way I can.”
Then Horowitz saw the 2012 production of “The Dining Room” and – as his free time permitted – he became increasingly involved. Today he is one of the behind-the-scenes technical muscles of the productions. He said the experience of seeing the repeated performances of plays is transformative.
“I’m by nature an outsider,” he said. “Even working within a production, I’m outside. I’m not an actor. But when I watch the response of the audiences, I find it really satisfying because they are seeing something that I helped to create.”
In May 2015 the CAC Players rebranded their ensemble as the Calistoga Theater Company, still sponsored by the CAC. In July, they applied for and received a nonprofit status separate from the art center. Then, as the scheduled use of the Cropp Building by the Calistoga Art Center became problematic, the ensemble began searching for a new venue where they could perform plays.
Renault said that when she approached Jonathan Eastman, the pastor at the Presbyterian Church, he was very welcoming. “It was for me coming full circle,” Renault said. “As the St. Helena Players we’d really had a wonderful relationship with the church and the community. The audiences are small, but very receptive. And our new independent status as a not-for-profit means we can more freely choose the pieces that we want to produce.”
Now, according to Renault, they are considering new names for the ensemble as they acknowledge that their broader audience includes the entire upper Napa Valley. Renault said, “We’re considering the best way to re-brand our group. And we want to continue to perform meaningful work – not just comedy – that will deal with important issues.” The recent production of the Sharr White play “The Other Place” – which deals with early onset dementia – was, according to Renault, one such play.
“We want to make a difference to the larger upper valley community,” Renault said. “We’re going to continue to perform comedies – pieces that have their own importance – but we also want to do more than make people laugh. We want to make them think.”
For Berryman and Horowitz, the experience of forming the theater entity has become an instrumental part of their community involvement, and both are now on the theater company’s board of directors.
“Bringing these stories to life has been a profound experience for me,” Horowitz said. “I’m reaching people – more people in my community – than I ever could before in my day-to-day work.”
“That’s part of the power of a community theater,” Renault said.
The ensemble’s next production will be the A.R. Gurney play “Black Tie,” playing from April 21 to May 8 at the First Presbyterian Church in St. Helena.