31 August 2019 Written by  By Jennifer Finetti

Offering Quality Live Theater for the People of East County

When Jack Gaughan announced his retirement, there was a palpable loss for our performing arts community. Brentwood Theater Company (BTC) had been a staple for many years, and steps needed to be taken to ensure his legacy could continue. With that in mind, Helen Dixon, Nancy Torres, Shara Main, and Kathryn Lopez decided to relaunch BTC as Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble, focusing on the goal of bringing high-quality, accessible and affordable local live theatre to the East County area. They recruited additional board members, adding Kami Davis and Liberty student Isaiah Mateas to Ghostlight’s leadership. I joined the Board as Marketing & Media Director, and my husband, Chris, took on the responsibility of developing the branding, graphic design, and photography.

If you are a “theatre person,” you’ll probably understand where the name “Ghostlight” originates. Those who sneak into a theatre late at night might find the only source of light is a single uncovered bulb on a tall stand at center stage — this is a ghostlight. Some say ghostlights ward off evil spirits by fooling them into thinking the building is occupied. It’s bad luck (and bad business) for a theater to be dark without a show, so leaving a ghostlight on is a way of making sure the house is always lit.

As an organization, we feel it incumbent upon us to expend every effort “keepin’ the light on” local live theatre right here in our community. We understand the important role that quality live entertainment plays in community development. So many of us drive to Walnut Creek, Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Jose to enjoy quality live theatre. But we don’t have to. We can enjoy it right here. What’s more, we can entice people in those cities to come out to experience our theatre, shops, eateries, pubs, and wine bars by making East County an entertainment destination.

Our first season was jam-packed with shows and fundraising events. As Executive Director, Nancy played a key role in organizing our initial start-up, sourcing fundraising opportunities, negotiating contracts with venues, and more. During her tenure, she led the production of several showcase performances, generating funds to support our main stage productions. Kami also contributed to the showcases while serving as Treasurer.

Artistic Director Helen Dixon worked closely with Nancy in getting the company off the ground while also casting and directing our inaugural production, Man of La Mancha in July 2018. It was my job to market the show and of course to ensure the name Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble became a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

Given the outstanding talent in our show, it turned out that my job was pretty simple. We were thrilled to land the amazing Richard Howarter for the dual role of Cervantes/Don Quixote. Mikayla Furey Thompson portrayed the tragic role of Aldonza/Dulcinea, and my husband, Chris, had the audience in stitches as Cervantes’ manservant, Sancho. Shara, our General Manager and Technical Director, created a desperate prison environment, engaging the audience from the moment they stepped into the theatre. Kathryn choreographed the stunt fighting sequences, which were so critical to the show. Vocal Director Susan Stuart and Music Director Ken Kumagai ensured the performers and pit band were show-ready. Via audience surveys inserted into each program, we gathered feedback, and it was clear that our first show did exactly what we hoped — it set the bar for what local live theatre could be, and should be, in our community. I leveraged the quotes from the audience surveys and was able to share the rave reviews via social media. We were thrilled to bring home two Shellie Awards for our efforts — my husband won “Best Supporting Actor in a Musical” and Shara Main won a Shellie for her outstanding contributions to the performing arts.

Also, in July 2018 we held our first Performing Arts Youth Academy (PAYA), a two-week summer program that culminated with performances of Seussical KIDS. Isaiah directed the show with the support of members of our Board, as well as teens who comprised the creative team. We had a full house for both shows, and the kids and their parents were thrilled with the program.

In October 2018, we produced our first comedy, Ken Ludwig’s Fox on the Fairway, also directed by Helen. Our success with Man of La Mancha brought both returning cast members as well as many new faces to our auditions, enabling us to select a fantastic cast of comedic performers. We filled more seats than we had anticipated, and again received positive feedback through our audience surveys.

We started the new year off with a bang in January 2019, launching two incredible performing opportunities simultaneously. A grant from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Antioch enabled us to start our Performing Arts Senior Academy (PASA), with Helen taking the reins and leading seniors through a multi-week performing arts curriculum.

We also tried something new and hopeful. We produced FESTIVAL 10 — A Treasury of 10-Minute Plays. I heavily promoted the festival to recruit both actors and directors while Helen focused on organizing the event, selecting plays, and meeting with prospective directors. Over 50 people auditioned, some of whom were seasoned performers while others had never stepped foot on the stage.

Helen selected 10 directors who each produced a play, and students in PASA performed six additional plays, bringing the grand total to 16. All plays were performed on March 31st at the Brentwood Community Center in a makeshift arena-style theatre we created. We sold about 300 tickets, resulting in us having to change the seating chart and add rows multiple times to accommodate everyone! It was such a success that our 2020 FESTIVAL 10 will be expanded to a three-day event.

We just closed our 2018-19 season in July. Our summer main stage production of HONK!, directed by my husband, Chris, featured an outstanding multi-generational cast led by Ethan Davis (Ugly), our daughter, Hayley Finetti (Ida), Emilio Lopez (The Cat) and Scottie Tsubota (Drake), among many others. Chris designed the perfectly executed set, which was built by Shara and our master carpenter, Hugh Patterson II, along with our scenic artist/production intern, Emilio Lopez. Helen designed the costumes, and Kathryn and Shelby Weis shared choreography duties. As with Man of La Mancha, Susan Stuart was the Vocal Director, and Ken Kumagai was the Music Director. Once again, we really hit the mark. Audience members raved about the quality of the production, lauding the vocal talent and acting ability of the performers, the creative sets, clever costumes, and amazing choreography.

Also, in July our PAYA students truly “let it go” in their fantastic production of Frozen Jr. The show was directed by Helen, who also designed the costumes. Isaiah was the student director. We restructured our program a bit this year, with several Ghostlight board members having greater involvement in the production, supported by a teen creative team.

Our 2019-20 season begins this month with The Dixie Swim Club. Five unforgettable Southern women set aside a long weekend every August to recharge their friendships that began while on their college swim team. Free from husbands, kids, and careers, they meet at the same beach cottage every year to catch up, laugh, and meddle in each other’s lives. This comedy has a Golden Girls meets Sex in the City energy — often hilarious, sometimes touching, always fun. We will be performing during the last two weekends of September at Antioch’s Nick Rodriguez Community Center.

This winter, we’re changing things up with our first melodrama, Misdeeds at Mistletoe Mine, recounting the tale of poor orphan Holly Hock, who inherited a gold mine with no gold and a hotel with no guests. Join us as we sigh for our heroine, cheer for our hero, and boo and hiss at the dastardly villain who threatens to ruin their happiness! If you’ve never seen a classic melodrama, you’re in for a treat. And if you’re already a fan, you’ll find everything you love about these productions right here in our community.

In March 2020, we will produce our 2nd-annual FESTIVAL 10, which will be a three-day event. This time we will be recruiting local playwrights as well as directors and performers, creating an event that truly puts East County on the performing arts map. We are thrilled to have been selected to receive a $14,500 Economic Development Grant from the City of Brentwood, enabling us to secure a portable stage, pipe, and drapes to create a more impactful theatre environment for the event.

In July 2020, we will continue our effort to bring “big things” to East County with our production of Big the Musical! The classic 1987 Tom Hanks motion picture fantasy will burst onto the stage in an unforgettable theatrical experience. Awkward middle-schooler Josh Baskin makes a wish to a carnival Zoltar machine to become “big.” To his shock, his wish is granted. This dazzling, energetic and heartfelt production hits all the right notes, and is so nostalgic for those of us who grew up with the film. We will also be producing another soon-to-be-announced PAYA production show.

As I reflect back on all that we have accomplished and all that lies ahead, I know that we have much to be proud of, but I am determined to dig deeper. We have had some recent changes in leadership. Nancy and Kami both resigned their board positions, choosing to instead serve on our fundraising committee, which we so appreciate. Kyle Conley and Dan Berns are new additions to our board, each bringing relevant experience and fresh ideas to the table. As a board, we are gripped by the fact that, as is typical of community theatre, only a third of our budget comes from ticket sales. This means that we are in a constant hunt for alternate revenue options. Our Main Stage Patron Program and showcases have been helpful, but we are also seeking corporate sponsorships. Local businesses can purchase ads in our show programs, and we apply for grants and solicit donations as well. We are also now selling season subscriptions. But even with these efforts, more funding is needed, primarily due to the high cost of renting the theaters at each of our local schools.

The major problem for local performing arts organizations is that we don’t have a home. There is no place where we can stage performances, conduct rehearsals, and store our props, sets, and costumes. We desperately need an indoor performing arts center that enables theater, choral, and instrumental groups to access rehearsal and performance space. With Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble, Brentwood Teen Theater, Broadway Repertory Theater, Brentwood Community Band, and Brentwood Community Chorus all calling Brentwood “home,” it is so unfortunate that there isn’t an affordable and accessible venue here.

Brentwood should have a theater. So many other less-populated cities and towns have their own performing arts center and/or discounted facility pricing is available through the school district, enabling local non-profit performing groups to affordably perform in the school theaters. It is time for our own local performing groups to be able to access affordable space. We will keep striving towards that goal, but in the meantime, we at Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble will push forward with our mission of serving our community, and anyone wishing to “drive over the hill” in our direction, with excellent live theater. 

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