In 1906, when Jack London set up his ranch in the Valley of the Moon near Glen Ellen, he had huge plans for the land. But he probably never imagined that one day the ranch would include a 900-seat, open-air theater featuring Broadway performers singing and dancing under the stars.
That idea is now springing to life, thanks to the Transcendence Theatre Company, a troupe of Broadway-trained singers, dancers and actors inspired, in part, by efforts to save Jack London State Park from closure.
"Jack London had a dream," says artistic director Amy Miller, acknowledging a large sign with that same observation, posted near the ruins of the old winery not far from the parking lot. With executive director Stephan Stubbins, Miller is at the park this morning, finalizing plans for the summer's first series of shows. "He had a dream, and so do we. It's amazing that after years of dreaming, it's finally starting to happen."
Beginning this weekend, Transcendence launches "Broadway Under the Stars," a series of splashy musical revues that take place inside the ruins, featuring a rotating cast of performers with Broadway and Hollywood experience. A portion of ticket sales go directly to Jack London State Park, providing monies necessary to keep programs operating at the sprawling institution, and between now and September, the company will stage 14 performances, beginning with a show appropriately titled To Dream the Impossible Dream.
Just over a year ago, it seemed likely that the park would be shut down by the state of California as part of its cost-cutting measures to balance the budget. Now, with the help of numerous community sponsors, donors, nonprofit groups and volunteers—boosted by last month's decision in Sacramento to keep the parks open for now—Transcendence hopes to make Jack London State Park its home, with a full theatrical season featuring Broadway musicals and other types of entertainment.
As Stubbins leads the way through the archway of the ruins and onto the vast rectangular lawn surrounded by an old stone wall, he points beyond the west wall to the vineyards and up at the bright blue sky. It's that sky, with its legendary views of the moon, that London immortalized in his 1914 novel The Valley of the Moon.
"On some nights," Stubbins says, "the moon will be the star of the show."
Originally based in Los Angeles, the members of Transcendence had a vision four years ago of establishing a spot where they could present outdoor theater in a gorgeous natural environment. During a months-long cross-country tour, driving from one end of the States to the other, the company discovered a number of promising possibilities for its future home base.
"We targeted the Napa-Sonoma area as a strong possibility," Miller says, "because of its beauty, of course, and because of all the destination travel, which was an important part of our vision. Companies like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival thrive because they're planted in a community, but draw a lot of their audience from destination travel."
After setting their sights on Napa and Sonoma, the troupe—while still headquartered in L.A.—began looking for an outdoor spot to fit their needs.
"We didn't know anybody at first, so it was a real adventure," says Stubbins. "We knew we wanted to be here, but we had no idea how we were going to make it happen."
At the same time, California announced its intentions to close several state parks, including a number of them in Northern California. Inspired by an online podcast featuring a speech by Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, calling for innovative ideas to keep the parks open, Miller, Stubbins and company decided that establishing a performance space at a threatened state park could be beneficial for everyone involved. That was Memorial Day weekend of 2011.
In true "let's put on a show" tradition, several members of the company jumped in a car, drove to Sonoma County and started visiting the area's state parks, beginning with Annadel.
"It was crazy," laughs Stubbins. "We got out and found a ranger and said, 'We'd like to talk to you about the park closures, because we'd like to start a theater company in one of your parks.' And the rangers at Annadel told us we should go check out Jack London State Park. So we came out here and started walking around, and when we stepped into the ruins of the old winery, we all went, 'Wait a minute. This is it. I think we found our land.'"
Immediately, they began negotiations with the state, and were told that if they'd proposed the idea a week prior, they'd have been told no. But with the parks on the verge of closing, the concept of holding events that would channel money back to the parks had a whole new appeal.
To gauge if there was actually an audience for the kind of performance the troupe envisioned, Transcendence staged a one-night-only event at the park last October. The show drew 900 people, selling out every seat.
"We didn't know if we'd get a hundred people or what," Miller says. "We know a lot of the draw was the part about money being raised to save the park. People are connecting with that."
With good word-of-mouth and the continued support of the community, Stubbins and Miller believe that Transcendence will have a longtime home here in the North Bay.
"We really want to make our presence and our commitment to the community known," says Stubbins. "We are here, and we want to help build something wonderful."