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By The Bakersfield Californian
Free theater? Who could possibly think such a wild idea had any chance of succeeding? Well, Brian Sivesind did and it worked. On Sunday evening The Empty Space will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a banquet at Stockdale Country Club.
A decade ago, Sivesind and a group of equally idealistic lovers of live theater launched The Empty Space in a retail space at the rear of a building in a less-than-glamorous strip mall on Oak Street.
10th annual Empty Space Awards Banquet
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Stockdale Country Club, 7001 Stockdale Highway
REFLECTIONS ON THE EMPTY SPACE
We asked a few of the folks who have held the reins during Sivesind's absence, including Jeff Lepine, who now lives and works in New York City, to recount their most memorable moments of The Empty Space. Their responses, lightly edited, follow:
I can't believe it's been 10 years. Ten years and it's still running. Bravo to Bakersfield for knowing when it has a good thing going (it does know, right?).
I can truly say that my time with The Empty Space shaped who I am and how I work, even to this day.
In the early days it was a group of friends getting together to make the best art we possibly could. Everyone was so passionate and committed. Everyone pitched in, everyone got dirty. We didn't gauge our success on what the paper wrote (or didn't) or how many people were in the seats; It was about the community, building it to the point where someone had to notice that we were there and doing some great work. For us, it was everything. Where you wanted to be, where you wanted to be seen. It was our "Cheers," our clubhouse.
Most of us had never been a part of the "professional" process; we did what worked for us, we put shows up the only way we knew how. We did a show a month, sometimes two shows. I sure as hell didn't know how crazy that is or was. It's just what we did. It's where I learned to love the process of building a show. If you had a glimmer of an idea, everyone ran with it and made it something bigger and better than you could have ever imagined.
I consider myself so very fortunate to have been a part of The Empty Space. It pushed me artistically, professionally -- and ultimately out of Bakersfield. That may sound odd but without The Empty Space, I wouldn't have auditioned for graduate schools, worked with the Actors Theater of Louisville, or moved to NYC. Now I find myself working in the arts and able to support my family using the skills that TES gave me.
On the closing Sunday matinee of "The Diary of Anne Frank," 10 minutes before show time, the power went out. The theater was packed with patrons, and luckily, in attendance was an actor's father, who worked for PG&E. We got the inside scoop that it was a major power outage and it would be hours before it was back on. We asked the audience to come back the next night, and every single one of them did just that. It is probably the only Monday performance we've ever had, plus it was sold out.
It's been interesting staging the plays of Shakespeare, especially those with sword fighting. We've had tips of swords break off and fly into the audience. Fortunately, it landed at their feet. In our production of "Macbeth," Ryan Watts, playing Macduff was accidentally cut by a weapon, and a little of his blood hit the clothing of an audience member, who displayed it with pride after the show.
My favorite memories tend to be of productions that somehow captured the hearts of the Bakersfield community and became overwhelming successes. "The Diary Of Anne Frank," "Avenue Q," "The Miracle Worker," "Hamlet," "Cabaret," "Geeks Vs. Zombies," "The Bullied," "Bare: A Pop Opera" and "Hair."
Guinevere PH Dethlefson
When we were first starting The Empty Space, a group of us were building the theater, acting in the first shows and directing the first shows. We spent so much time at the theater -- I remember falling asleep in a rehearsal once. It was a giddy, delirious time.
All the V-Days we've done over the years and hearing women's stories after they have seen "The Vagina Monologues" are especially powerful memories.
My husband and I started dating right as The Empty Space was opening, so we are celebrating 10 years together as well. I am so proud to still be involved all these years later.
No tickets to bother with. All you had to do was walk in and take a seat. Of course, donations were welcome -- still are for that matter.
Looking back, Sivesind says he had no specific expectations when The Empty Space first opened, only that he wanted to create a venue where people could create theater and others could see shows without emptying their wallet.
"As far as 'free' theater, I have to admit that part of the concept of free theater was an advertising campaign," he said. "Like our name, the idea comes from Peter Brook's book 'The Empty Space.'"
As for statistics, he estimates the theater has mounted more than 100 shows since it opened, with nearly 1,000 actors, technicians and artists lending a hand along the way.
A few years after the theater was up and running, Sivesind left town to pursue his master of fine arts degree at UC Irvine. He left things in the capable hands of others. Upon returning, he spent a few years at Spotlight Theatre. Then, in August 2011, he came back to The Empty Space as executive director.
On the whole, the venture has been successful, although Sivesind said there were times in the mid-2000s after the organization gained its nonprofit status, that "money was incredibly hard to come by."
"We discussed many times closing it down, and I offered to come back and be the one to make the decision. Somehow, under the stewardship of Guinevere and James Dethlefson and the artistic leadership of Bob Kempf, they were able to push through. Jeremiah Heitman and Jason Monroe also served as executive directors, keeping the place plugging along. Kristina Saldana has been wonderful at holding the purse strings and making sure we could pay the bills over the last few years."
Since Sivesind returned as executive director, there have been improvements to the theater interior and there are plans for even more improvements in the next few years.
"Jesus Fidel and Michelle Guerrero have done a fantastic job with the lobby," he said, "and will continue that effort from now until Jan. 24 when 'Spring Awakening' opens."
All of this takes money, of course, and Sivesind seems to have a firm grip on the budget and a clear idea of what all the renovations will cost.
"While we are in strong financial shape, we still have annual expenses of around $75,000 -- and none of that goes to the people, who all volunteer their time. We are trying to put about $5,000 into a remodel of the theater space to make it more inviting for patrons."
He hopes to raise that amount within the year. It will be used to upgrade the lighting and sound systems.
"Of course," he added, "one of the best things we've done is improve our air conditioning, thanks to the generous support of Mayor Harvey Hall."
Many of the changes are due to suggestions from theatergoers. Each patron receives a comment card before every show, and the director says he pays close attention to what they say.
"We want input so we can get better," he said. "Not everyone will agree, but we do want to know what our patrons think of us. Most of the input is positive, overwhelmingly so, but the few negative comments we get really challenge us to improve all aspects of the business. It forces us to hold ourselves accountable, and I love that."
As for the next 10 years, Sivesind anticipates that the theater will continue to do a mix of Shakespeare, musicals, modern and classical plays.
The Empty Space also will continue to have "pitch days," where members of the theater community and patrons can pitch ideas for shows they want to produce or see produced. He also has plans that will benefit today's students and the possibility of a change in venue.
"I see us reaching out more to the schools so we can inspire a new generation of theater artists," he said. "If the next four years go extremely well, I see us possibly moving to a newer venue, perhaps in the downtown area, that is more accessible for the community. It's definitely on our radar, but we've got four more years on our lease and we want to focus on that for now. In a couple of years, we will start discussing a move."
Sivesind also sees the importance of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm going, inside as well as outside of the theater.
"There was a buzz those first couple years, and as we lost our newness, it became harder to get people excited about the theater," he said.
"I'd venture to say that nine out of 10 people in Bakersfield still have no idea we even exist. Luckily, those one in 10s are keeping us alive."