Jaime Love guides Sonoma Arts Live to standing O’s
Story Sandi Hansen
Photos Steven Krause
Love, whose maiden name was the not-so-theatrical Weiser, is executive director of Sonoma Arts Live (SAL), the not-for-profit theater company that evolved two years ago from the Sonoma Theater Alliance (STA), an amalgamation of North Bay theater groups that included the Narrow Way Stage Company, M&G Productions, Silver Moon, ETC! Sonoma Stage Works and Martin Productions.
That somewhat unwieldy package of production companies was distilled into SAL in 2015 with Love at its head, with an ambitious menu of live theater headquartered in the Sonoma Community Center’s Andrews Hall, and with performances on the lovingly rehabilitated Rotary Stage.
Love describes herself as “mom, wife, actor, teacher” and executive director—in that order; clearly she has her hands full. And just as clearly, if you’ll pardon the phrase, she loves it.
Community drama is performed in theaters large and small all over the world, but SAL brings to the very local stage an unusually experienced, gifted and available ensemble of actors, singers and dancers, in concert with expert directors, musicians and crews. Nothing seems beyond SAL’s capabilities, whether it’s drama, musicals, comedy.
An incomplete list of STA and SAL productions in recent years includes Nunsense: The Mega Musical Version, Evita, Emma! A Pop Musical, Becky’s New Car, It’s a Wonderful Life, Same Time Next Year, The Fantasticks, Venus in Fur, the one-woman Ann Richards tour de force, Ann and, most recently, Gypsy.
It’s an ambitious agenda to be sure. And you can’t offer your audience shows of that caliber without the talent and direction to pull it off. Evita demands a seasoned voice, both powerful and sensitive. Gypsy demands characters both larger than life and real. Wonderful Life requires an ensemble cast capable of making fresh a script many people know by heart. Ann requires the right woman with gargantuan talent.
If you’ve seen any (or all) of those shows, you’ve probably been on your feet at the curtain and you know what a first-rate theater company this is—drawing talent from all over the Bay Area, including performers with long professional résumés. Many of the actors and directors have degrees in theater. Some are Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity members who have performed on major stages, including Broadway, and in movies and television. Others are talented locals just discovering their gifts.
All of which confirms the SAL goal, as stated on their website (and borrowing from Oscar Wilde): “Our ultimate goal is to offer our community the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
Adds Love, “We’ve worked hard to get the best directors in the Bay Area and beyond. It’s difficult to line up a director and a cast for long term—they all have day jobs.” So some of SAL’s actors and other company members live in the Sonoma Valley, but many others commute.
Love says the genesis of the original theater alliance was a series of freeway conversations. “The brainchild for STA came years ago from many long car rides to Ross Valley Players with my friend and playwright Todd Evans,” she says. “We were always bemoaning the lack of a dedicated theater space in Sonoma.”
So they gathered together other interested parties and created Sonoma Theater Alliance, now Sonoma Arts Live, which is an independent nonprofit organization, separate from the Sonoma Community Center, with its own board of directors and charter. But it does have a mutually supportive, symbiotic relationship with the center, says Love, explaining, “We rely on the SCC for our beautiful theater space, and they rely on us for a steady stream of rental income.”
While the Community Center’s programming supports wildly popular pottery and fine arts departments, there was no established theater production component until SAL came along.
The stately 100-year-old center has hosted thousands of shows in Andrews Hall during its lifetime, but some years ago the venue began to show serious signs of age, presenting growing problems for all concerned. So in 2013 the then-STA asked the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley for support, explaining that “the actors were trying to put on quality productions with sub-quality equipment,” says Love.
The Community Center, the City of Sonoma and Rotary joined forces to raise funds for a complete floor-to-ceiling renovation of Andrews Hall, and Sonoma Theater Alliance got things rolling by donating $35,000 worth of seats and risers.
Rotary gave a community challenge grant of $100,000, and everybody went to work putting on fundraisers. The support resulted in enough money to add acoustical tiles, upgrades to the audio and lighting systems, installation of new seats and gilding for the proscenium arch that regally frames the stage.
That kind of effort is what puts the community in community theater, and Love credits the dedication and hard work of numerous performing arts companies over the years for moving Andrews Hall to the forefront of local theater venues. “They gave this building back a theater,” she says.
Love’s connection to Andrews Hall goes back to 1995 when she was in an acting company called Theater at the Center. “I have longevity,” she laughs. But it took her more than a little while, and a number of twists and turns, to get there.
A Michigan native, she attended Michigan State University which has, in addition to a famous football team, a notable performing arts program. But the school wasn’t a comfortable fit. “At Michigan State I was a number—777765—and the teachers all cast themselves in the leads,” she says. So Love transferred to Eastern Michigan University, only to discover that, “The theater department felt like high school all over again.”
Then she ran across a fateful ad in the Detroit Free Press that changed her life. It announced an upcoming audition in Chicago for acceptance to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Her boyfriend dared her to go. Ignoring the inconvenient details—she didn’t even have enough money to get to Chicago, let alone to pay for the high cost of living in New York—Love borrowed travel money and took a chance. It paid off.
“Two student loans and a night job later, I was officially a dramatic arts student and a New Yorker.”
Then, armed with a diploma from AADA, Love decided to break into radio and voiceover work but didn’t know the entry points. That’s when she happened to hear a radio commercial about the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Love took another leap and ended up getting a full scholarship to the school, which ultimately led to jobs in radio promotions and marketing and, eventually, a gig as a talk-show host.
Her next break came when she and a friend were walking past an employment agency with a sign in the window reading, “Communications Jobs.”
“My friend said, ‘ You should go in.’ So I did.” She was hired by WMJX (Magic 106.7), then the number one station in Boston, and that’s where she met the station’s assistant music director, a guy named Rick Love, who two years later became her husband. They’ve been together now for 25 years.
When the couple moved west so Rick could take a radio job in San Francisco, they met someone from Sonoma and decided to come check it out. “Driving into town and seeing the Plaza,” she says, “we agreed to commit to this for one year. Well, then we got pregnant, and we saw Sonoma as a place to raise a child.” The one year turned into forever.
Now, instead of sitting behind a radio microphone, Love gets her creative fix as Sonoma Arts Live’s executive artistic director and by acting in some of the productions.
The executive part of her duties requires what she calls, “handling the big side of things.” That includes planning a season of shows, juggling revenue to cover the rent of Andrews Hall and the Rotary Stage, managing production costs along with fundraising and promotion.
She describes the artistic side of her job as, “the place where my heart lies. I get to pick the plays, survey audiences and focus on producing the shows.” She is the only fulltime employee, and husband Rick is now the part-time business manager (“So I get a lot more out of him!”) and Libby Oberlin, who runs the Theater School in Sonoma, collaborates on various projects and serves as education director.
Selecting a series of plays for an entire season is one of Love’s greatest challenges. “When I choose a production I lay out all these post-its. I’m looking for a balance of shows that support the houses, but also make people think and want to come back.”
In considering a show that will sell, she also has to take into account why SAL is doing it, what message it’s sending and how to cast it. “Our goal is to provide something that’s entertaining and also thought-provoking. We don’t want an audience to forget about it after leaving the theater.”
That process, she says, involves fulfilling a contract. “It’s an agreement you make. For two whole hours the actors agree to create something and the audience agrees to receive it. What’s important to us is what they take away.”
What they took away from Gypsy, the finale of the 2016–2017 season (themed “Women Who Dare”), was a classic, slam-bam, sold-out musical extravaganza, directed by Michael Ross, produced by Love, and featuring her in the role of Tessie Tura, one of the strippers who belt out a bump-and-grind explanation to the novice Gypsy Rose Lee that, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” a show-stopping song if there ever was one. Audiences loved it, showering the cast with standing ovations.
The song and the show fit neatly into Love’s lasting life philosophy.
“Life is about taking the dares and the risks,” she says. “I use this when picking shows and leading our Sonoma Arts Live team. Lead with gratitude and grace; and let communication, cooperation and creativity be your watch words.”