Special Reports

Good Company Players' hallmark for 40 years: The show always goes on

For six weeks, Bee reporter Donald Munro has explored the story behind Good Company Players and its leader Dan Pessano on the eve of GCP's 40th anniversary. Munro's work will appear soon in a 20,000-word enhanced e-book, "The Company We Keep." This is the start of a 3-part, condensed version timed to start on GCP's 40th anniversary.

Part 1: Another opening, another show -- as GCP celebrates its 40th anniversary of theater in the Valley, the conveyer belt of new productions never stops.

Part 2: GCP is the Pessano family business -- and the recent economic slump has been tough. Without it, the company, the Tower District and the Fresno theater scene wouldn't be the same. Coming Wednesday.

Part 3: How do you measure success in a life? He might not be a household name in New York, but in many ways, Dan Pessano is a theater superstar. Coming Thursday.

About the e-book

"The Company We Keep" is a 20,000-word enhanced e-book with nine chapters tracing GCP's 40 years through the central character of Dan Pessano. From an extended history of the company's early days to the successes of some of its brightest stars, the book looks at the challenges of keeping a theater company afloat and asks: What's next for the GCP? Available soon for $2.99 at Kindle, iBook, Nook and other stores.

 VIDEO: View a collection of videos of Good Company Players and the people who have made it happen over the years.  

Part 1

No one mourns the last show of the run. At Good Company Players, they don't have time.

It's a hot spring afternoon in Fresno's Tower District, and disassembled backdrops from the village of Anatevka sit in a line against the south side of Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater. They look like giant photo frames propped up on a mantel. Inside, the cast of "Paint Your Wagon" -- a lovable, hoary chestnut of a musical set in the California Gold Rush -- whoops and hollers while performing the show's finale and curtain call. The applause is heavy and sustained. At Sunday matinees, the audience usually skews toward the older range of the senior demographic. When one sly person cracks a joke backstage before the last performance about some of the audience members having actually lived in the Gold Rush, it gets a big laugh from the cast. The 1950s-era material definitely clicks with this crowd.

There's no time to savor the moment of another show entering the GCP record books, however. Another show -- another opening night -- is in just four days. Ten minutes after curtain, "Paint Your Wagon" is already a memory. The name of the game is "Fiddler on the Roof."

As Good Company Players celebrates its 40th anniversary today with a celebratory performance at the Tower Theatre, the biggest miracle is this: Opening night has been repeated 436 times.

When an enormously talented troupe of players on June 26, 1973, opened "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Fresno, no one dreamed the company would last so long. But it endured. Bopping around to various locations in its first five years and then finally settling in to the Tower District, it defied the odds and became an institution.

Running a year-round community theater is like operating a conveyer belt that never stops. Ever since GCP moved to Roger Rocka's in 1978 after five years of a vagabond summer-only existence, the strike-and-build cycle has repeated six times a year. When the 150-seat 2nd Space Theatre opened in 1982 just around the corner, that added six more shows to each season, for a total of 12 productions. Except for the occasional holiday, the theater company doesn't go dark. On days without a performance, actors tromp to rehearsals for the next show in the lineup. If those actors are also in the current shows, that means seven days a week of commitment -- all on top of school or full-time jobs.

The GCP conveyer belt is a remarkable cycle that is, in its own limited scope, as impressive as the New York Metropolitan Opera's schedule. That company, with a staff hundreds of times bigger, works around the clock, sometimes staging a different full-scale opera every night. Then again, even the Met has an off-season with time to regroup.

Christopher Gorham, one of GCP's illustrious alums who currently stars in the USA Network series "Covert Affairs," looks back in wonder as the company celebrates its 40th anniversary.

"It really is extraordinary what they've done," says Gorham, who still relishes the memory of his first professional "paycheck" -- a whopping $3 a show expense reimbursement for appearing in the company's vaunted Junior Company, a training ground for an impressive number of Broadway veterans. "The longevity they've had is almost as extraordinary as the quality of the shows they put on, season after season, year after year."

Standing tall like a statue of one of the Founding Fathers -- albeit one wearing a marble baseball cap, rumpled long-sleeved gray shirt and staggering keychain that would make a head janitor proud -- is Dan Pessano, the company's managing director and the person most responsible for that longevity and consistency. He is the central figure of the company.

On this strike day, he surveys the controlled chaos unfolding onstage and off. Every show needs a director, even a performance as mundane as this, and while he's lugged plenty of scenery flats in his day, the 71-year-old Pessano is content this time to act as supervisor. With the practiced eye of someone who knows every crevice of this theater, he eyes the dozens of people scurrying around him. He's been through strike so many times he can anticipate potential disasters three beats before they happen.

"Careful there, Ryan," he shouts. "Too tall!"

Ryan Torres, one of the lead actors in "Paint Your Wagon," barrels onto stage carrying a flat, not realizing he's about to pick off one of the expensive lights hanging overhead. He hears Pessano's warning with a second -- and just a few inches -- to spare. The light is saved. That could have cost four or five season-ticket subscriptions.

For his 40-year tenure at the head of the company, Pessano anticipates disasters and averts them. Except for a brief six-month stint as a nonprofit in 1980, GCP has always been a for-profit institution that morphed into a family business. A family business, incidentally, that hasn't made the family rich. To manage the relentless march of productions, and to maintain their quality, is a tough tangle of a job. Though the hat he wears when he isn't in a show is usually that ball cap, Pessano plops on many different head coverings: producer, actor, director, teacher, administrator, publicist, lighting designer, cracker of bad jokes.

And perhaps the biggest hat of all: worrier.

But think of the payoff. Pessano has spent his life in the theater. He never aimed for Broadway, but plenty of the young performers he helps to train have made it big in New York and regional theater. He is an icon in Fresno, with a theater named for him at Clovis North High School in a tribute to all the years he spent teaching theater at the high school and college level. The Tower District wouldn't be the same without him. Neither would Fresno's cultural scene.

Whenever you do something enough times, you develop rituals. Strike is that way for Pessano.

He walks over to the office to sign the "paychecks" -- officially known as expense reimbursements -- to hand out to "Paint Your Wagon" cast members. There is a slight but noticeable acknowledgment in the theater when he walks back in. By this time, members of GCP's scene shop -- led by David Pierce, the company's longtime set designer -- are already bolting the flats for "Fiddler" into place. Without any announcement, the cast members of "Paint Your Wagon" form themselves into a long single line for another strike tradition: picking up the paychecks.

Performers receive $6 a performance as an expense reimbursement. The amount hasn't gone up in years. The full-time staff at GCP earn a salary, and outside directors and designers receive stipends. But the performers do it, basically, for the love of it. ("The $6 covers the Kleenex to buy to blow your nose during the show," says Fred Bologna, a member of the company for all 40 years, with a laugh.)

But this afternoon's line is more than just a way to hand out money. Pessano greets each cast member and exchanges a few words.

The relentless cycle of productions might go on, but every show is someone's last. People retire. Or might not get cast again. Kids go off to school, or seek the big time in New York.

One farewell sticks in Pessano's mind: the still talked-about 1990 production of "Dreamgirls," starring Sharon Leal, Tami Cowger, Janet Glaude and Yvonna Kopacz. They were a special group together, a force of talent and chemistry. Everyone knew they were going separate ways after the production -- which mirrored the end of "Dreamgirls" itself, when the Dreams come together for one last concert together before breaking up forever.

"You talk about life and art. Man, there was not a dry eye anywhere," Pessano says.

Leal went on to star in the 2006 movie version of "Dreamgirls," Kopacz became a noted professional model and actor, and Cowger and Glaude stayed in Fresno as beloved veterans in the company.

The line moves slowly forward. Lots of smiles and hugs. Pessano thanks each person. Some, perhaps, are relieved the run is over. For Pessano, perhaps, there is relief that he doesn't have to work with some of them again. Like any group human endeavor, not all relationships are warm and fuzzy. But this is a time for sentimentality. A cast is a temporary family. Everyone knows this particular family will never come together quite the same way again.

Yet even in the midst of goodbyes, Pessano's mind is racing ahead to the next show. He will star as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." The next night, "Fiddler" will move into the theater for the first technical rehearsal, always a slow and sometimes grueling experience. There is a lot of work ahead.

"People ask me how it's going, and my cliche is: 'Ask me in 10 minutes.' It really is a baseball mentality: You won today, but you've got to play again tomorrow. How's it going? We've got another show."

If you go

Good Company Players 40th Anniversary Concert, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. (559) 266-9494, gcplayers.com/. $55.