Special Reports

Good Company Players keeps it all in the family

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 Part 2 of a 3-part, condensed version timed to start on GCP's 40th anniversary, which is Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

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? Now available for $2.99. Find it at Apple's iBook store for iPhone and iPad, at the Kindle store and at Vook.com to view on a PC or to download. It will appear in Nook bookstores soon.

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

Part 2

For its first five years, Good Company Players led something of a gypsy existence, playing at three different venues: the Hilton Hotel, the Fresno Memorial Auditorium and the ballroom of the Del Webb Townhouse.

So it was fitting the company bid adieu to the wandering life with a production of "Gypsy" in 1978. That's when it shifted from a summer-only schedule to year-round productions at its new home: Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater. As the company celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, it still performs there five to six times per week.

Moving to the Tower District was a life-changing event for leader Dan Pessano. Four years later he added another. In the fall of 1982, GCP opened its 2nd Space Theatre on Olive Avenue. The addition of the 2nd Space season meant six more productions a year to cast, direct and design.

By 1987, Chris Moad -- the last of the four original shareholders in GCP -- decided to leave the company. Pessano bought out his share. GCP had truly become a family business.

Work and family always intertwine for Pessano.

In 1980, Dan married Laurie, who had been a company member since her first show, "Minnie's Boys," in 1975. Emily was born in 1986.

For Laurie, 56, her marriage to Dan meant moving past a different relationship they had years in the past. "I was his high school student, so that whole relationship had to shift," she says. "Which was quite weird. In high school, I would have had a heart attack and maybe moved to another country if someone had told me I'd wind up marrying him."

Laurie often works side-by-side with Dan overseeing her own projects. But there have been many times when one of them directs the other in a show. That is the case with "Fiddler on the Roof," which lands smack in the middle of the company's 40th anniversary festivities. Laurie directed the show, an interesting experience considering Dan's longevity in the role. "I think it may be harder for me," she says of directing one's spouse. "I think I take it more personally when I'm the actor and he's the director, quite frankly."

Emily's first appearance in a GCP production came at the tender age of 7 months, when she was carried onstage in "The King and I." (She had no say in the matter, she notes dryly.) Some of her earliest memories were of the GCP rehearsal space. The first show she auditioned for was "Fiddler on the Roof," at age 7, because she wanted to be in it with her dad. When she was 10, she played Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird." She started thinking then that she wanted to be an actor.

Growing up in a theater household has had a profound influence on Emily. Commitment and politeness are paramount. Her parents have an almost fanatical work ethic, but she has inherited what seems an even feistier dedication to the principle. She has performed with a high fever, a broken shoulder, more raging sore throats than she can count. In a production of "Beauty and the Beast," she had such a serious case of whooping cough she damaged the cartilage to her ribs, and when her dance partner, Greg Grannis, lifted her up in their pas de deux, she heard the rib pop. She kept smiling and finished the scene. She has never missed a performance.

Besides her dedication to the theater, Emily has picked up another thing from her parents: a quiet reserve when she isn't on stage. The word "shy" gets bandied about a lot in connection with the Pessanos among people who know them well. (Emily qualifies the term when it comes to her father: "I don't know if it's shy so much as that he's humble and keeps to himself. He's so good with people, but he's not really a schmoozer," she says.) While the public might imagine them a noisy, dramatic family, the opposite is the case. They are the kind of family for which small moments and significant glances mean more than big, effusive displays of emotion.

"You look at families on the street that yell at each other and make a lot of noise, and I think, that is not us," Emily says. "We definitely save that for the stage."

The business

Pessano never forgets he runs a business. The quickest way to his heart: Tell him you're a GCP season-ticket holder. His smile gets wider, his eyes get brighter, his pulse must surely quicken. When you run a theater company for 40 years on ticket sales alone, you come to have deep respect for the people who help pay the bills.

"The cliche is, if there's no audience, we call it a rehearsal," he says. "And we can't live on rehearsals," he says.

Especially in its latter decades, as theater got more expensive to produce, GCP has never been able to offer much in the way of truly cutting-edge stage offerings for a simple reason: It's harder to sell. The necessity of filling the 240-seat Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater five or six times a week makes a recent avant-garde Off-Broadway show or sobering musical a dicey proposition. The 2nd Space Theatre, with its 150 seats, was opened with the intention of expanding GCP's options in terms of forward-thinking fare, but it, too, has to satisfy first and foremost its season-ticket base. With about 4,800 season-ticket holders between the two theaters, the subscribers are the first thought when planning a season.

And the shows that consistently sell are the big, well-known classics: "The Sound of Music," "The King and I," "Fiddler on the Roof."

Pessano the businessman is crisp and pragmatic about such a program. Pessano the theater lover is a little gloomy. In an interview weeks later, he shows a melancholy side when talking about the 2014 season. "You know, we wanted to do 'Red' on our season. We wanted to do 'Clybourne Park.' And we feel a little boxed in. We want to be who we are, because we feel a responsibility to the audience. Yet, if there were new choices out there that we can do, you'd see our pulse quicken."

In recent years, smaller theater companies and venues have flourished in Fresno. The New Ensemble, the Organic Theater Factory, Artists' Repertory Theatre and StageWorks Fresno, among others, have offered local premieres of new plays and musicals. Such shows as "The Last Five Years," "Ordinary Days," "Copenhagen" and "Next to Normal" skipped Good Company -- but those shows likely would have been a tough sell at GCP.

"What Dan has done in this day and age is pretty monumental," says Joel Abels, who started with GCP at age 13. Abels went on to found two local theater companies: Children's Musical Theaterworks, in 1998; and StageWorks Fresno, in 2010. "There have been bumps and there will continue to be bumps, but the community has really supported this organization, as they should."

Heather Parish, who in 2010 launched The New Ensemble, a small company operating in The Broken Leg Stage storefront theater in the Tower, says that without GCP, the local theater scene would never have grown as diverse. "No matter how you slice it, we're all in relation to them. They're the norm. They're what everybody judges us by, even if we're doing something completely different than what they do."

Another impact of GCP: In 35 years in the Tower District, the company helped turn its new home from a regular neighborhood into a vibrant cultural area. The neighborhood didn't have the stigma of "being in the 'hood," as Ed Burke, Pessano's college friend, puts it, but it also wasn't a destination.

"The Tower was a sleepy little part of the town where all the old folks lived," Burke says. "The only thing down there was the Tower Theatre, which wasn't open everyday. GCP gave the Tower some legitimacy. It made it into the entertainment district."

Pessano often gets serious when he promotes GCP to the outside world. He wants people to know how hard his staff -- and especially his volunteer actors -- work.

"In 40 years, we've been pretty damn lucky to have talented people who are committed -- who believe the show must go on, which is not something that happens much anymore. With few exceptions, the excuses can't matter. 'I can't go on, I'm feeling under the weather. I can't go on, I got bad news from Florida.' You tell that to people who lost a parent on the day of the show and still performed. There's a huge amount going on in stage in terms of teamwork and relationships. It's a team game."

There's no pulpit, and his laid-back California drawl is relaxed. But the feeling in his voice conveys the intensity of a minister sweating through his black robes as he preaches himself toward the gates of heaven.

Still, Pessano is (almost) always able to laugh at himself and his dogmatism.

"We're a small clump of people. Thank God we still have a sense of humor, and stuff is still funny to us. I think that's the greatest sign of love: If you have a similar perception, if you share a sense of humor. You know where the screw-ups are, and you either take them personally, or you share."