Leezia Dahlia

In San Antonio, theater is thriving. With more than a dozen venues dedicated to the performing arts, the city is steadily becoming known as one of Texas’s most colorful havens for the premier theatrical experience.

Responsibility for boosting the local arts reputation belongs in part to The San Pedro Playhouse, the oldest municipally built theater in the United States.

Situated in picturesque San Pedro Springs Park, The Playhouse opened its doors just 90 days after the 1929 crash of the stock market with a performance of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Swan.” It continues to be an important piece of the performing arts puzzle in San Antonio more than 90 years later, with a slew of educational programs that offer hands-on internships and on-site training classes in auditioning, stage combat, choreography and improv, among others.

The San Pedro Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
The San Pedro Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

The theater has grown to serve more than 50,000 people through various educational outreach programs, performances, events and classes.

Asia Ciaravino, Playhouse president & CEO
Asia Ciaravino, Playhouse president & CEO

In her first year as president and CEO, Asia Ciaravino has breathed new life into the venue. In addition to updating the theater’s social media and branding efforts, Ciaravino retooled the education programming into the likes of a conservatory, where students can learn the practicalities of equity, contracts and cattle-call auditions as professional actors in the working world.

The Playhouse also continues to donate production tickets to thousands of students each year, especially at schools where theater programs are being eliminated due to budget constraints.

“Our thrust is in building communities and education. I feel like we’re at the point of exploding because there’s so much happening and so many good things going on in the community,” Ciaravino said. “(I’m glad) we’re able to do so much outreach. On a community level we really impact children and adults, and that’s what theater, in my mind, is supposed to do.”

Asia and staff at a Playhouse fundraiser last year. (From Left) Ryan DeRoos, Asia Ciaravino, Pat Smith, and Virginia Provencher.
Playhouse staff at a fundraising event last year. (From Left) Pat Smith, Asia Ciaravino, Ryan DeRoos, and Virginia Provencher.

Ciaravino said there’s a strong sense of solidarity and activism within the local theater community that enables the different venues to build on each other’s successes.

“We loan stuff to each other (all the time), and if somebody’s out of copy paper, we make sure they’re okay so they can print their playbills,” she says. “We work together because theater only gets stronger through collaboration and promoting each other.”

This camaraderie has been a saving grace for The Playhouse, whose team was left scrambling for venue space earlier this summer after lightning struck the theater building, knocking out the electricity as a performance was set to begin.  The cast and production crew set up an impromptu venue outdoors for a sold-out crowd in just 45 minutes.

A Playhouse staff member stands in awe of the flood damage from heavy rains in May 2013. Courtesy Photo.
A Playhouse staff member stands in awe of the flood damage from heavy rains in May 2013. Courtesy Photo.

The more debilitating storm came two weeks later, when heavy rains seeped through the roof, leading to plaster ceilings falling in. The damage left the performance space unusable for “Ragtime, one of nine shows produced by the The Playhouse each year.

Ciaravino said she turned to District One City Councilman Diego Bernal, the Parks and Recreation Department and the City Manager’s Office for help with finding a venue for Ragtime in the downtown area. One week before opening night on July 26, the team secured performance space in the Empire Theatre thanks to financial sponsorships from Arts Center Enterprises, the City of San Antonio and the Las Casas Foundation.

“What seemed like a setback is now just a pause, and an opportunity,” to build partnerships within the local theater community, said Councilman Bernal.

Las Casas Foundation CEO Kaye Lenox, whose organization manages the Majestic and Empire Theatres, said the decision to help fund the production of Ragtime was a “no-brainer.”

“I’m a big believer in partnerships,” she said. “The important thing about this is that we are breaking new ground. Everybody knows that there are some fine things going on in San Antonio, and by putting partnerships in place, we just make all of those resources even more available” to the community.

In the six weeks leading up to opening night, the cast rehearsed for four hours a day, five days a week, said SA2020’s Molly Cox, whose direction of Ragtime marks her directorial debut with The Playhouse. Most rehearsals were held in the narrow, cramped lobby of The Playhouse. Only six were held on stage at the Empire Theatre before the team’s first live performance in front of an audience.

The Molly Cox
Molly Cox during her TEDxSanAntonio presentation in 2012. Courtesy photo.

“This is totally a labor of love,” said Cox,  Chief of Engagement for SA2020.

Changing venues was a challenging experience, but performing at the venerated theater has been rewarding, said Cody Garcia, a San Antonio native who plays an immigrant in Ragtime.

“It was a big change, but you’ve got to get used to that because that’s the (nature of the) business you’re in,” added Garcia, a musical theater student at The Boston Conservatory. “Anything can happen, and you just have to know that.”

Based on the professional-level acting and the elaborate orchestra soundtrack in Ragtime, it’s clear the rainstorm didn’t put too much of a damper on the production. The performance has garnered rave reviews within the local theater community and local performing arts critics.

“It’s a beautiful production,” said Kaye Lenox. The play “has such a talented cast and it was so much fun to see it in the Empire.”

From the Playhouse production of the musical "Ragtime." Photo by Dwayne Green.
Playhouse actors in the musical production, “Ragtime.” Photo by Dwayne Green.

Ragtime runs at the Empire Theatre through Aug. 18, and renovations to The Playhouse are expected to be complete by early September.

Since the storms, Ciaravino has been working on a plan to replace the plaster on the ceiling with fabric. She also wants to install an acoustical ceiling that will enhance sound during performances, which will require approval by the City of San Antonio’s Historic and Design Review Commission.

Ciaravino said she is looking forward to unveiling the changes at The Playhouse’s fundraising gala on September 20, scheduled to take place in the renovated space.

A scene from Playhouse's production of "Ragtime." Photo by Dwayne Green.
A scene from Playhouse’s production of “Ragtime.” Photo by Dwayne Green.

In addition to strengthening the physical infrastructure of The Playhouse, Ciaravino’s long-term goal is to grow the theater into a regional program as a way to retain creative talent in the San Antonio area. She wants to add more educational courses and training opportunities, and ultimately pay living wages to actors, designers, directors and the production crew.

San Antonio needs to “be a place where living and working actors stay, as opposed to us growing all of these actors who leave the city because they can’t make a living here,” she said. Part of retaining local talent requires having “these places where performing arts of all different levels can be performed.”

Adapted from E. L. Doctorow‘s historic novel, the musical “Ragtime” weaves together the stories of three ethnically and financially diverse families in America at the turn of the 20th century. The two-act play explores complex social issues like immigration, race relations and love in New York. The family friendly production features historical characters such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington and J.P. Morgan.

Ragtime runs through Aug. 18 at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre in downtown San Antonio. Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are available for purchase at theplayhousesa.org or at the Box Office at (210) 733-7258.

Leezia Dhalla is a freelance writer and corporate communications specialist at Rackspace. A longtime San Antonio resident, Leezia is an aspiring investigative journalist with plans to attend law school. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and political science. In her spare time, Leezia enjoys running outdoors and watching Green Bay Packers football, as well as baking (and eating!) pastries.

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