Santa Rosa Junior College launches theater season online

The college has re-imagined a classic mystery as an onstage radio play, and a vintage film as a musical.|

The Santa Rosa Junior College theater department has paid its dues.

After waiting more than two years for a $30 million renovation of the school’s venerable Burbank Auditorium to be completed, theater teachers and students barely had time to use the sleek new facility before the coronavirus pandemic forced the campus to close.

“We’re feeling it,” said Leslie McCauley, chairwoman and artistic director of the junior college's theater and fashion department. “It’s been crazy.”

But even after construction delays and show cancellations, the college’s drama corps remains energetic and optimistic, planning two ambitious online productions for October and November to kick off the fall season.

Fiist, the college will present Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” live on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16-17 and Oct. 23-24.

Next comes a musical version the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” combining filmed songs and dances by the local cast with their live performances of the script on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27-28 and Dec. 4-5.

Tickets for online performances will be sold as online donations, starting at $5. You can get tickets by calling the box office between noon and 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday at 707-527-4307 or ordering online at The performances will be streamed live via YouTube. Ticket holders will receive an access code on the day of the performance.

Both of the shows feature an unconventional approach to the time-honored material.

“For ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ the director, Laura Downing-Lee, has come up with the idea of staging it as if it were a 1930s radio production in a studio,” McCauley explained. “Laura’s concept is to have the author, Agatha Christie, as a character in the show, reading her script directions for the cast.”

The Santa Rosa Junior College production of the mystery stars Allison Paine as Agatha Christie and Riley Craig as her famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

This novel approach to the material, adapted for the stage by playwright Ken Ludwig (best-known for “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo”) includes some interesting contributions from the backstage support crew.

Amber MacLean, an artist, created some animated sequences for visual transitions.

(Amber MacLean)
(Amber MacLean)
(Amber MacLean)
(Amber MacLean)

And student Luca Catanzaro took on the task of providing sound effects.

“He’s working from home like everyone else, so he said he was rapping on surfaces all over the house to get the sound of a knock on a train compartment door,” McCauley said.

The college production of "It’s a Wonderful Life" combines contributions from two Sebastopol theater talents. Janis Dunson Wilson composed the music and will act as musical director. John Shillington adapted the work for the stage and serves as director.

The show also features vocal direction by Tina Lloyd Meals and choreography by Alyce Finwall.

The musical numbers were filmed in advance, because it’s nearly impossible to coordinate the voices and musical accompaniment via Zoom with the actors and musicians working in isolation from home, McCauley said.

“The acting scenes will be done live,” she said. “We could have prerecorded all of it, but we’re not making movies here. We’re training theater artists. Zoom is like live performance in a weird way. Things can go wrong.”

And students can learn from their mistakes that way.

Online productions are a new venture for the college theater students and staff, but they’ve done without a stage of their own for quite a while. During the renovation of the Burbank Auditorium building, college productions were held at alternative venues off campus.

"The Wedding Singer," the first production scheduled for the refurbished 400-seat auditorium, was to open April 17 due was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The public did get a glimpse of the newly redone 80-year-old structure during an opening celebration March 6, and a college production of the Irish play "The Cripple of Inishmaan" ran briefly in the building's new 200-seat studio theater before worries about the pandemic forced the show's closure.

The opening of the remade auditorium had been a long time in coming. Crews broke ground on the project in January 2018, but planning began two years earlier. The process started in 2014, when voters approved $410 million in bonds to finance the Burbank building renovation and a list of other projects, including revamped athletic facilities and construction of a new science, math and technology center.

The road to the Burbank Auditorium's opening night hadn't been easy, either. The original target date for completion of construction, May 2019, was postponed when it was discovered that underground power lines and cables and storm drains had to be moved. Last August, completion of the project was delayed again to allow additional time to make, deliver and install the ropes, pulleys and counterweights used to raise and lower curtains and support lighting equipment.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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