Lawsuit targets Transcendence Theatre operations in Jack London State Historic Park
An association of active and retired state park rangers has sued over the continued use of Jack London State Historic Park for open-air Broadway-styled musical productions that since 2012 have drawn thousands of enthusiastic patrons to the protected ruins of the late novelist’s old winery on summer nights.
The unprecedented lawsuit by the more than half-century-old California State Park Rangers Association claims the State Parks department improperly approved a five-year extension for the Transcendence Theatre Co., contending its large-scale productions conflict with the park’s general plan and the historic site’s protected status.
“The issue, in its simplest form, is that California State Parks is attempting to legitimize the creation of a large, ongoing, multi-million dollar operation and commercial-style theatrical facility right in the heart of Jack London State Historic Park, a national and state historic landmark, and within the ruins at the Beauty Ranch area of the park,” Mike Lynch, president of the rangers association, CSPRA, said in a written statement.
The lawsuit says State Parks officials should have subjected the operation to more thorough study and public scrutiny under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s bedrock land-use law.
It also notes that the theater company was allowed to maintain an unqualified exemption from environmental review even though it has expanded its schedule and maximum audience substantially over the years, involving a large portable stage, hundreds of chairs, portable restrooms and a pre-performance picnic time with food trucks and beverage service.
The Sept. 16 lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court caught Transcendence Co-Executive Officer Brad Surosky by surprise. Like the rest of the nonprofit theater group founded with his wife, Artistic Director Amy Miller, he is on two-week hiatus after closing out the season of Broadway Under the Stars and finalizing the permitting process negotiated through much of the year.
Surosky, reached on vacation, said the nonprofit theater company’s renewed permit involved months of review and that the performers have to abide by numerous rules, including restrictions against touching masonry walls and prohibitions against fastening set decorations to historic structures, use of stakes or anchors driven into the ground or use of confetti, glitter or any other material that might harm the ecosystem.
More importantly, he said, the theater company had contributed more than half a million dollars to park operations over the years. Its members “are stewards of the park” who “truly love the park,” he said.
“It’s been a great win-win-win scenario for State Parks, Jack London state park and for us,” he said.
Admission for shows during the 2019 season ranged from $35 to $149. The troupe’s 2020 season includes 30 performances and 20 technical rehearsals, with a maximum 860 people in the audience each night, or a total of 25,800 people over the course of the summer, according to a 53-page State Parks project evaluation.
The same document states that the productions “are not consistent with the goal of the General Plan to ‘encourage low-impact activities that support and historically compliment the interpretive topics.’?”
Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of Jack London Park Partners, the nonprofit group that manages Jack London State Historic Park and the person who reportedly negotiated the original agreement with Transcendence Theatre Co., declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday.
State Parks representatives also declined to address the litigation.
But Surosky said he’s not unfamiliar with the concerns first raised by a contingent of rangers several years ago that he thought had been resolved after extensive discussions at the park agency’s district level to ensure that the theater’s presence was in alignment with the park’s mission.
Surosky said the company has long showcased historic interpretations of Jack London and his wife, Charmian, through photos, informational tidbits and quotes in its programs and performances.
He also believes strongly that having live theater in the shadow of the cottage the couple shared captures the very essence of the author’s existence.
“He had bohemians performing, and they would have festivals and perform for each other, and that’s why it’s such a magical energy in that space,” Surosky said. “Really, we are furthering his mission, which is Jack London state park. He would have everybody from all walks of life there.”
Surosky said he and Miller first proposed a performance at the Glen Ellen park in spring of 2011 after hearing of planned state park closures in Sonoma County and across California during recession-era government budget cuts.