Lawsuit targets Transcendence Theatre operations in Jack London State Historic Park

The association representing current and retired state park rangers has challenged use of Jack London State Historic Park for the popular summertime musical performances of Transcendence Theatre Co.|

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.

They were welcomed and were asked to produce a fundraiser later in the year - a year earlier than they first intended. That October, they took out a personal loan to fly friends into Sonoma County and rent equipment for a production that drew 800 people, Surosky said.

The next year, they put on 14 shows for the first season of Broadway Under the Stars.

They have since expanded their outdoor seasons, as well as their school programming, children’s camps and outreach to underserved communities, in addition to performing in other venues and at special events.

At least $5 from each performance ticket at Jack London park goes to the nonprofit Jack London Park Partners, formed by the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which took over park operations in 2012 to prevent the site from closing.

But productions costs are high, and Surosky said the theater group’s contributions to the park - totaling more than $450,000 over the first seven years - are possible only because of donations and sponsorships.

“It might look like we’re making a lot of money, but it’s actually a huge loss for us,” he said.

Lynch, a retired park ranger who once worked at Trione-Annadel State Park, said a lawsuit was the only recourse available to the nearly 500-member organization, given the park department’s decision to not to seek public input on the matter.

He said the underlying issue is that the Beauty Ranch farmed by Jack London a century ago should be afforded the highest level of protection as a historic landmark and archaeological site and instead is being trampled by thousands of people attending performances with no connection to the author.

Lynch likened dissatisfaction to Transcendence Theatre’s presence at Jack London park to opposition raised several years ago over the Funky Fridays summer concert series first produced at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where attendance grew so high that the event was moved to neighboring county parkland.

Both performance series were launched when the State Parks’ budgets were at their lowest ebb, and local sites had taken on nonprofit partners to keep their gates open.

Lynch said the new performance space for Funky Fridays has proven superior.

But he said his beef is not with Transcendence or with the Jack London Partners but with State Parks, which, he contends, failed to follow their own policies and general plan for the historic site.

Those “all spell out that the department should not be considering this at that location,” Lynch said. “It’s just inappropriate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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