NAPA VALLEY: Move Over, Ashland

Laura Rafaty already has brought to Yountville internationally acclaimed actors. If she has her way, this year she will showcase more famous thespians throughout the valley.

“We don’t have professional theatre in Napa Valley,” said Rafaty, founding producer and artistic director of Napa Shakes, a new Napa Valley nonprofit. By bringing world-class Shakespearean actors to the Napa Valley stage, she believes her organization can improve the cultural life of the area and spur the local economy like the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival infuses the economy of Ashland.

Rafaty, a California native, discovered her love of the stage in New York. She produced shows on and off Broadway and on tours throughout the U.S. and Canada before landing in St. Helena.

“When I left New York, I knew I was giving up theatre and I had better bring it here,” she said.

While settling in, she wrote an award-winning newspaper column and owned a retail shop on Main Street. Last year, she founded NapaShakes with Laila Aghaie and Matthew Cowell.

Their first production, “King Lear,” was performed by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre actors at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater. It was a success, attracting 1,100 patrons plus 1,100 schoolchildren and teachers who were treated to a free one-hour show as part of an ongoing educational enrichment program.

“The best professional actors in the world were here,” Rafaty said. “They canceled their final show of the season in St. Petersburg and decided to end their tour here instead.”

She is now working to build the relationship and keep the actors returning to Napa.

“They want to come to Napa Valley, and they are excited about being part of something new,” she said. “And I was amazed by how excited people in the valley were about Shakespeare.”

Rafaty expects Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre actors to return in 2016 and is securing an outdoor venue at Castello di Amorosa, the castle and winery located between St. Helena and Calistoga on property once part of an estate owned by Edward Turner Bale.

“The Bard means business,” she said, noting that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival raises about $250 million annually for the Ashland-area economy. In 2013, more than 92,000 visitors attended the Oregon festival.

Rafaty expects to partner with Napa Valley businesses and tourist organizations to attract visitors from the Bay Area to Shakespearean shows, along with nearby hotels, restaurants and wineries. She also has her eyes on several corporate sponsors.

Rafaty grew up in Saratoga in the 1960s and came into contact with stage performers while watching her mother on the set of her Channel 20 TV show, “Designing Woman.” She was introduced to Circle Star Theatre performers and touring artists, including Angela Lansbury and John Raitt.

“Part of my cultural education was going to San Francisco as a kid, going to Blum’s for coffee cake, then going to see (Rudolf) Nureyev and (Margot) Fonteyn.”

In the 1980s, Rafaty was a corporate litigator in San Francisco, also doing pro bono civil rights work and some legal work for American Conservatory Theater

In the 1990s, she moved to New York, bought a condo and co-produced Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1994,” which was nominated for a Tony Award.

Over the past decade, she began a retail business on St. Helena’s Main Street and five years later returned to performing arts as producing director for the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater.

Today, working to bring professional actors to Napa Valley is like a homecoming for Rafaty.

“It’s in my DNA,” she says.

Contact Napa Valley Towns Correspondent Doug Ernst at

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