The man who saved live theater in Rohnert Park from an early death seldom takes center stage himself. But Gene Abravaya won’t be allowed to slip quietly out the stage door without a moment in the spotlight.
Abravaya — theater manager of the Spreckels Performing Arts Center and artistic/managing director of its resident stage troupe, the Speckels Theatre Company — plans to retire this summer. Before that, he’s directing the current run of his last theatrical production there, Walt Disney’s “Tarzan.”
“I’ve never been outside the continental United States,” Abravaya said. “I want to see some of the world.”
At 66, Abravaya has been a player in the Sonoma County theater scene for more than three decades as a manager, producer, director, actor and playwright. The theater community plans to honor him on May 21 with a retirement celebration at the Spreckels center.
“I want to thank Gene for his degree of commitment and constancy,” said Elly Lichenstein, artistic director of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. “He put Spreckels on the theater-going map. He carried out a clear and popular vision for the theater and the company. If it weren’t for those burden-bearing shoulders of his, I don’t know what would’ve happened to that space.”
Once the longtime home of the professional Pacific Alliance Stage Company, affiliated with the Actors Equity union for actors and directors, Spreckels had to abandon that program in 2010, when a nationwide economic downturn prompted budget cuts. Instead of producing its own shows, Spreckels would become a rental facility, it was announced.
Abravaya, who had come to Spreckels in 2000 to work as its publicist, stepped forward, becoming manager at Spreckels in 2001.
“It quickly became apparent to everyone involved that the center was not going to be able to sustain itself on rentals only,” Abravaya said.
“So it then became necessary to think up other revenue streams. I presented a plan to the city that would allow theater to continue here in Rohnert Park, but we would simply reduce costs by turning it into a semi-professional company.”
As a non-union company with a new name, the Spreckels Theatre Company, was still able to pay stipends to local actors.
“In time, we I was able to convince the city that our productions would pay for themselves,” by keeping his budgets comparatively small, he explained,
Abravaya was not a newcomer to Sonoma Company theater, having served from 1993 to 2000 as business manager of the Santa Rosa Players, one of the precursors of today’s 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.
Already a familiar face both backstage and onstage at local theaters, he was able to draw on a rich bank of contacts in launching the Spreckels Theatre Company.
“I’ve directed shows for most of the theater companies in the area. The theater community in Sonoma County is very tight,” he said. “We all support each other any way we can. We’re always borrowing from each other — sets, props, costumes, furniture. I never had to pick up the phone and say, ‘I did you a favor once, can you help me now?’”
One of Abravaya’s creative cost-saving moves was the use of images projected onto the stage to supplement the sets and make set changes less labor-intensive.