by Lorie Lewis Ham
StageWorks Fresno is one of the newer local theatre companies in Fresno, having got its start in 2010. Its artistic director, Joel Abels, got the idea to start the company while living in New York, but his roots in Fresno go all the way back to when he performed with Good Company Players Junior Company as a youth.
Joel Abels grew up performing in children’s theatre. He first performed at San Jose Children’s Musical Theatreworks and San Jose Civic Light Opera. Then upon moving to Fresno he began performing with the Junior Company and main stage shows at Roger Rocka’s. “I was also in the first class at Roosevelt Performing Arts Magnet.”
While living in New York Joel was working and auditioning but realized a part of his creative life was missing. “I wanted to direct and opportunities for directing in NYC are extremely limited. My thoughts turned to Fresno and all of the talented people I had worked with in the past—actors, sound and lighting designers, costumers, volunteers, etc.”
StageWorks began its inaugural season in 2010 with the musical [title of show]. According to Joel the initial concept was that he would go back and forth between New York and Fresno. “I would produce and direct two or three shows a year using an intense short rehearsal schedule and a two to three week run of show. At the same time, I would keep my NY career going.”
However, within one week of returning to Fresno to work the first production, working with long time friends, being around family and being back in this community, Joel knew that he had to move back here full time. “The vision for the company had altered—grown into something bigger and better and in order to make it happen, I knew I would have to give something up. That something was NYC.”
Joel believes that live, local theatre is very important and that without those like him out there beating the drums and getting audiences in the seats, it will fade away. “Every successful city and community has strong roots in its art community. Fresno has a very strong arts community, growing every day.”
His goal with StageWorks is to produce thought provoking, challenging theatre, which he said means many things to many people. “Simply put, I want to produce great shows that may not get the ‘stage time’ they rightfully deserve. Musicals specifically that local audiences may not have seen produced, but once experienced become instant favorites. I look at newer shows, shows that have had a recent life on Broadway that have been released to produce, as well as older shows that I feel have merit. And then find a balance between the two.”
Other shows they have produced so far include The Light in the Piazza, the junior version of Beauty and the Beast, and later this month Ragtime. They will also be doing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever this December.
Their 2012 season includes the Fresno premiere of Xanadu, Terrence McNally’s Master Class, Ahrens and Flaherty’s musical farce Lucky Stiff, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and A Year With Frog and Toad. “I am very excited about the diversity of our musical selections this season,” continued Joel. “There really is something for everyone: fantasy, comedy, romance and even roller-disco! In addition, we are very excited to partner with Fresno Grand Opera in the production of Master Class starring the Valley’s own Jacqueline Antaramian.”
StageWorks generally holds open call auditions for most of their productions, though sometimes Joel stated a need arises to look outside the local area for specific roles to augment the local talent, if they can’t find what they need here or if local talent has a conflict or prior engagement. “We have been very lucky so far and have had some really great unexpected people turn up at auditions.”
They pay a stipend to their actors and designers, but they also rely on the generosity of volunteers from within the community. “We are always looking for volunteers as well as financial sponsors. As a non-profit theatre company we are always on the lookout for that ‘Angel’ that can help lighten the load. We hope that one day in the near future we will be able to offer working salaries to our staff.”
Local actor Taylor Babcock was in StageWorks production of [title of show] and enjoyed working under Joel’s direction. “He is a master of wearing both ‘Director’ and ‘Friend’ hats. Rehearsals run like a business but he creates an environment that comforts you and allows you to be vulnerable and take chances and make mistakes because Joel wants nothing more than for you to be confident and succeed. I will always be grateful to him for his guidance as a director, his love as a friend, and for bringing us together to form our [title of show] family.”
While one of Joel’s future goals is for StageWorks to own their own building, thus far they have been performing in the historic Cal ARTS Severance Theatre building located in the Tower District. However, going forward they will also be utilizing a variety of other venues such as the Dan Pessano Theatre and the Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall.
Ultimately Joel would like StageWorks Fresno to be recognized as a professional regional theatre company. “Offering actors real jobs and audiences productions every bit as professional and well produced as anything you would see in Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
StageWorks latest production, Ragtime, will be on stage at Cal ARTS Severance Theatre September 9 through 25. Watch for a review here at KRL later this month. For more information and to purchase tickets you can go to StageWorks website.