For generations Fresno residents have laughed and cried with the actors of the Good Company Players. Now celebrating 40 years on the stage in Fresno’s Tower District, the community theater company, and its founder Dan Pessano, are the subject of a new e-book from Fresno Bee features writer Donald Munro – called “The Company We Keep” – it’s available for download on the Kindle Store and on iTunes for $2.99. Both Donald Munro and Dan Pessano joined us to talk about GCP's 40th anniversary, and the new book.
Joe Moore: Did you know what you were getting into 40 years ago?
Dan Pessano: No and that’s probably why we made it. That’s the cliché “the next ten minutes.” I don’t really believe we ever looked past what was going to be the next night, whether it be the rehearsal, or what has to happen with the set or anything. I think we knew that the abilities were there. So, we always have a lot of potential and we’ve always found a lot of potential and hopefully developed it. But I don’t think you do much more than sit down in February to plan the next season and think of it in that regard. Just one foot in front of the other.
Joe Moore: It might have been easier in some respects to sit back and let somebody else take on this task, to found a company like what Good Company Players has become. Why did you do it?
Dan Pessano: Well I think the moons were in the right place. We had talented people that were appropriately arrogant. We knew that we were good and wanted to share that. We thought that we could do something special. I don’t know that there’s ever a why in there. I think it happens. I think that when you’re together and you know you have something and you’re driven. You know theater is like that. It’s something that it’s no fun talking about it. We wanted to do it. And so I believe that’s as much a part of it as anything just having the right people and the right opportunity.
Joe Moore: Dan is such a character himself. How would you describe him?
Donald Munro: Dan is a quiet person in many ways. He’s a very reserved person. And I think that might some as a surprise to people who have seen in all sorts of charters on stage. But he isn’t the kind of person I feel who comes into a room and dominates it. I think a lot of people have this idea that actors are very outsized personalities. Now he also has a very commanding presence, when he walks into a room with his actors, they all know he’s there. But it was interesting to see him interact with the people he works so closely with. He also, I really feel has a tremendous sense of loyalty to the people that he works with. He told me that he has two families, his wife and daughter, but also those folks who have been with him for so many years, working at the company, and you really sense that when you walk into the office. These people are in it together. And I think that’s one thing that I was really struck by.
Joe Moore: You’ve covered a lot of different arts organizations, a lot of different theater groups. The average life span is, well let’s just be generous and say, a bit shorter than 40 years.
Donald Munro: It is. It’s tough to keep a theater company together. And I think that most really successful theater companies have a very strong central character who is at the heart of that company. And I think Dan has really served that role for GCP.
Joe Moore: Dan, what do you think the ingredients have been to your success and longevity in this area?
Dan Pessano: Well, I think we have huge pride in our work. I think our expectations are high. Higher of ourselves than they would ever allow the audience to have expectations of us, even. We expect to give them their money’s worth, etcetera, etcetera, but we know quicker than they will ever know whether we’re doing the job that night or during the run of that show, and we stay after it. So I think high expectations is a part of it and I think everybody on staff shares that. And then you know an important ingredient for my staff, and they are so important to what we’ve accomplished, we kind of share a sense of humor. So that we’re able to keep it going without actually going up on the rocks. We have a rule, we never yell at rehearsals. Every once in a while something goes wrong and you’ll yell “freeze” or something at tech rehearsals, usually you have a lot of that, but we don’t. We agree to keep it quiet and solve it. So I’d say pride and consistency, and sanity.
Joe Moore: Was there ever a time when you thought “why am I doing this” or “is this really what I’m supposed to be doing,” or “is this what I should be spending my life’s work on?”
Dan Pessano: Not so much life’s work on, but I have to say, I’m doing Fiddler on the Roof right now and I have that thought just before I go out and sing Rich Man every night. I think “here goes five minutes out of everybody’s life. I think there are doubts, I think personal as well as company-wide. Sometimes we just get our feelings hurt. One of the most wonderful things about the book, is I wasn’t sure anybody noticed. You know, a lot of people have chimed in on the book and said wonderful things and been very kind and have written us lately. It’s not that I don’t know that they’re there, but you don’t know until somebody says something that they notice. And so those are the moments where you’re just working and plugging along and you’re wondering, is anybody there? Is anybody out there?
Joe Moore: What do you think GCP has meant for the community as a whole?
Donald Munro: I think it’s meant a great deal specifically to the theater scene. I think the Fresno theater scene is really alive right now, and if you were to trace back the geneaology with these newer companies that have come along, the GCP has just been in the DNA, I mean it was just there. I think it’s consistency, what Dan has often talks about, in terms of consistency of the product. It’s created an audience in Fresno who knows that they can get quality theater, they’re willing to take that risk, and part with their precious dollars to go out an experience live theater. Live theater has so many obstacles in terms of all the different entertainment that's out there. We’ve become so much more of a passive society, you can just sit on your couch and download Netflix all night. So to actually get someone out to the theater I think GCP has really made Fresno a much brighter place.
Joe Moore: There’s a business side to this story as well, and one thing that makes Good Company Players a little bit different than a lot of other arts organizations in our community is that they are a for-profit business, they are a family business as you say in your book. How has this has affected them and what they do on a daily basis?
Donald Munro: It is a pretty remarkable story. Most theater companies in this country are non-profit. And indeed GCP did have a tiny stint for about six months I think it was, where it did try the non-profit route. But there are a lot of challenges in running a non-profit, including having to give up some creative control and then also having to fill out a lot of paperwork. So I think it’s really interesting that Dan and his family chose this route. Now it also means that they have to be even more responsive to the audience than if it were a non-profit organization. Although that’s not really the case either, because non-profits ultimately, they just can’t keep producing things that people don’t go to see. But Dan is very forthright about putting people in the seats. And to him the audience is all-important. And as he says, if there isn’t an audience there, there isn’t a show going on. So I think it’s interesting that the organization has taken that route over the years.
Joe Moore: Is it tough to wear both of those hats, one businessman and one artist?
Dan Pessano: Yes, although I think they all blend together. I think the decisions you make when you’re doing season selection, are those times when the artist in you probably tugs pretty hard at some of your favorite projects. And the businessman says yes, but I have a staff of seven full time people in the shops and another five people in the office. So we’re all making a decision based on the facts. So yes, I think there’s a tug.
Joe Moore: You’ve just celebrated your 40th anniversary. What about the next 40 years? What does the future hold for Good Company Players? What are your intentions? This is something you’ve been involved with since the beginning. Does this have a future beyond your involvement with the company, at some point?
Dan Pessano: Well, I hope so! People have remarked at how old I am, so I don’t buy green bananas, you know that joke. As George Burns said, I can’t really die, I’m booked. But my family is certainly an important part of it, but my family includes the rest of the staff. David Pierce, Ginger Lewis, and Linda Thayer and all of the people on staff, they’re what will keep the ball rolling. I intend to, as I say, we’re selling seats for next year because we’re here. That’s the “here” about it. That’s the next ten minutes.