New Prospects and Projects are on the Horizon for Local Theater By Dana Koster
Jack Souza, Founding Artistic Director of Prospect Theater Project, is subdued as he gazes out at the small black box theater he’s called his home away from home for the last 13 years. It’s October, and he’s in the midst of directing his last show at the iconic Scenic Drive stage in Modesto, an electrifying rendition of Shakespeare’s politically- and emotionally-fraught historical drama Richard II.
Next to the concession stand and ticket booth, actors are doing last-minute adjustments to their tights and sword belts in preparation for dress rehearsal. In the current theater, the green room connects to the stage through the lobby, so things can get cramped when there’s a large cast waiting to go onstage. Inside the theater space where we sit, though, everything is quiet, and the mood is almost funereal.
“Thirteen years,” Souza says with a sigh. He runs his fingers through his prematurely silver hair and looks at the risers he built from scratch, the stage he hand-painted especially for this show with an intricate faux wood and red rose mural. “I’ve produced over 65 plays here in the last 12 years, but we’re out of here at the end of December.”
Despite initial appearances, this is not a gloomy send-off. Come January 1, Prospect will move to a new, larger, more modern home on K Street in downtown Modesto. But there’s a lot of work to be done before then, and there’s a lot of history in this old building.
“I stay pretty guarded about the move because it’s equal parts exciting and daunting,” Souza says. “There’s a lot that has to go into that place and there’s a lot that has to come out of here.”
Still, Souza admits it’s time to move on. “I’ve been really happy with this place and the style of theater it has demanded, but the new space just so perfectly fits the bill,” he says. “It was presenting itself with such insistence. When we started looking seriously, we just found that doors were opening. It met all our needs and we’re getting twice as much space.”
Beside Souza sits Richard II’s gender-bending “King” Richard, and Director of Development for Prospect Theater, Jenni Abbott. She’s yet to don her crown and robes for the performance, but she cuts a regal figure even in street clothes: her back ramrod straight, her long-fingered hands folded properly in her lap. “We’ll have a dedicated shop space in the new theater for building sets,” she says. “We’ll also have a large performance studio, a larger greenroom – and the location is downtown.”
By moving to the heart of downtown, Souza, Abbott and the rest of the Prospect Theater Project hope to bring locally-produced theater to a larger audience. The new location at 1214 K Street will be one block from a variety of restaurants and bars in downtown Modesto, and the larger performance space will allow them to double their audience capacity. They hope to set up dinner-and-a-show deals with local restaurants in the coming months.
“We really think that going down to the center of the town is going to help the community because the arts are such a critical piece of it,” says Abbott. “We want to bring in more programming for young people, to invite more people to come in and see what live theater is about.”
Prospect Theater Project has already begun moving towards this end. In October, it began a new afterschool program in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Stanislaus County. Rick Jones, Onsite Activity Director for this new program, says that the physicality of theater provides an important outlet for the children he works with, who range anywhere from first through sixth grade.
“The Prospect is part of a giant after school puzzle to keep kids active, to keep that energy channeled,” Jones says. “Last week, when the students were in minimum days for the whole week, they were sitting in classrooms watching movies for two and a half hours. By the time I saw them, they were ready to explode. It’s good to let them get that energy out—and it’s fun.”
But still the move is as bittersweet as it is exhilarating. Thirteen years ago, when Souza had just formed the company, his now-teenaged daughter Molly spotted the theatre’s current location on Scenic Drive from her toddler carseat. “Molly and I came in through the front door and I just knew that here I could do what I wanted to do,” remembers Souza. “It wasn’t big, but it was big enough.”
Even as melancholy takes him, Souza is exhilarated about the possibilities of the new space. This change means opportunity for Prospect Theater Project – a chance to expand programming, to offer more educational workshops, more parking, more seating, and even midnight showcases and special events. It’s impossible to say exactly what the future holds for Prospect Theater Project, but with the support of the community and the dedication of these talented local artists, the sky’s the limit.