Samantha Mehlinger

Samantha Mehlinger

Writer, Long Beach journalist/native, arts-lover, all-around entertainment junkie.

Couple’s “˜Labor of Love’ Brings Theater to the Inland Valley

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To many Southern Californians the phrase “Inland Valley” may not be synonymous with “theater.” Donna and Frank Minano, founders of Inland Valley Repertory Theatre, beg to differ.

When they moved to Rancho Cucamonga in 1988, the two saw the opportunity to realize their dream by meeting a community’s need for local theater. In 1990 they founded Inland Valley Repertory Theatre (IVRT), a non-profit company that serves the vast community.

Frank Minano

Frank Minano received his theater degree from the University of California, Irvine, and also holds an MBA in business from the University of La Verne. He continued his theatrical training at South Coast Repertory, where founders Martin Benson and David Emmes inspired him to start his own theater company. He refers to Benson not only as an inspiration but as his mentor. “He has always accepted phone calls from us. He shared with us how to set up articles of incorporation, how to grow the board””how to do almost anything,” he says.

As president of the board of trustees and producing artistic director, Minano describes his role as “the hinge between the artistic side of IVRT and the board.”Â Â He usually directs one show per season and acts in one as well. “My philosophy is that to continue to be a good director, it is necessary to be a good actor as well,” he explains. Last season he directed Kiss Me Kate (2010) and he will direct Our Town this season (opening Sept. 14). In 2009, he starred in The Most Happy Fella. He also occasionally freelance directs at theaters throughout the area. In addition to his theatrical exploits, he works for Freedom Communications, Inc., which publishes the Orange County Register.

When the two formed IVRT, Donna Minano had little experience on the production side of theater, although she supported and shared her husband’s goals. He jokes, “I think Donna had only participated in theater by sitting in the audience. She got married into this.”

She explains, “I got involved in theater after I met Frank. We had been married just a short time and he talked about wanting to start a theater company.” Her background in public relations and musical performance has been an asset to the formation and growth of IVRT. “I have music directed some of the shows and I market and advertise them as well. Basically I jumped in with both feet when we were first married.” She says the combination of her musical and public relations experience with her husband’s experience in theater makes them “the perfect team.”

Donna Minano

As current general manager of IVRT, Donna Minano oversees sales and marketing. She acts as a liaison between the board and the local community in Claremont. “I connect us with the media, the schools, the Chamber of Commerce, and I connect us with the audience,” she explains.

Her husband adds, “Part of what makes IVRT unique is that Donna stands out there and greets everybody. She knows everybody by name.” Her primary occupation is as a teacher. She currently instructs a few children’s choirs and teaches music at three schools in the Claremont Unified School District.

IVRT Gets Its Start

Opportunity struck in 1990 when a local newspaper announced the groundbreaking of a performing arts center in Rancho Cucamonga. After seeing the article the couple acted quickly to make their dream of starting a theater company into a reality. “We made some phone calls to the city, got people involved, got our non-profit status and started putting the theater company together,” says Frank Minano. Modeling IVRT after South Coast Repertory, the company formed with a core group of actors that would be a part of each season.

While waiting for the performing arts center to be built, IVRT performed in local venues and facilities such as the Alta Loma High School auditorium, where IVRT’s debut, Side by Side by Sondheim, opened in 1990. Mounting the production was no easy””or inexpensive””task. “We started with our own money. If I remember correctly, it was $8,000 to produce our first show,” he says of Side by Side. “It was in the high school auditorium that had no air conditioning and we opened in September,” he continues, placing emphasis on the word “September,” a month locals know to be the hottest and most humid of the year. Despite the heat, the production was a success, running for two weekends with 600 to 700 people attending.

IVRT continued performing in various local venues until 1993. Plans for the performing arts center in Rancho Cucamonga fell through, and IVRT moved to a temporary home, the Seeley G. Mudd Theater on the campus of the Claremont School of Theology. The company remained at the Mudd Theater for five seasons until 1998, when IVRT began what would be an almost 10-year hiatus.

According to the Minanos, they put the theater company on hold so they could move to Arcadia to take care of her ailing mother. Donna Minano says, “Around the time my mom got sick, we made the decision to dismantle the board and put the company on a kind of hiatus. We always intended on coming back and starting IVRT again. We kind of stepped aside and made family our focus for awhile.”

After her mother died, the Minanos moved to La Verne in 2001, where their oldest daughter became involved in local theater. According to Donna Minano, it was their daughters who pushed them to revive IVRT. “So we couldn’t use family as an excuse anymore,” she says.

Frank Minano explains the company essentially picked up where it left off. “We were still good friends with the 12 resident company members of IVRT and we would do occasional shows here and there. When we came back to the community they were ready to get started again.”

Partnership with Candlelight Pavilion

IVRT holds auditions at the Candlelight Pavilion

In 2007 IVRT members came back together to produce two shows, Mame and Sunshine Boys, at the Dailey Theatre at the University of La Verne. Shortly thereafter in 2008, IVRT formed a partnership with Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Run by Ben & Lois Bollinger, the Candlelight Pavilion recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. The dinner theater seats 299 and primarily produces musical theater although it also features tribute acts and guest concert series.

When IVRT partnered with Candlelight, only weekdays were available for performances because Candlelight’s own productions run on weekends. Thus, “Wednesdays Just Got Dramatic!” was born. Each season IVRT produces three shows that run on Wednesday nights. The 2011 season consists of the musical Chicago (last March) and the upcoming Bus Stop and Our Town. The company is non-Equity but pays stipends to actors and occasionally uses an Equity Guest Artist contract, Frank Minano says.

Although Candlelight Pavilion is a dinner theater, IVRT’s shows are not in dinner format. But theatergoers can purchase open bar beverages or desserts that are brought to tables at intermission  Dinner or not, so far “Wednesdays Just Got Dramatic!” has been a big hit.

Most of the musicals sell out, report the Minanos.  Frank attributes some of this success to IVRT asking its audiences which shows they would prefer. “We pick our seasons by polling our audience,” he explains. Sharing a stage with Candlelight’s other productions means sharing the same sets. “We look at the shows that are complementary to the sets and put down five or six options in each category, then the audience chooses.” IVRT’s non-musical plays usually average 200 to 225 in attendance, in comparison to the sold-out musicals.

Cast of "Chicago"

The Minanos are pleased with their arrangement at Candlelight, says Frank: “The board is happy. Candlelight is happy. We don’t see this going away. We continue to strengthen our marriage.”

As that marriage grows, IVRT has begun looking for ways to expand. With the success of “Wednesday Nights Just Got Dramatic!” the company has begun inching towards Tuesday performances as well. Last year, a production of Tuesdays with Morrie, a play based on the best-selling novel by Mitch Albom, premiered for one night only””on a Tuesday. The show was for audience members who subscribed or donated to the company. “That went over extremely well,” Frank Minano says. “It was completely packed.” After this one-night show, IVRT took the production to the Grove Theatre in Upland where it ran for two weekends and was well received.

This year IVRT plans to do something similar with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, putting on a production exclusively for subscribers and donors, then moving it to another local venue. Depending on budgeting, the Minanos hope to expand to regular Tuesday performances. “The idea is on Tuesdays we would do lesser-known shows. We would love to do an original,” he says.

Wednesday nights primarily feature well-known shows. Next up for IVRT’s line-up is the June production of Bus Stop, directed by Terrence Gunkel with assistant director Hope Kaufman. Gunkel and Kaufman serve as IVRT’s two associate artistic directors. Starring as the harassed beauty Cherie is Hayley Lerch, accompanied by Oscar Gubelman in the role of her obsessed admirer Bo Decker. Others in the cast are Michael Buczynski, Jill Gerber, Steve Julian, Walt Schaefer, David Wayne and Lisa Younger. “The cast is solid and we are looking forward to opening night,” Frank Minano says.

Since its origin, IVRT has contended with a good share of obstacles. Since its comeback in 2007, the company has established itself as a quality producer of theater not only in Claremont but in the greater Inland Valley as a whole. Frank Minano speaks both for himself and his wife when he remarks, “Being founders of IVRT really is a labor of love to the community.”

Bus Stop, presented by Inland Valley Repertory Theatre, opens June 1; plays Wed., 7:30 pm with a 2:30 pm matinee on June 15; through June 15. Tickets: $24-$27. Candlelight Pavilion, 455 Foothill Blvd., Claremont; 909-626-1254 or ivrt.org. Ample free parking nearby.

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