by Julia Freyer
“Magic” is the word friends use most frequently to describe their time at Transcendence Theatre Company in Sonoma, California. Friends come back from contracts with visibly invigorated spirits, a renewed sense of joy in life and art AND an increased knowledge of wine! When I was asked to join the company as a performer and associate choreographer for the first show of their summer season, Stairway to Paradise, I was so excited to experience this “magical” theatre company for myself.
In 2008, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky and Stephan Stubbins conceived a theater company that would integrate health and wellness into the arts, put service above self, and make a positive impact in the lives of artists and the community they serve. Transcendence Theatre Company found their home in Sonoma, California at Jack London State Historic Park. Transcendence's first full summer season of Broadway Under The Stars concerts premiered in 2012. Each Broadway Under the Stars event begins with over two hours of pre-show picnicking, wine, and food trucks. At sunset, the surrounding mountains and vineyards provide the backdrop to the performances that take place within the open-air winery ruins of the park.
I was introduced to theatre by the community theatres in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even growing up, I was astounded by the adults who worked full-time jobs during the days and showed up to rehearsal from 7-10PM nightly because theatre made them so happy. Most adult volunteers in Grand Rapids community theatre saw a show in the area and had been so moved that they “had to get involved”—not because they had a formal theatrical background, but because they loved their experience at the theatre so much that they just wanted to be a part of the magic.
Like Grand Rapids community theatre, Transcendence Theatre Company relies on the magic of volunteers to make their productions a reality. “Team Transcendence” is comprised of volunteers who work positions ranging from ushering, facilitating parking, selling merchandise, dressing…even pouring wine pre-show! Every pre-show begins with a circle up of the full team—salaried company members and volunteers. Every volunteer introduces herself or himself to cheers from the rest of the circle. Further, everyone brought in to Sonoma from out of town (performers, stage management, musicians, etc), lives with members of the community who donate living spaces. My housing sponsors, Steve and Inga, discovered Transcendence because they are volunteers at Jack London State Historic Park. In 2012, Steve and Inga saw a poster for Transcendence in the park and immediately fell in love with the company and the shows. Seven seasons later, Steve and Inga volunteer nearly every performance (together, they comprise Team “Stinga” as the lead volunteers for Wine and Beer) and they open their beautiful home to out of town artists. Going above and beyond, Steve and Inga threw “Pizza and Pinot” parties for me and my fellow company members, advised me on the best grocery stores, and they even helped me plan for my upcoming backpacking trip because they are both experts in the field!
Following the Transcendence mission statement to “impact the lives of artists and the community,” through the Transcendence CONNECTS program, every company spends a day volunteering within the community. The Stairway to Paradise cast volunteered at Sweetwater Spectrum, a housing center for adults with autism. We played theatre games, sang Disney songs with the residents and talked about their experience at our show the previous weekend. It was empowering to use our art to impact the Sonoma community in a positive way! When The Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma came to see one of our performances, several company members and I led a workshop before the show. Connecting with the kids while they watched the show that night was incredible—smiling at the little ones with whom we had just played improv games with and seeing their excitement and recognition was a heart explosion for me. At a traditional regional theatre job, performers live alone in hotels and generally go to work at the theatre, head home and stay in the hotel or spend time strictly with company members when not at the show. At Transcendence, thanks to the community activities and the network of volunteers and housing sponsors, artists feel integrated into the Sonoma community.
In a traditional rehearsal, 10AM is go-time. Perhaps the stage manager will say a few words or reminders about the upcoming day but generally, you dive right into rehearsal. At Transcendence, every experience, be it a rehearsal, performance, or volunteer opportunity, begins by holding hands in a circle as a full team and taking four deep breaths. Those four breaths gave me the opportunity to center myself, breathing in everything wonderful I was experiencing. Each breath was an opportunity to reflect. Following the four breaths, rehearsal at Transcendence begins with a thirty-minute alignment. Alignments ranged from Pilates to meditation to nature appreciation to writing anonymous complimentary phrases to each other on papers stuck to our backs. I believe it is thanks to the alignments that I quickly felt close with people I had only just met. Within days of meeting, I knew more about every single cast member beyond who could belt to the heavens or who had insane extensions. We shared an emotional connection. Subconsciously, this allowed each of us to take time every morning to settle our minds, granting us the opportunity to appreciate the moment and each other before diving into rehearsal. The connections made in the alignments then carried through to performance and I believe were visible from the audience.
As a performer, the magic of Transcendence Theatre Company is palpable. When I met director/choreographer, Tony Gonzalez, his spirit, warmth and enthusiasm instantly inspired me. I mean, his joy shot directly into my heart. I say this with absolutely no exaggeration. The same feeling goes for every single person I met connected with Transcendence. Over time, without realizing it, New York and auditions had built up a hardened shell around my heart. Theatre becomes work and the joy I found in the art had begun to slip away. I often tell my husband that I “love to dance” while boogie-ing around our apartment. However, I had not felt that overwhelming, “heart was going to burst” feeling from dancing and creating in ages…until I arrived in Sonoma. I began to feel heart explosions again, multiple times a day. Everyone at Transcendence is led (and in turn, leads) with love, gratitude and positivity. There is no room for fear. I believe every person, not just the actor, performs at his or her highest ability because he or she is fully supported from every single direction. Penny Notter, my mentor from Grand Rapids theatre, always taught by leading with Stanislavski’s quote, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” The unique art inside each person who arrives at Transcendence, no matter what the role, is celebrated!
I now understand why friends describe their time in Sonoma at Transcendence Theatre Company as “magic.” The theatre is impactful, transforming both my life as an artist but also making it about more than just myself. It reminds the individual artist that theatre is actually about community and can only thrive WITH community. Coming home, I closed my eyes and took four deep breaths as my plane landed in New York. I thanked Transcendence Theatre Company for reminding me why I fell in love with theatre back in Grand Rapids as a little girl. I opened my eyes in New York with a full heart, recharged, full of joy, hope and light…and with a couple of bottles of wine in my suitcase to remember my time in Sonoma.