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Best Live Theater Company 2023: 6th Street Playhouse

Best Live Theater Company: The 6th Street Playhouse production of A Raisin in the Sun featured Amara Lawson-Chavanu, from left. Ash’Lee Smallwood, KT Masala, and Terrance Smith. The theater company puts on 10 shows each season. Photo by Eric Chazankin

For 50 years, 6th Street Playhouse has been offering Sonoma County residents access to entertainment and theatrical instruction at its downtown Santa Rosa facility.

“We delight in bringing 10 shows each season – five musicals and five straight plays,” says Aja Gianola-Norris, who served as interim director of the playhouse this summer.

Upcoming productions include Fiddler on the Roof, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Elf: The Musical. Productions planned for 2024 are Fences, The Book of Will, She Loves Me, and Million Dollar Quartet.

Participants are local cast and crew, from performers to set designers and directors, both 6th Street Playhouse employees and volunteers.

While the Playhouse draws adults captivated by live theater, it’s also a popular destination for local teens and children. “We have a year-round program for youth, kids and teens,” Gianola-Norris says. “We also have a thriving summer program.”

During this summer’s youth program, students in second to fifth grades put on a production of Disney’s Finding Nemo Jr. Younger children participated in Lil’ Guppies while teens worked on Mean Girls Jr. Fall activities include Elf Jr. for teenagers and Willy Wonka for the children.

“A summertime adventure can even turn into a career,” Gianola-Norris adds.

“We see a variety of kids who do it, fall in love and find their calling. They go on to work on Broadway as crew, musicians or performing on stage. One of our students is in the national tour of The Prom.”

“The focus of 6th Street Playhouse remains community engagement,” Gianola-Norris adds. “We delight in making the Playhouse the community’s theater, making it comfortable for a diversity of skill. They’re so surprised and happy, they come back.”

And while the pandemic proved a real challenge, especially for older attendees, the situation is improving. “There’s a very large percentage of our patrons who are retired or close to retirement age,” she says. “It’s a pretty typical theater base. But finally things are starting to feel more normal.”

The Playhouse has plans to pull in a younger demographic, she adds. “We have our marketing department working on our social media practices and a production of Kinky Boots is in the works.”

“We have a commitment to being connected to the community, to improve on and continue to make casting an excellent experience,” Gianola-Norris says. “We want to make the whole experience more meaningful and professional.”

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