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10 Questions

With Andrew Holtz at the Helm, Concord's Willows Theatre has helped lift the Arts to new heights


This month, John Muir’s Mountain Days, a musical about the 19th-century naturalist, returns to the Martinez waterfront for its sixth year. Muir may seem an unlikely hero for a musical, but the show’s crowd-rousing success shows why the Willows Theatre Company has endured for nearly 30 years. Andrew Holtz is the affable managing director who leads the company, which also produces shows year-round at its home in Concord. His next project is to open a 200-seat cabaret theater to help spur economic development in downtown Martinez.

1 When most people think of John Muir, they probably don’t think, “Hey, they should write a musical about him!
”Tell me about it. We got a lot of, “What’s he gonna do, tap dance while he’s climbing a mountain?” Even the playwright, Mary Bracken Phillips, who’s brilliant and was nominated for a Tony, said you couldn’t have picked a more difficult subject for a musical.

2 Whose idea was it in the first place?
Our artistic director, Rich Elliot, grew up in West Virginia, where there’s a history of big outdoor pageants that celebrate a historical character. When Rich found out that John Muir [had been] a resident of Martinez, he thought, “Gee, this would be a great theme for one of these historical outdoor dramas.”

3 What’s something that people might not know about John Muir?
He was an inventor, and while he was working at a pencil factory, he was temporarily blinded in an accident. He said, “If I ever regain my sight, I’m not going to work on man’s inventions. I’m going to celebrate God’s inventions.”

4 Having majored in industrial engineering at Stanford, you know something about dramatic career changes.
It’s a little less drastic than it sounds. I’ve been a musician all my life, and I was always really involved in music and theater at Stanford. Even when I was working at IBM and Arthur Andersen, I was working on community theater productions.

5 In the world of community theater, what makes the Willows unique?
I grew up in rural Indiana, where the first thing [you do] when someone moves into the neighborhood is have a street party. That’s our model. We want to make theater as comfortable as possible, like going to the movies.

6 Your main theater, in the Willows Shopping Center, has only 210 seats.
Many people say what they really like about the Willows is that they feel that they’re at a big Broadway musical. But they also feel they’re a part of the show.

7 What role does the Willows play in the Bay Area theater community?
[With more than 300 theater companies], the Bay Area has the second-largest theater community in the country, after New York. We’re like a teaching hospital that turns medical school graduates into doctors. Theater graduates often get their first paying jobs as actors at our theater.

8 How have your audiences changed?
They’ve become more sophisticated. And people here started to discover in the late ’80s and ’90s that local arts, just like the restaurants, were getting a lot better.

9 What’s been the Willows’s biggest hit?
In financial terms, it’s been the Nunsense shows. Artistically, our biggest hit was one of our biggest risks: Brimstone, a show we did in 1998. Set in Northern Ireland, it was about a woman who’s an IRA terrorist and who starts blowing up buildings. Can you imagine a less likely subject for a musical? It won nine Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, but what was really surprising is how our audiences embraced it.

10 As the Willows turns 30, what’s next for the company?
The plan [for the cabaret theater in Martinez] is to convert a 1920s building, where we’ll do small shows. Really, the plan is to start to get people coming to downtown Martinez for a reason other than that they’ve been served a jury duty notice.

John Muir’s Mountain Days, August 4–7, John Muir Amphitheater, Martinez, (925) 798-1300; $15–$35; www.willowstheatre.org . The 2005 season continues in September with Deathtrap at the Willows Theater, 1975 Diamond Blvd., Concord.

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