Say Telluride, and perhaps the film festival comes to mind for even the modest consumer of American culture. Aspen is home to the Wheeler Opera House. Robert Redford acolytes will know that Sundance is just spitting distance from Park City.
Town Manager, Dan Holler, continued the list:
“Whitefish, Montana, is an arts and theater hub. West Yellowstone—they’ve got a little dinner house theater you can go to … These are what I would call high-end, high-visited places, and theater is just part of what they provide for entertainment and culture,” said Holler. “What do you do on a Thursday night in Mammoth if you’re not into loud music and drinking?”
The answer to Holler’s question is in the preliminary stages of planning and construction. The Mammoth Lakes Foundation (MLF) is backing a new, 250-seat theater on College Parkway, rendering the town’s existing Edison Theater—which previously accommodated an audience of 100, and is currently closed for renovation—to be something of an addendum to a larger facility.
“The Edison is going through a remodel to serve as “back of the house” for this larger theater, which I would liken, actually, more to a performing arts auditorium,” said Holler of the project, alluding to the project’s intended purpose to not only serve as a venue for traditional playhouse productions, but a space for musical concerts, speaking engagements, film festivals, and conferences.
Executive Director of the Mammoth Lakes Foundation, Betsy Truax, gave insight into the theater’s ideation.
“The mission of the Mammoth Lakes Foundation is to support higher education and cultural enrichment,” said Truax. “So, the Foundation was involved in the passage of the Measure C bond and the Measure U tax.”
As Truax explained, the Measure C bond, passed in 2000, permits funding allocation for performing arts facilities. The Measure U tax, approved by voters a decade later, is used to fund mobility, recreation, and arts and culture.
“There’s about $2.8 million of Measure U committed to capital funds for the project … and $7.5 million committed from the bond,” said Truax.
Back in 2020, the Foundation had plans for a 298-seat theater. But when construction cost estimates came in at $33 million, and the Covid pandemic ground operations to a halt, the project was shelved. It wasn’t until a private donor approached the Foundation, and MLF sought a collaboration with HMC Architects and the Town of Mammoth Lakes, that they found a path toward the current blueprint, set to come to fruition by the end of 2026.
“It’s not going to have all the bells and whistles of a bigger theater, just from a cost standpoint … It’s going to be multifunctional.”
As Holler pointed out, Mammoth is already home and haven to a thriving performing arts enclave. There’s Chamber Music Unbound, the Felici Trio, and the Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theater and Sierra Classic Theates to name a few. But what the town’s new theater is designed to do—other than just accommodate additional seating—is to leverage the Mammoth arts scene into a higher value proposition.
“It’s about getting the right people engaged. Given our proximity to both Reno and Los Angeles, there’s a real opportunity to bring talent here, from those communities,” said Holler.
In the same vein of diversifying talent on a geographic-basis, Truax noted that value of diversified revenue streams toward the project’s sustained success.
“I think we just want the community to understand the broader possible uses because it’s just a space that doesn’t exist. And so we know there will be, you know, a lot of other uses for the space besides just the performing arts. Frankly, some of those uses are quite revenue driving, which will be important to pay to keep the lights on.”
While funding has already been allocated for the construction of the project, itself, additional support will be necessary to cover the facility’s annual operating expenses.
“Right now, we have $300,000 from Measure U and $100,000 set aside by the Town,” said Holler.
The hope, according to Holler, is that beyond these earmarkings, the theater will come to rely on its own generated earnings.
“My guess is it’ll take about five years to get it stabilized out to where you have a good set of programming coming in, consistently,” said Holler.
And that’s where getting the right leadership comes into play. MLF, despite being the financial champion of the project, will not be responsible for facilitating what goes on beneath the proscenium upon completion.
Truax emphasized that the Town’s hand in administering the operating costs of the theater are a key reason for why “it makes sense for [them] to ultimately manage the facility.”
“The Mammoth Lakes Foundation will eventually step out of the management,” said Holler. “They don’t want to manage a theater, and I fully get that.”
But in the meantime, without a house to call a home, what becomes of local theater in the interim? That is the question.
For Shira Dubrovner, Artistic Director at Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theater and Festival Director for the annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, retaining a physical space is critical to cultivating art that is effective.
“The thing about going into a theater,” said Dubrovner, “is that when you see a set and it’s a dark room, you’re kind of entering another world. You’re forgetting about the world that you exist in, and you’re suspending your sense of belief for a while. I think that’s the beauty about theater, and going into a theater space.”
While Dubrovner expressed the challenges of working sans playhouse, such as relying on philanthropic venue donations to host performances, the director expressed excitement for the new theater, and a willingness to adapt in the wake of the Edison’s current closure.
“Right now we have some downtime,” said Dubrovner, “and we’re using it to get creative, and think about where we’re going to find venues in a town that is lacking for venues.”
Dubrovner, whose definition of “downtime” means directing Sandy Rustin’s ambitious stage production of Clue, which will premiere mid-February on the Mammoth Lakes High School stage.
“But I can convert any storefront into a theater,” assured Dubrovner.
Sierra Classic Theater’s artistic director, Allison McDonnell Page, similarly expressed the need for creative alternatives to more orthodox theater settings.
Her company just wrapped its run of Sprung to Die, written by Charlie Pike—a murder mystery, dinner theater production that was performed at restaurants across town. Sierra Classic Theater’s past production of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a play largely set in an early 20th century Parisian bar, was staged at a number of Mammoth’s own watering holes. And Page’s upcoming play, Tracy Letts’ The Minutes) is set to premiere March 13 in Minaret Village Mall’s Suite Z—a space traditionally used to host town meetings.
“What’s sad is that we’re probably doing the best theater we’ve ever done,” reflected Page, lamenting the absence of an open theater for the company’s 25th year in business.
But for Page, even more imminent than the need for a reliable theater space is the need for a community accountable to the pursuit of its own art.
“In Mammoth, we don’t have hundreds of theater companies. We have two. And people who like the theater have to come to those shows,” said Page. “Theater doesn’t exist without an audience, it just doesn’t.”
The hope is that, come 2026, the new theater will provide not only a roof over the heads of already-thespians and their admirers, but help to breed a new colony of those aspiring.
“I think there’s a fair amount of latent talent around here,” said Holler. “You just need the right environment to grow it.”
According to Holler, employees in the Town’s Parks and Recreation Department have expressed interest in facilitating improv comedy and acting classes for high school and early college-level students out of the new space.
“To do that, we would almost use the smaller [Edison] theater as a workshop space, and then the larger theater as a performance venue,” said Holler. “An expanded venue means added flexibility for those types of things in the future.”
Until that day—be it in venues X, Y, or Suite Z—both Dubrovner and Page emphasize that theater, like any community, mandates participation to sustain itself.
“People want to be out of their houses and around other human beings. They want to support the arts again,” said Dubrovner. “It’s a tough time, but I’m not giving up on that, because it will come back.:”
“Just come to a show” said Page. “If you can’t afford it, you can come for free—I’ll give you some little job to do. But you have to support. That’s what part of being in theater is—to support others.”
So in the meantime, as Mammoth awaits its stage, Shakespeare said it best: “I am to wait, though waiting be hell.”