Pear Theatre losing its impresario

Company founder Diane Tasca announces her retirement

For anyone visiting for the first time, the Pear Theatre seems like a true oddity of the area -- equal parts marvelous and strange.

The small theater company has been an artistic magnet, drawing in talented casts and paying crowds. Over its life, the Pear has produced more than 100 original plays, most written by local authors and aspiring playwrights. For theater buffs, the Pear has a sterling reputation as an independent theater that nurtures new talent.

Yet the 90-seat black-box stage can seem out of its league given its surroundings. Located right in the heart of the city's North Bayshore tech hub, the Pear is tucked in the backyard of billion-dollar giants. Even though the small theater company is sustainable, it operates each year on funds that would barely pay a tech worker's salary.

Many credit the theater's success and survival to its artistic director -- Diane Tasca. After launching the theater as a moonshot dream about 15 years ago, Tasca has worked, unpaid, as the troupe's impresario, putting herself in charge of the finances, productions and creative vision.

Now Tasca, 70, wants to hand over those reins to someone new. She recently announced she will be stepping down to retire.

"It's time for a younger person to take over," she said in an interview with the Voice. "We have the theater on good footing and have a great reputation, and now we need to build on that."

Over its 15 year history, the Pear hasn't wavered from its core mission to put on "intellectually stimulating" collections of plays that might not get much attention from larger theater companies. Tasca adopted this goal back in the late 1990s after she produced the play "Fanny and Walt" in San Francisco. Originally she thought of the role of a producer was a "necessary evil" for the artistic process, but it turned out that she loved coordinating the backstage elements.

Around that time, Tasca began dreaming of starting her own theater, but it was still the kind of goal that she could only justify if she landed on a life-changing windfall, like winning the lottery.

The push she needed came from an unlikely source -- the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After watching the tragedy unfold, Tasca realized that if she didn't give her dream a try, she might never get another chance.

"We all know we're not immortal -- you can't wait around for something fabulous to happen," she said. "So that's what I did. Rather than joining a country club or something that people might do in my position, I spent my money on this."

Tasca's mid-life pursuit was supported by her husband, Palo Alto patent attorney Norm Beamer, who also had a soft spot for theater from participating in productions since his school days. Beamer is matter-of-fact about helping finance his wife's wish.

"We had the funds available to start it up," Beamer said. "For me, this was like a hobby. But for her, it was like her main job."

They scouted out a low-cost space off Pear Avenue in Mountain View, basically a garage at the end of a row of industrial buildings. At 1,500 square feet, it wasn't large, and the location left something to be desired. But Tasca liked the spot: it seemed like a place suitable for intimate theater, she said.

Tasca estimates they invested just over $100,000 in getting the Pear Theater off the ground, which she partly paid for through freelance editorial work. Early on, costs were high for the young theater company because it needed to buy its own stage equipment. Rent at the Pear Avenue space ran $1,800 a month.

The resource that Tasca had in surplus was talent. After years of drama classes and theater productions, Tasca was well acquainted with actors, directors and theater buffs in the area. Those friends became the core group who helped the nascent theater carve out its niche.

"Diane has been the main force behind the Pear for the last 15 years," said Sharmon Hilfinger, a Pear board member who has directed multiple plays at the venue. "She was always willing to do theater that wasn't being done elsewhere. Somehow nothing seemed to stop us from going ahead and taking on challenges."

There was plenty of troubleshooting early on. In the middle of one production, the fire marshal arrived to warn that the theater was too crowded and people needed to leave. Members of the audience as well as the cast would often have to line up to wait their turn for the theater's one restroom.

But the plucky theater persevered. A tradition began at the theater to have at least one original play each season, giving a new crop of aspiring playwrights a chance to showcase their work. For more than a dozen years, the troupe has held a biweekly play-writing sessions, which culminate in "Pear Slices," an annual program of one-act original plays.

The Pear's current show, a critically acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," runs through April 2.

The Pear developed its own signature style, a mix of classics and outside works, said Dale Albright, a spokesman for the Theater Bay Area association. He credited the Pear for inspiring other small independent theaters on the Peninsula, including the Dragon in Redwood City.

"The Bay Area is home to nationally known playwrights -- where the Pear fits in is they have a commitment to help playwrights that are up and coming and who will be great in a few years," he said. "That's an extraordinary commitment to make."

As the Pear was gaining enough stability to operate without outside funds, a new danger emerged. In 2008, an arm of Google acquired ownership of the industrial lot, including the Pear's space. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the tech company planned to redevelop the site, and that the community theater would have to find a new home.

But the theater company landed on its feet. In 2015, as a Google affiliate announced plans to demolish the site, the company offered the Pear Theatre a new space off La Avenida at a bargain price. The new location was a dramatic improvement, allowing them audiences about twice the size of the old location.

Describing her decision to retire, Tasca said it was simply time for her to take a step back. She acknowledged her age, and said the Pear now was making enough to pay for a full-time professional to take over administration.

Whoever assumes that role will have big shoes to fill, many say. A new artistic director will need to grow the theater's audience, which usually hovers around 70 percent capacity, Tasca said. Additionally, many involved at the Pear pointed out the theater needs to cultivate more patrons in the tech community. With Google and Microsoft right down the street, it would seem like a natural fit.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all will be balancing the Pear's artistic traditions with the possible need to transform, Albright said.

"It's always a challenge to be the first person to replace a founding artistic director," he said. "You want to honor the legacy, but you might need to do things that are going to help take the company forward."

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5 people like this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Mar 30, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Thank you, Diane for all you have done. You will be missed!

5 people like this
Posted by George Murrell
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2017 at 5:41 pm

It was one of the greatest honours of my life at aged 12 to play Phillip in "Space is Blue and the Birds Fly in It", Summer 2007, at Pear Avenue. I'll never forget the after-party at your house, too. Thank you Diane for your immense contribution.

3 people like this
Posted by Pear Subscriber
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Mar 31, 2017 at 9:09 am

@George Murell - I LOVED that play and you were fantastic in "Space is Blue and the Birds Fly in It". Maybe we will see you in a future production at the Pear?

3 people like this
Posted by Pear Subscriber
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Mar 31, 2017 at 9:15 am

The Pear is a fantastic theatre company, it puzzles me why every production is not sold out. The recent Arthur Miller production of 'A View from the Bridge' directed by Ray Renati was fantastic, one of the best ever, received a standing ovation. Kudos to Diane and Norm for all their hard work, creativity and financial support to make the Pear what it is today. Now more than ever, we need support for the Arts.

3 people like this
Posted by Paul W
a resident of another community
on Mar 31, 2017 at 1:27 pm

I still remember the one show I did here, "Master Class" back in 2005, performing with this amazing woman. It was one of my greatest theater experiences ever. Diane, I truly hope you enjoy your retirement!

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