The end of the Tabard era is nigh

By Ande Jacobson

The Tabard Theatre Company has often been known as the little theatre that could. For its first seven years, it was a vagabond company, performing in various spaces and growing a dedicated patron base. Under the guidance of founding artistic director Cathy Spielberger Cassetta, the little company took on a wide variety of projects, often doing shows that weren’t available elsewhere. It was a wholesome company seeking to bring a different kind of theater to the community compared to the hundreds of other theater groups in the area. Eventually, the company settled into a unique space in San Jose known as Theatre on San Pedro Square. Tabard was the managing and resident theater company in the space although they didn’t officially change the name of the venue to Tabard Theatre until 2018. As the managing company, they not only put on their own productions, they hosted numerous guest concerts and shows in that space as well as various private events. Tabard also ran a summer youth theater program each year.

A unique aspect of Tabard Theatre is that for each of its productions, it partnered with a non-profit that shared in the revenue. The non-profit partners were generally chosen based on some thematic connection to the particular show, and these partnerships served the greater community beyond just bringing the arts forward.

In 2020, there were many changes for Tabard. After founding the company and serving as its executive artistic director for the first 19 years of Tabard’s existence, Cathy Spielberger Cassetta handed the reins to Jonathan Rhys Williams for its 20th season which began in July 2020, and we all know what else happened that year. Williams brought innovative ideas to Tabard to help the company continue to bring the arts to its audiences, albeit remotely for some time due to the pandemic restrictions. The 2020-2021 season held a full slate of productions, continuing Tabard’s history of tackling high-quality, thought provoking theater. In 2021 when the company could return to more traditional live audiences, they didn’t abandon their remote broadcasts, they often incorporated both options to give their audiences greater flexibility. I reviewed their production of Shylock remotely that summer and was pleased not only with the show itself, but with the quality of the remote presentation even though their live audience had returned, albeit in smaller numbers than before the pandemic.

The last three years have been especially challenging, not just because of the pandemic, but also because of the challenges from California’s legislative changes. One piece of legislation has been the bane of community based arts groups since January 2020 when AB5 took effect. Although that bill was aimed at the gig economy and employers like Uber and Lyft, one side effect was that community arts groups that used to provide small stipends to their mostly volunteer support had to pay at least minimum wage to every paid person, and they had to treat them as employees of the companies. This added a huge amount of overhead to arts groups that were already struggling to survive in a very high cost area.

The combination of AB5, the pandemic reducing the patron base for all live performances, and the rising rates of pretty much everything finally was too much for the little theater that could, and Tabard announced that they will be closing their doors on 2 April 2023.

A few concerts and their production of the Tony Award winning musical, Once remain on the calendar which comes to an abrupt end when Once closes and strikes its set. The show runs 10 March – 2 April 2023 and will be Tabard’s swan song presented at 29 N. San Pedro St, Ste 200, San Jose, CA 95110. For tickets, see: https://tabardtheatre.org/, call 408-679-2330, or email: boxoffice@tabardtheatre.org.

It’s sad to see the company go after so many vibrant years. I had the good fortune to play in the instrumental ensembles for four Tabard productions including The Story of My Life in 2011, The Tin Pan Alley Rag in 2012, Love, Laughter, and Linguini in 2014, and finally Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Crown Jewel in 2019. All of the orchestras or bands for these productions were small combos or chamber groups that were much more intimate and integral to the shows than a more typical pit orchestra.

Cast and chamber trio from “Story of My Life” – photo credit: Nicolas Sancen

In The Story of My Life, the cast and orchestra together numbered five including two actors and the three piece chamber trio. For that show, the trio was often described as the third character in the story, and we were visible on stage behind a mostly transparent, beige scrim.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag had a relatively large cast, along with three actors who also had to play some very challenging piano music on stage. One of my favorite memories from this show was the big production number late in the second act when two of the actors and our instrumental quartet were all playing together in a lively spectacle.

James Creer and Ben D’Angelo as Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin; Photo Credit: Edmond Kwong

Our little quartet wasn’t visible to the audience as we were sequestered in a tight upstage space behind a dark scrim, but the cast knew we were there, and the audience certainly heard us.

The third show was a little different. Our ensemble was again a quartet, but this time we were part of the show and fully visible upstage of the action. The music was fun to play, and the story was a bit quirky.

The Sherlock Pit

For Sherlock Holmes, we were another chamber quartet, very classical this time with piano, violin (of course they had to have a violin for Sherlock Holmes), clarinet, and cello. We were stashed in the apex of the upstage corner behind the set. We were completely invisible to the audience, but this time there was a path in front us, and a few chairs facing us where various cast members would often congregate between scenes as they awaited their next entrance. As such, we had a built-in audience backstage for that one.

Beyond playing in these shows, A Good Reed Review reviewed numerous Tabard productions over the years.

One other thing that was unique about the Tabard performance space was that the dressing rooms were two floors below the stage in the basement of the building. There was no green room as there is in most other theaters. Because of that, once an act began, the performers couldn’t leave. They’d be visible to the audience if they did, so they had to find little cubby holes behind the set when they weren’t on stage.

The Tabard Theatre Company will be missed by audiences, artists, and the community at large, but those of us who have been touched by this company over the years will cherish our memories of those special experiences.


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