Opening night at the Forest Theater on July 9, 1910 was magical for Carmel townsfolk. Professional actor and founder of the theater Herbert Heron performed alongside residents as amateur actors in the biblical drama David. Carmelites were so stagestruck by the performance that California’s first outdoor community theater “became the center of creative life in Carmel,” according to the 1992 book Creating Carmel.
Now on the brink of the theater’s 110th anniversary, the city’s community theater organization, the Forest Theater Guild, finds itself set to the side and locked out of presenting live performances in 2020. The nonprofit was informed this fall that it would only be allotted 12 dates for its Films in the Forest program.
The notice came from Sunset Cultural Center, Inc., a nonprofit contracted by the city (which owns the theater) since 2017 to manage Forest Theater. The reason given, according to guild Executive Director Yvonne Hildebrand-Bowen, was that the guild’s plays didn’t make enough money last season. (Sunset Center’s executive director, Christine Sandin, was not available for comment, and Sunset declined to make anyone else available for an interview.)
Guild board members say Sunset has put them in a position of not being able to succeed in recent years, making it impossible to make more money. Last year Sunset Center officials, “ruined our entire season,” says board member Robin Welch, after they were forced to cut the season by one week. The guild nearly lost the rights to put on Hello, Dolly! and
scrambled to rearrange schedules of technicians and actors.
In the past, the guild was able to plan three to five years in advance, but since Sunset took over, they’ve been learning late in the year which dates they can use the theater for live performances, making it nearly impossible to be profitable.
“It’s been frustrating to be asked to make more money but given less time to perform and less time to plan,” says Hildebrand-Bowen.
In an email sent by Sandin to Hildebrand-Bowen on Nov. 1, Sandin writes that Sunset Center is, “at a difficult crossroads.” As the outdoor theater’s primary leaseholder, “we have a responsibility to make difficult choices about the utilization of this treasured venue. We view this as an obligation to both the community and the asset owner, the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea.”
After offering dates for Films in the Forest, Sandin states Sunset Center wants to “not only improve the revenue situation at the Forest Theater, but also to satisfy the demand for a more diverse rotation of community uses there...We regret that this offer is likely not an ideal scenario for your organization, but we do not wish to create a continued overdependence on a venue that ultimately cannot offer long-term sustainability solutions for FTG.”
Board members believe Sunset is pushing out the guild so it can bring in national musical acts, like the Everly Brothers Experience that took place in October. They argue, however, that Sunset is committed under its management contract with the city to allow the guild to continue to use the theater. Welch and board president Carrie Glenn on Dec. 3, pleaded with the Carmel City Council to step in and are hoping city officials will come to the guild’s aid.
“We are not a film company, but rather a community theater,” Glenn said. “The Forest Theater Guild is the reason the theater exists.”
Hildebrand-Bowen, however, says the guild has to be realistic about finances. At a board meeting on Dec. 10, she asked board members whether it is fiscally responsible to show films for only 12 dates. She noted the guild pays insurance year-round despite performing only seasonally, pays property taxes on the theater, and is required to pay Sunset Center 10 percent of income on its theater events.
The board is weighing other options for performances elsewhere, but may cut ties with its namesake theater if it can’t produce plays there.
“Seeing community theater go away breaks my heart,” Hildebrand-Bowen says. At least four generations of her family have been involved in the community theater’s productions. She and other board members say a cornerstone of the nonprofit’s history is providing a place for young people to develop skills and learn the craft of theater, both on stage and behind the scenes.
In her plea to the council, Glenn put a basic question to councilmembers: “What is the Forest Theater without the Forest Theater Guild and what is the Forest Theater without live performance?”
Editor's Note: This story is a longer version of a story that appeared in print.