The California Conservatory Theatre, the cozy, 67-seat venue near San Leandro City Hall, opened its new season over the weekend with a musical favorite, The Fantasticks.
The show, which runs for three more weekends, is the first of five productions — the next, the mystery Sleuth, starts in November — in a tough environment for local perfomance venues.
"All the theaters are hurting right now," said Richard Vetterli, who reprises the role of artistic director that he played successfully at CCT for about 10 years beginning in late 1995.
The artistic director is to a theater what a chef is to a restaurant, the trick in both cases being to offer fare that builds a loyal clientele.
"Season ticket sales are what it's all about," Vetterli said, who must now help the 33-year-old local theater stabilize its finances. "They are the foundation of your budget."
Ideally, upwards of 75 percent of the seats would be held by season ticket holders, but CCT has a ways to go to hit that mark, he said.
Part of the problem is the bad economy, which means less money for everything from ticket sales to supporting grants.
But the theater faces another challenge, one that has more to do with the artistic fare it offers. Vetterli said older patrons who have supported the theater for years account for most current season ticket holders. CCT must retain their allegiance while also winning over new, and younger, San Leandro residents.
That means striking a balance between familiar favorites and newer productions in future seasons.
CCT supporters are betting Vetterli's previous decade of experience will enable him to create a winning menu.
"He has a track record of success," said CCT board member Kinkini Banerjee.
She said CCT plans outreach efforts that will include connecting with parents who turn out for student productions. Part of the strategy is to promote the city as a destination for live productions, cross-promoting other local venues including Curtain Call Performing Arts and the San Leandro Players.
"We have quite a vibrant theater community in San Leandro and most people don't know it," Banerjee said.