Last summer, from June 22 to July 15, the Raven Performing Arts Theater presented "Gypsy," a classic American stage musical about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee and her dynamic mother, Mama Rose.
Although in many ways like any other Raven Players show, the play's production was different in one key factor: a filmmaker was on hand, from auditions to first performance, to document the behind-the-stage drama and effort that went into the show.
The result, The Raven and the Gypsy, will premiere at the theater on North Street this Thursday - the first time anyone, cast and crew included, will have a chance to see the film.
"Unfortunately they don't get to see it until everyone else does," said filmmaker Scott Roberts, 41, from his Sausalito studio. "But I know they're going to be very happy!"
Though it's not Roberts' first film, it is his first documentary and its subject matter, theater, is one he's very familiar with. It was while earning his degree in Theater Arts from UCLA that he became interested in filmmaking, and he's friendly enough with several people in the Sonoma County theater scene to have been able to gain complete access to the production of "Gypsy" last year.
"I've been a resident of the Bay Area for about three years now, but I've had friends in the Santa Rosa area for many years," he told me during a phone interview. "I always knew what the Raven was, it just depended if someone was in a show or something caught my eye."
But it was during the production of "Chicago," which opened the 2012 season, that his eyes were opened to another possibility. "It was really seeing that show that inspired me. I thought, 'You know, I just love this theater, I love this group of people,' and a light bulb went on.
"I thought there was something unique about the way they operate and the feel and the vibe of Raven productions, and the people that were involved in them, that I hadn't seen in other community theaters.
"So I thought it could be a good thing, to document how these folks do a show, start to finish."
Taken with the idea, he pitched it to "Chicago" director and Raven Players president John DeGaetano. "He was interested enough that he started connecting me with some folks there, and the next thing you know the ball was rolling."
For the next couple months, Roberts was a "fly on the wall" for all aspects of the production's development, after some initial hesitation on the part of the cast and crew. "In the reality show culture of ours, they thought of something like the Khardashians… And I said No, that is the exact opposite of my intent. I want you to not know when I'm there. And I don't believe they did know, most of the time."
The documentary, Roberts said, is less Reality TV and more cinema verité, the latter being the style of D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back project with Bob Dylan. "I knew the whole thing was going to have a guerilla, hand-made feel all together because of the way I was shooting, by design.
"That's what made them comfortable to do it," he said. "I don't think it would have happened if I'd been in there with a bunch of lights and mics or anything like that."
The final result was an unwieldy 42 hours of footage, shot with a single DSLR Canon II with video capability, from first auditions to first performance. There were some surprises, starting with the selection of the relatively unknown Petaluma teacher Ginger Beavers to play the coveted key role of Mama Rose.
Other production personnel included Roseanne Wetzel as Gypsy Rose Lee, director Joe Gellura, musical director Les Pfutzenreuter, choreographer Tony Gianchetta, production manager Beneicka Brown, and stage manager Sylvia Jones.
"Watching all the footage after it was all done, I realized I had a three-act movie, just like a three-act play. So it's literally structured in three acts. Act 1 is Audition, Act 2 is the Daily Grind of rehearsals, where nothing seems glamorous and it's all hard work. And Act 3 is Crunch Time, that final week of rehearsals, then 'Let's put on a show!'
"I don't want to give away too much," said Roberts, relishing the suspense building among the Raven Players who have yet to see the film. "There's some cute stuff there to break up those three acts."
Between now and Thursday night, Roberts will continue to fine-tune his movie. "If I had to I could premiere it today, but every filmmaker wants to tighten as many bolts as you can, and get it absolutely as polished as it can be. So I’m working right up to the premiere on the sound mix, and the color balance and all that."
The world premiere of The Raven and the Gypsy will be here in Healdsburg, on Thrusday Feb. 7 at 8 p.m., at the place where it all took place, the Raven Theater on North St. Tickets are only $10 for the 2-hour movie, and much of the original cast and crew of the 2012 production will be on hand - still kept in suspense until the curtain rises.
Will they like it? Scott Roberts is pretty sure they will. "Knowing that they're going to be really excited and thrilled when they see it, I have no doubt whatsoever. I know that they're going to want to hold on to this as an example of what the Raven is."
The film is already listed on IMDB, the International Movies Data Base, and Roberts doesn't see his work ending on Thursday night. "Once the premiere is over I'll turn my attention to creating trailers and such things," he said. "This is really the beginning of the journey. The premier will kick off a big round of submission to film festivals, and promotion, and all that.
"It's all been leading up to this premiere."