Cynthia Anthony is a natural-born actress, the Founder of Wine Country Theatre, whose demeanor exudes the essence of those who are perfectly at home on the stage, wasn’t acting, however, when she enthusiastically described the genesis and current success of her young community theatre venture. Her expressive eyes, her infectious smile and her obvious love of theatre created a perfect backdrop for the story she unfolded.
Anthony’s lifelong career in theatre, the arts, arts education (and anything related to those fields) led her to direct community theatre productions for the REC Foundation at Centennial Park in 2011 that was then hosting “Shakespeare in the Park.” Anthony, also a Board Member of the organization, staged Man of La Mancha, where, she said, over a thousand guests enjoyed the event. The next year, she directed a fully staged production of South Pacific. At the end of the performance, she recalled, she went on stage to personally thank everyone.
“The audience was loudly cheering and had obviously loved it,” she said. “I took advantage of the moment and called out to the crowd, ‘Do you think we should have a Community Theatre in Paso?’ People cheered some more, they really loved it!” Encouraged by this response, Anthony wasted no time in setting the stage for her budding idea. “A few months later, we approached the Project Theatre Foundation, an organization that had worked hard for years to serve the North County and whose ultimate goal was to build a venue on Cuesta College North County campus and to encourage and support arts in this area,” she said. “We asked if we could work ‘under their umbrella’ and they were supportive. We did three shows and then a miracle happened,” she said, pausing with a hint of suspense before the reveal.
“The remaining Project Theatre Board members told us that they supported the idea of Wine Country Theatre being its own entity and not only would we operate independently as a DBA under them, but they transferred their remaining funds to us which became our seed money to start the venture!” Anthony shared, “We are beholden to them and one of their board members, Kent Kenney, still serves on our board which is important as he has the institutional memory of how we came to be.” Still, she said, they faced uphill challenges.
Like needing a place to perform, for one thing. “We were very frugal and disciplined, but our first goal was to find someplace to hold performances,” she recalled. Fortuitously, another break came along shortly thereafter when Via Vega Winery, where a stage in its tasting room area had been built for such activities, was seeking productions. As is usual for Anthony, she moved quickly selecting a play and assembling a team—the vision was underway.
By 2014 a larger venue became a new necessity as a result of growth and success; a former USO Dance Hall, the Park Ballroom located upstairs in downtown Paso, is now Wine Country Theatre’s actual “home” while the theatre group continues to also offer productions in a variety of other venues such as Villa San-Juillette Vineyard and Winery and Bru Café in Atascadero. (Wine Country Theatre is also open to other interested parties who may wish to host a play at a private venue.)
“We have invested in lighting, sound and stage extensions. We are finally able to focus on expanding our productions and audiences,” Anthony said. “We have a lot of ideas on how to do both but right now we’re concentrating on bringing live theatre to the community—on getting from page to stage.” Wine County Theatre is also building its community of artists. “Some of our productions are precast or partially precast where amateur talent are cast along with professionally trained actors. Sometimes we have multigenerational casts where families participate together,” she said. For herself, Cynthia’s role is all encompassing. “I work with technical talent, royalties and contracts … but I also have to sweep the floor!” she laughed.
Growing up in Palos Verdes, CA, Anthony went to performances of ballet, symphony and, she said, “We listened to all the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s.” In her late teens, Anthony said, her mother died and being the oldest daughter, she was needed at home to help care for her siblings. She attended Cal State University Long Beach to be close to home and one of her classes was Theatre Appreciation where she was told she could be exempted from taking one of the tests if she participated in a play, which she was more than happy to do.
“A theatre professor called me and said, ‘I saw your performance and I think you should be an actress’ and when I heard that, everything inside me just clicked,” she said. “It just felt so right!” Today, Anthony still offers thanks to “that professor who for whatever reason encouraged me to make a difference in my life. He told me to use my skills, and my strengths would rise to the surface. I believe some of those words found fertile soil,” she said.
Anthony graduated with honors, earning her B.A. in Theatre Arts/Performance and went on to perform with the prestigious Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood. “I got some work (she also appeared in roles in movies and television) but,” she said, “I got really hungry, literally.” Anthony found better pay in the Theatre’s performance office where she was an administrative assistant and a box office manager. “I’m going to be really good at this,” she thought then—and was right. This was also the time of life Anthony started thinking about her other dream: having a husband and family. One evening she was invited out to a murder-mystery event and she laughs, “I almost didn’t go to that dumb party!” She ended up meeting a young man who was attending Ross University School of Medicine in L.A., Andrew Anthony. Her interaction with him that evening was limited as “He spent half the party dead on the floor,” she said, Andrew obviously being the victim of the ‘crime.’ Turns out her future husband had also grown up enjoying “arts of all kinds” and is also a singer and currently practices as a hospital based-physician in Templeton. “He’s my true love and also my co-star,” she pronounced.
Living in Paso Robles, the Anthonys welcomed children Jimmy, Byron and Grace to the company—er, family—about which Anthony said, “It was the favorite part of my life.” While raising her young ones, Anthony continued her work in the theatre co-founding Classic American Theater and later serving as Executive Director of SLO Little Theater, Pioneer Players and Managing Director for Pacific Repertory Opera. Using all her knowledge and experience in the local arts, she then served as Arts Grantmaker for the SLO Community Foundation with the goal of developing a grants program to support local arts organizations. Turning to arts education, she was the Drama and Speech Teacher at Paso Robles High School where she directed musicals and plays. She also taught at Atascadero Fine Arts Academy and Nipomo High School as Drama Teacher.
Today, Wine County Theatre takes center stage with her career energies. “This is an intentional pursuit,” she says declaredly. “We want to be able to build our reserves to sustain ourselves for at least five years. We always want to have enough money to produce the next show.” Showbiz is pricey but Anthony portends that “growing pains are a good thing. We need to have a paid administrator, we need to have a permanent home, we need more promotions and we are seriously seeking storage!” She adds, “We know storage sounds boring and isn’t a sexy thing to ask for, but HELP!” She adds, “My garage is proof that my husband loves me!”
Anthony is also seriously excited about this month’s upcoming production of Neil Simon’s comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs that she describes as a semi-autobiographical depiction of the playwright’s young life during which he has to survive “Puberty, his mother and the N.Y. Yankees. I love this production because it features three young people and they are getting experience in being in plays working alongside professionally trained actors.” This production runs November 15 – December 1, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visit winecountrytheatre.com for more details.
Anthony describes why this particular project in her life means so much to her. “We’re a family,” she says, “with wide-open doors. We invite all levels of talent. For as long as someone steps in our doors we’ll have the privilege of continuing to tell stories that invoke, empower and focus on humanity. We are the story.”