Bringing entertainment and the arts to the citizens of Bakersfield, the Empty Space Theatre is alive and kicking after one of the most difficult decades in American history. While many of the shops and restaurants around Bakersfield have fallen on hard times or have closed indefinitely, The Empty Space, with its devoted founder Brian J. Sivesind, 40, and committed board members such as artistic director Bob Kempf, 53, is now celebrating its 10th season since opening in 2003 on Oak Street inside the Pizzaville shopping center What makes the story of The Empty Space Theatre so amazing is that it has survived solely on volunteers and donations from the community.
“It has had a huge impact on us, both positively and possibly negatively,” Sivesind said. “On the positive side, anyone can see a show, regardless of how much money he or she might have at any given time. There is a huge sense of community because we don’t charge admission. On the negative side, not charging has, in some ways, devalued the product. There is no doubt that some people who choose not to donate could afford to give a few bucks. The Starbucks cup in their hand gives them away. It’s a difficult issue, but we’ve stayed alive for 10 years doing it this way, so charging isn’t in our plans.”
The Empty Space has become more versatile over the years by supporting local projects like “Geeks vs. Zombies” written and directed by James Kopp and David Rock, as well as expanding its venue to include family friendly entertainment like Major League Improv and a local children’s theater group, Tonicism, for all of the Bakersfield community to enjoy.
“When we started here we aimed to be more shocking and provocative,” Kemp said. “We have come around to have a season that is more typical of a theater. We still have some provocative shows that are on late night but we have matured with age.”
The major obstacle for the Empty Space Theatre has remained retaining its relevancy and profitability during a terrible economic downturn. However, the theater is gaining notoriety around Bakersfield and its hard work and determination are being rewarded.
“It’s been a long road,” Sivesind said. “We recently won a Beautiful Bakersfield award, and I think we are respected in the arts community. But I would venture to say that at least 75 percent of the community of Bakersfield has no idea we exist, even after 10 years. I don’t think that’s any different than many businesses, so we try to stay positive.”
Since the beginning, the Empty Space Theatre has been a cultural oasis for many local artists and performers in Bakersfield.
“The Empty Space is a very welcoming artist venue. Our art gallery has had some terrific artists,” Kempf said.” We use to have a lot more musical artists but that comes and goes with the people running The Empty Space. We are always looking for fresh or new talent. People move on, but it’s great to see kids from high school develop their career here. This is why I believe that this place will keep going and going. We are all very passionate about this place and proud of it and have spent half of our lives here, it feels like. ”
The Empty Space Theatre knows that there is still a lot to do in order to keep their audience coming back year after year.
“I think we have to keep getting the word out that we are doing good work,” said Sivesind. “We have to keep the conversation going. Most importantly, we have to keep doing good work. If the shows aren’t strong, people won’t come back. It’s like any business. The product has to be worthwhile. We continue to reach out to schools and the younger generation, who we are hoping will help keep us alive and thriving. Theater is a new experience for many of our patrons, and that’s exciting. ”
The Empty Space is located at 706 Oak Street.
Major League Improv has shows every Saturday at 6 p.m.
Tonicism Presents Disney’s “The Little Mermaid Jr.” Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4 at 7 p.m., Sunday, May 5 at 2 p.m. Admission is $10
“Mother Knows Best” presented by The Tuesdays. May 3 & 4 at 11 p.m. and May 10 and 11 at 8 p.m.
Admission is $5
“The Nerd” written by Larry Shue directed by Kevin Ganger May 17 – June 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Free admission with suggested donations of $15 general and $10 students/seniors
For more information on upcoming shows or to make a reservation go to http://www.esonline.org/ or call at 661.327.PLAY.