Amy Miller, artistic director of the Transcendence Theater Company, is a force of nature. I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, and I won’t be the last. I’m willing to bet she hasn’t let a single blade of grass grow under her feet since the day she imagined the company’s existence – which, she’ll tell you, was when the best wedding toast of her marriage to Transcendence Executive Director Brad Surosky. If you watch the YouTube video of that extraordinary wedding toast over a decade ago, where friends of the couple perform a musical number written in their honor, you will witness the quintessence of Transcendence: love, joy , exuberance, community.
In Transcendence’s recent TedXSonomaCounty talk, Amy describes a personal Transcendence moment in her Broadway performing career when she realized “all your joy, love and creativity could fly away through dance.” On the TedX stage, she’s brimming with energy, ready for action, beaming with passion for the cause – which she says is the world’s need right now for “imagination, innovation and sympathy”. All the things that Transcendence aspires to give to the world in spades, through the invigorating power of music and dance.
And if anyone can do it, Amy and her company probably can. For the past decade, Amy and Brad have led the talented artistic team at Transcendence, bringing veteran Broadway performers to an outdoor stage in Sonoma County’s Jack London Park to sing show tunes and dancing enthusiastically on beautiful summer evenings, apparently for the sheer joy of it.
Transcendence has legions of ardent and loyal fans who come year after year, ready for what Amy always calls in her pre-show speech “the best night ever.” They come for the show but also for the venue and the pre-show picnic and socializing, all essential parts of the Transcendence experience.
This has not been easy. Amy and Brad, both transplanted from elsewhere, traveled across the country in search of the perfect location to stage the kind of show they had in mind. Serendipity also played a role; when they arrived in Sonoma in 2012, Jack London State Historic Park was scheduled to close. In just six weeks and on a budget of $83, Amy and Brad called on friends and favors and put on the fundraising show of a lifetime to save the park. Their quick action and the community that came out in droves to support their efforts paid off. The picturesque ruins of the cellar where the original show was presented have become Transcendence’s permanent home. The community has become their subscribers. The park receives ongoing support from the company through a percentage of its ticket sales.
Logistically, Transcendence is a complex business to manage. Each season employs over 300 people, about half of whom are likely new to the business and excited to spend a summer in California wine country. The company is greatly aided by its supporters, many of whom generously host artists for the summer. It’s a huge financial boon, but Brad also sees it as part of Transcendence’s “secret sauce,” which helps integrate the company into the local community.
Not all of the company’s energy and passion is devoted to the audience of its broadcasts. Transcendence also has an extensive outreach program, “Transcendence for All”, aimed at bringing musical theater to those who cannot easily access it. The program includes a children’s camp offering several scholarships; an apprenticeship program; wild card tickets at heavily discounted prices on a first-come, first-served basis; partnerships with non-profit organizations to offer free musical theater workshops; and taking artist groups into the community to sing in hospitals and care homes.
Like all local theater companies, Transcendence has been hit hard by COVID. In 2020, the company shut down all of its live shows for the season, but it didn’t completely lose touch with its audience. Instead, in a labor of love that involved sifting through hundreds of hours of video footage, the artistic team was able to come up with four different virtual shows comprised of compilations from the past eight years of Transcendence performances. The company deliberately aired the shows on select nights so friends could share the experience in real time, even if they weren’t in the same location. In total, the series has received over 100,000 views. Great fundraising, federal grants, and the continued efforts of a very supportive community helped the company weather the Covid storm. When they offered a reduced season of shows following strict covid protocols in 2021, audiences flocked in, perhaps encouraged in part by the outside setting.