Honorary Producers Explain How They Discovered "Our Town"

Brian Robin
 | May 09, 2022
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Larry & Sophie Cripe

Honorary Producers Larry & Sophie Cripe

Jolene & Mark Peterson

Honorary Producers Jolene & Mark Peterson

Rick Smetanka

Honorary Producer Rick Smetanka, his wife Emily and daughter Cheri with SCR Managing Director Paula Tomei

Sophie Cripe fell in love with Our Town in high school. Mark Peterson discovered Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic with some help from his wife, Jolene, along with fellow SCR board member Michael Ray—with an unexpected, but nice assist from Peterson’s twins, Luke and Delaney. They were reading Our Town in their high school English class.

And Rick Smetanka? His path to Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire began through his mentor at Haskell & White.

Three different paths merged not only in 1901 New Hampshire, but 2022 Costa Mesa when Cripe, Peterson and Smetanka, through Haskell & White, signed on as honorary producers of SCR’s production of Our Town. The American classic runs May 7-June 4 on the Segerstrom Stage.

Honorary producers are the unseen heroes behind SCR productions. They underwrite the shows, providing the funding support for the world-class talent you see on SCR stages. Their generosity merges with the talent on stage and back stage.

The honorary producers for Our Town each arrived in Grover’s Corners from different directions. Cripe, who was a theatre major at the University of Illinois, grew up in Peoria, Ill. Yes, the proverbial line “Will it play in Peoria?” resonates with Cripe, who has been a theatre fan all of her life. When she and her husband, Larry, moved to Orange County, they met former board member Olivia Johnson, who gave them a tour.

Cripe said the first place they went was SCR. That was 1979 and the Cripes have been involved ever since. From 2014-16, she was SCR’s Board President and she is in her second stint as a Trustee. Larry Cripe is a member of the Audience Development Committee. Supporting Our Town—the fifth play she and Larry honorary-produced—came naturally.

“I remember when I first read it in high school. It really, really touched me,” Cripe said. “I identified with Emily and her lines toward the end of the play asking 'do people really appreciate life.' I also like the simplicity of the way it’s staged. Thornton Wilder had the brilliant idea to make the actors the focus. … The actors and the words are the most important thing to me. It’s the perfect play in that respect. I tend to like things that are more about the audience being able to use their own imaginations.”

This isn’t a leap for Cripe, who calls herself “a Thornton Wilder groupie.” She can cite lines from Our Town and explain their significance to you with clarity and authority. The first book she “honestly read” was Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and she praised the fact Wilder “could do comedy. Really great comedy.”

“The brilliance of this man is just beyond me,” Cripe said. “My favorite line from The Matchmaker—and I can hear Carol Channing saying it—is ‘Money is like manure. It needs to be spread around.’”

For Peterson, supporting Our Town with his wife provides the next chapter in his theatre learning experience. In his own words, the Huntington Beach native “didn’t come from a family that spent a lot of time at the theatre.” Peterson grew up as a “typical Southern California kid who went to the beach and rode skateboards.”

Then, the corporate attorney met SCR board member Michael Ray, who—along with Jolene and daughters Haley and Delaney—flipped a switch that ignited Peterson’s undiscovered love of the arts. Now, he’s not only a SCR board member, but takes trips to Broadway with his family for shows.

“I’ve been a regular theatregoer at SCR ever since,” Peterson said, tipping his cap to Ray for the assist. “It’s sort of a passion that my wife and daughters have had and my son and I have learned to appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the people at SCR. I have a lot of respect for (Managing Director) Paula (Tomei) and (Artistic Director) David (Ivers) and what they’re trying to do in Orange County to make sure we have high-quality theatre.”

As for choosing Our Town to support, Peterson leaned on Ray again for a play he’d be comfortable supporting.

“I wasn’t familiar with it, but it seemed like this would be a good show to get involved with,” Peterson said. “It happened that my younger kids were studying Our Town this year at school. It was kind of a unique circumstance where they’re reading it anyway and we could coordinate something with their school to see a quality production in their own backyard. …”

“I had talked to Michael about supporting a play and he said, ‘this would be a great show for you guys to get behind,’ so we decided to do that.”

Smetanka’s path started years ago, when he first joined the accounting and consulting firm Haskell & White. Firm founder Dave White, a longtime arts supporter, introduced him to Tomei and SCR Founding Artistic Director David Emmes. That turned into the first of 25 plays Haskell & White honorary-produced.

“I give all the credit to Dave White,” said Smetanka, who is now one of Haskell & White’s partners. “When I was younger, Dave introduced me to a lot of the great arts organizations. … Dave was great about teaching me about how vital the arts are in this community. As I’ve grown older and become the father of three awesome daughters, I’ve seen how the arts have benefitted them in terms of creativity and making them well-rounded women.

“As an employer, we want creative, proactive, forward-thinking individuals. As an owner of this firm, I want Orange County to attract other companies and I think having a thriving arts and ecosystem all contributes to that.”

Smetanka contributes to that not only through his company’s active role at SCR and other arts organizations, but through his work at ArtsOC, where he chairs that organization’s board. Haskell & White has always been active in consulting for non-profits—including SCR—and Smetanka takes pride in his firm’s support of SCR’s productions.

“One of the things we’re proud of was even last summer, when COVID hitting the world like it did, that we teamed up with the Mission San Juan Capistrano (on Outside SCR) for the first time. The business world was a bit tepid, things were touch and go, but we decided we’d step up as a firm and sponsor American Mariachi. … We’ve kind of been there through thick and thin for SCR.”

Smetanka said one reason Haskell & White chose to be honorary producers for Our Town was because of COVID. The play’s message of focusing on the simple things in life resonated with him. To him, the American classic was the right play at the right time.

“We’ve had such an interesting last two years dealing with the COVID economy, but there’s something about this,” he said. “It’s not nostalgic, but a longing for the simplicity of everyday lives. Nothing has felt routine over the last two years and maybe there’s something in that: the return and thinking about simplicity and everydayness. What a nice simple pleasure that everyone can experience, especially with what everyone has dealt with the last two years.”

Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.