It's applause time again for Sonora Repertory

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Although a few readers might have thought so, it was not like winning the lottery.

To win a $275,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, in fact, Sierra Repertory Theatre founders Dennis and Sara Jones and their staff spent many hours drafting plans, filling out applications and thinking seriously about the theater's future.

And that's only part of the story: In reality more than 27 years of dedication and hard work helped SRT become the only foothills recipient among 15 Central Valley symphonies, opera and ballet companies, art galleries and museums that just received grants from the foundation. While producing more than 5,000 shows since leading off with "Dracula" in early 1980, it has become known as an energetic, innovative, "can-do" theater company that has prospered in Tuolumne County by making the most of what it has.

So no, SRT didn't simply buy a Powerball ticket at the mini-mart and wait for the drawing. Instead it was invited to apply by the 70-year-old Irvine Foundation which saw something it liked in Sonora.

"Sierra Repertory Theatre really stood out among the original pool of 30 applicants," said Ted Russell, the foundation's senior program officer for the arts. "They demonstrated strong connection to the community and a growing list of donors. They are doing so many things well, and probably the deciding factor was that they are so obviously poised for growth."

SRT had impressed the right people.

With assets that total $1.7 billion, the James Irvine Foundation donates millions annually to a variety of organizations and causes. But over the years it has become known as the state's most generous arts benefactor.

That the foundation is no stranger to SRT didn't hurt: In 2005 the theater won a two-year, $25,000 Irvine grant to help pay guest actors for company productions.

This year's grant, however, is not only more than 10 times as large as 2005's, but seems almost hand tailored to SRT's needs. Bureaucrats call it "capacity building," but what this grant is all about is increasing both annual donations and ticket sales to create stability and pave the way for growth.

The grant hardly gives carte blanche to the theater: Sure, it will add more than $90,000 to SRT's budget each year for the next three years, but spending must be in line with a specific plan filed as part of the grant application and drafted with the help of a "coach" and $10,000 essentially a separate grant to apply for the main grant from the Irvine Foundation.

The foundation will also be working closely with the nonprofit theater as it completes a five-year strategic plan and works with a new, grant-salaried staff member to lure more customers, boost contributions and find new and steady sources of funding.

The goal is building the financial stability to not only produce the steady diet of excellent and entertaining shows to which SRT's loyal audiences have become accustomed, but to do so without budgets that Sara Jones admits are "stretched thin" and overly reliant on fluctuating ticket sales. More importantly, such stability will allow SRT to look beyond the coming year of shows and to its dreams like building a new, regional theater in Sonora and perhaps offering even more shows and programs to a wider audience. This will benefit not only the theater, but the entire community.

So a standing ovation is in order for Sierra Repertory Theatre and its staff on the Irvine grant. They have earned it.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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