Robin Stanton’s life changed while watching a musical on Broadway.

“I spent three years in New York … I went there thinking I was going to become an actress,” the Benicia resident says. “But when I saw ‘Evita,’ I knew I didn’t want to be an actress. Not like my friends, who all wanted to be Patti LuPone. I was interested in the whole show, and I realized I wanted to be director. I was interested in the whole picture.”

That realization launched a career that’s taken Robin to regional theaters in Texas, Chicago, Spokane, and now the Bay Area. Along the way, she discovered her love of nurturing new plays into production and earned several honors for her directing skills.

She moved to the Bay Area six years ago to launch a play development program for Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. In 2005, she expanded her repertoire to include producer, artistic director and operations manager when she became program director of Solano Youth Theatre, a division of the Solano College Theatre. Robin remains affiliated with Aurora, where she currently is directing “Trouble in Mind,” which opens this month.

In her role with Solano Youth Theatre, Robin runs a program that serves more than 500 students and puts on four shows plus summer workshops each year. The students work on stages in Vallejo, Vacaville and Suisun, and twice a year high school students in the program join Solano Community College students, community members and professionals in a musical. The goal is to prepare students to enter the Solano College Theatre program and then move on to four-year colleges and conservatories. Many program alums have done just that and some act professionally, including

o Cheyenne Murphy, who has appeared in the Disney Channel sitcom “The Suite Life on Deck”;
o Natalie Angst, who models and is a commercial actress in San Francisco;
o Isaiah Boyd, who performs in plays and musicals at professional theaters in the Bay Area;
o Sarah Stouffer, who is an actress in Los Angeles whose credits include the movie “Bloomington” and TV series “Slacker P.I.”

As program director, Robin chooses the plays, hires the behind-the-scenes professionals and does the marketing, plus manages a budget that’s been dramatically affected by state budget cuts.
The support of the SCC board, sacrifices made by theater program employees and restructuring the program has enabled the youth theater and overall college program to continue, she says. Some jobs were lost, several employees took unpaid leaves – but the show will go on.

What differences will audiences see due to the budget cuts?
None – that’s the point. It’s all magic. It needs to remain magic. For example, (last season) we asked the set designer of “Bye Bye Birdie” if she could use the materials for the set of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” but it couldn’t look like “Bye Bye Birdie” at all. We were surprised that she was able to use the majority of the set and reconfigure it in a way that it wasn’t recognizable. It was an amazing feat. …
The bottom line is that the kids have a wonderful time. All these other problems are the challenges of producing.

What drives you to do this in the face of these challenges?

As funding has been cut in public school systems, these kids want and need a way to experience team building, decision-making, a place to be heard. Theater provides that, and it’s important to me to give them the opportunity to develop skills so they can tell others what they think, what they want, what their dreams are.

Our mission is to end that old saying – “Children should be seen and not heard,” something we heard all the time while we were growing up.

Our mission is to make sure that behavior is not prevalent in this generation. …

Christine Mani (drama teacher) does a remarkable job at Benicia High. But not all communities are as lucky as Benicia. We want all kids to have the opportunity to participate in theater if they want to.

Have you had to increase fees?

Fees went up $25 at beginning of last year (2009-10). It was a very hard decision to make because we knew the general public was suffering, too. We don’t want to deny the program to anyone. We feared it would hurt the scholarship program, that we’d have more applicants and fewer donations. I focused on how to replenish that. Valero gave us $1,000 for each of the past two years to replenish the fund. I stepped up my fund-raising efforts.

When you were starting out in the theater, did you realize how much time you’d spend raising money? Do they teach fund-raising in theater programs?

(laughs) I spent nine months with a MacArthur Foundation mentor, who taught me her specialty: organizational structure. I learned all about board development, fundraising, overall organization. Her tutoring really has been a blessing.

Had you worked with youth theater before coming to the Solano program?

When I was in college, Lou Diamond Phillips and I worked on a project together that was a kids theater show. After that I directed “Jack and the Beanstalk” (in Dallas). In Chicago, when I was with the Chicago Dramatists, we’d go to the most dangerous, high-risk neighborhoods and we would install professional playwrights who taught playwriting at the schools in English classes. We’d pick the top two or three and then we’d hire professional actors to go in and perform a full staged reading of those plays.

So my life has intersected with youth theater throughout the years.

Why did you apply for the job at Solano Youth Theatre after years working with adults?

I thought it was strange, too. I read the job description and I thought it would be very odd if I got this job, but it was producing and I love producing. I thought, “This is a producer’s job at a college – how unique.”

When I was being interviewed, one of the people on the panel asked me why I was here, why would I leave Aurora Theatre for this job. I said I have no intention of leaving my association with Aurora and immediately thought, “This is a bad response.” But it turned out it wasn’t – I guess they were looking for a professional to run the program.

How do you divide your time between the two theaters?

I’m in a lucky position that I get to balance these two lives. I just work constantly at both.

(Aurora Artistic Director)Tom Ross said the other day that to direct two shows in a row here is really a challenge. He asked if I was tired, but I don’t feel that way. I’m blessed to be able to do in my life what I love. It’s a message we hope to carry through to the kids. Find out what you love and immerse yourself in that, and life will be an adventure, not a labor. So, no, I’m never tired.

How did you find Benicia and what convinced you to move here?

When I was offered the job at Solano, I said, “What’s half-way between Berkeley and there?” I looked at a map and found this little town on the water called Benicia. I drove over here and it was just so beautiful and serene, and now I live next door to the mayor. I just love it here.

What do you do to relax?

I’m not sure a youth theater director should be known as a poker player, but I love playing poker. We used to take family trips to Las Vegas, and my niece and nephew introduced me to Hold ‘Em Poker. I’ve been seen at Cache Creek, and I like the Mirage, the Bellagio, in Las Vegas. I’m a very conservative player – I only play low-limit games. I grew up playing cards, but I never realized how fun poker was until my family got me involved.