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Trailblazers: Professional Theatres That Have Survived for 50-Plus Years

SOUTHERN THEATRE   |   VOLUME LVIII NUMBER 2   |   SPRING 2017

Main Story by Edward Journey
Sidebars by Deanna Thompson

Across the country, a select group of professional theatres that opened their doors during the 20th century has now passed the half-century mark. These are theatres that have survived economic downturns and changing demographics and continue to present professional theatre to audiences in areas ranging from rural communities to urban areas throughout the United States.

We spotlight four of these theatres, all located in the South in communities of varying size, and share their survival stories: the Cumberland County Playhouse, in rural Crossville, TN; New Stage Theatre in the small city of Jackson, MS; Actors Theatre of Louisville in the mid-sized city of Louisville, KY; and the Alley Theatre, located in one of the largest cities in America, Houston, TX.

Four additional theatres from across the U.S. that have achieved distinction in some area – from children’s theatre to transferring the first regional theatre production to Broadway – share their 50-year retrospectives in sidebars following the main story.

The four featured theatres from the South share some similarities despite their diverse settings. In each, a commitment to education is central to the organizational mission. As Actors Theatre’s Jeff Rodgers notes, this is key if theatres are to continue to develop the new generation of theatre-goers essential to the survival of live theatre production.

Each of the four theatres also has a firm and ongoing commitment to nurturing new works for the theatre, whether it is decades-long outreaches like Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays or a new initiative such as the Alley Theatre’s Alley All New. By giving new writers and new works an outlet to be seen and heard, these theatres help to ensure a fresh supply of rich and diverse works for the stage. A significant number of the new works presented at these theatres are drawn from the local lore and history of the communities that support them.

The most common element in these theatres’ long-term success is a true connection with their local audiences. All of the featured theatres were conceived to fulfill a need within the community, and their communities have responded by demonstrating their pride and support with dollars when the theatres needed them most. Both New Stage and Cumberland County Playhouse got help from their communities when they faced financial crises. Despite the ravages of severe flooding from Hurricane Allison in 2001, the Houston community made sure that the Alley pressed on, going to literal new heights – replacing its drenched production area with a state-of-the art Center for Theatre Production which has been called a five-story, 75,000-square-foot “theatre-making laboratory in the sky,” built a flood-proof 14 stories above the city.

Actors Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough says that her city “takes a lot of pride in its unique culture being ‘made in Louisville’ and that is exactly what we are.” By the same token, “made in Cumberland County,” “made in Jackson,” and “made in Houston” seem to apply for the Playhouse, New Stage and the Alley. In each case, the community had a hope for quality, professional, local theatre and managed to make that hope a long-term reality.

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Rural Theatre

Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville, TN

The genesis of Cumberland County Playhouse (CCP) was a 1963 children’s theatre production of The Perils of Pinocchio directed by Paul Crabtree, a visiting Broadway actor and director whose wife, Mary, had family in Cumberland County. The local community, entranced by the production, convinced the Crabtrees to stay in the Crossville area and banded together to build a 500-seat theatre based on the promise of that first production.

After opening its doors in 1965, the Playhouse operated under the continuous leadership of two generations of the Crabtree family for 50 years. Its hallmark was “family-friendly” productions of both classic and original plays and musicals. The theatre’s original mission states CCP “is committed to the arts as an integral creative component of rural life, not simply a commodity imported from urban centers.”

As one of the 10 largest professional theatres in rural America, the Cumberland County Playhouse experiences all of the challenges of theatres in larger urban markets, but with the added issues created by operating in a rural, underserved community. Crossville, located in the southern Appalachians just off Interstate 40, is a little over an hour’s drive from the closest cities: Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga. A third of Cumberland County’s population lives below the poverty line.

The theatre addresses those challenges through aggressive education programs, low ticket prices, and a marketing program aimed at attracting tourists, who make up about 60 percent of the theatre’s audience.

“We attend travel shows and send out direct mail pieces to tour groups,” says Producing Director/CEO Bryce McDonald, who notes that the theatre often becomes a “stop along the way” for tourists and tour groups exploring the mountains of Tennessee.

The remaining 40 percent of the audience is local, coming in large part from three large retirement communities in the county.

In the 2011-2012 season, a fiscal crisis brought on by the national recession threatened the Playhouse, which responded by launching a major fundraising campaign. Recognizing the value of the theatre to the community and the boost it gives the local economy by attracting tourists, the city of Crossville and other supporters contributed additional funding to the theatre. The Playhouse implemented substantial budget cuts as well, reducing its then-$3.2 million budget to $2.5 million.

Today, the Cumberland County Playhouse has a resident professional company producing shows in limited rotating rep in two theatres for 46 weeks per year. In January 2016, the job of leading the Playhouse shifted from longtime producing director Jim Crabtree to McDonald, a Tennessee native who got his start at the Playhouse before making his mark in New York as an AEA production stage manager on Broadway and off-Broadway productions.

Biggest challenge Cumberland County Playhouse has faced?

“Our biggest challenge has been developing professional theatrical experiences of the highest caliber while also developing the significant earned and support income needed,” McDonald says. “We also face the challenge of introducing quality theatre to a rural Appalachian region in a nation where only 6 percent of America’s $40 billion in philanthropy flows to rural counties and where extensive poverty and low incomes have dictated low ticket prices. A USDA Rural Development loan received during the theatre’s Silver Anniversary expansion paved the way for construction of a second theatre and class/rehearsal space, but added a mortgage to the monthly expenditures.”

How was it addressed or overcome?

“We have overcome these obstacles thanks to operating within our means, developing fine production/performance facilities, and continuing to offer arts instruction to our community and region,” McDonald says. “Historically, CCP operated on an average 85 percent earned income through 1990 and 75 percent from 1991 to 2011. That figure has averaged 70 percent the past few years. This increase in support income has allowed us to address the challenges we face. Classes offered through our education program continue our mission of arts education in a rural underserved community while also providing income and bringing us a different audience demographic. The Playhouse also supplements its income through rental of sets, props and costumes and saves payroll dollars by drawing on a strong retirement community for front-of-house operations, with more than 350 residents volunteering in the daily operations.”

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

“Our audience was built on new musical theatre works by Paul Crabtree rooted in Tennessee and Appalachian heritage and life – and our repertory continues to include new works as well as traditional musical theatre and dramas,” McDonald says. “We continue deepening our repertory with plays rooted in Southern tales and history with local playwrights. Our goal is to become a home base for not only Tennessee playwrights, but New York artists as well, that are seeking a place to create, hone and shape their work without the financial constraints of bigger, more urban settings. We want the next Rodgers and Hammerstein or Neil Simon to come to Tennessee and let our resident company of professional actors bring your piece to life at a fraction of the cost of the old school ‘out-of-town tryout.’”

Challenges for the future?

“We remain challenged with too much debt, but success/survival is rooted in the factors we have always used to overcome obstacles,” he says.

SNAPSHOT

  • Founded: 1965
  • City: 12,000
  • County: 57,466
  • Theatres: Mainstage (500 seats); Black Box (250 seats); Outdoor “Festival” Stage
  • Annual Audience: 90,000
  • Served Annually in Education Outreaches: 12,080
  • Annual Budget: $2.5 million
  • Website: ccplayhouse. com
Bryce McDonald

Small-City Theatre

New Stage Theatre, Jackson, MS

When Jane Reid Petty and a group of theatre enthusiasts founded New Stage Theatre in Jackson, MS, in 1965, they hung a plaque in the reclaimed church that housed the theatre’s first thirteen seasons. The plaque simply said, “We Have This Hope,” a mantra that has helped steer New Stage through times of triumph and darkness.

New Stage is no stranger to challenges and has been creatively responding to them since its first production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a 150-seat space in a converted church in January 1966.

That first production was historically significant not just for New Stage, but for Mississippi’s capital city as well, because it was viewed by Jackson’s first racially integrated theatre audience. New Stage moved in 1978 from its original home to a larger structure containing a 364 seat mainstage theatre and an adjoining multi-use space. The theatre’s complex in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood was named the Jane Reid Petty Theatre Center in 1997, a year before Petty died, in recognition of her contributions to New Stage and to professional theatre in Mississippi.

New Stage’s mission “to provide professional theatre of the highest quality for the people of Mississippi and the Southeast” has remained essentially unchanged since 1965. The theatre’s Eudora Welty New Plays Series was established in 1984 with the goal of developing new plays and nurturing writers. The series is named for Welty, the acclaimed writer, photographer and Jackson native who was instrumental in the founding of the theatre and served on its board until her death in 2001.

New Stage’s active education program includes touring productions, in-house student matinees, summer camps, residencies, classes, and workshops for teachers as well as students. Despite the ongoing challenges of building a subscription base, New Stage has practically doubled its subscriber base since 2002 through aggressive marketing and more accessible seasons, which include a five-show subscription series, a holiday show and children’s shows.

Many of New Stage’s staff and artists, including Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds, have been involved with the theatre for a number of years. Longtime Managing Director Dawn Buck says one of the theatre’s ongoing challenges is to find new ways to attract new audiences.

“Commitment to an entire season through a subscription is apparently not in their DNA,” she says about the millennials who are New Stage’s future. To address that issue, the theatre has increased its social media presence and added more millennials to its board. One board member hosts a cocktail party before productions to encourage younger audiences to go to the party and then on to the show.

Biggest challenge New Stage has faced?

“In 2000-2001, our professional staff greatly overspent our board-approved budget and hired too many staff for a professional theatre our size,” Buck says.

How was it addressed or overcome?

“We let the entire staff go and mounted an all-volunteer ‘Intermission Season’ with seven or eight small-cast shows using professional actors, directors and production staff from the community,” Buck says. “All wanted to see New Stage survive, so they were glad to pitch in. We sold single tickets for shorter runs. At the same time, we were fundraising. A major donor’s generous gift allowed us to cut the deficit almost in half. At the same time, we put plans in motion for our 2005-2006 40th anniversary campaign. We raised $1.2 million during that initiative to erase all debt and burn the mortgage. We returned to a regular subscription season the next year and hired a small staff. Volunteers were integral to our continuing success. Mississippians said loud and clear that they wanted our state to have a professional theatre.”

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

“Our educational program is a major part of that effort,” Buck says. “A number of our board members try to encourage love of theatre by giving tickets to our holiday and children’s shows as an ‘experience’ to remember rather than a gift for a birthday or Christmas. It seems to help.”

Challenges for the future?

“To continue to be $1 ahead at the end of every fiscal year – and to identify new ways to build new audiences,” Buck says.

SNAPSHOT

  • Founded: 1965
  • City: 172,000
  • Metro Area: 576,800
  • Theatres: Meyer Crystal Auditorium (364 seats); Jimmy Hewes Room (flexible space)
  • Annual Audience: 33,000
  • Served Annually in Education Outreaches: 22,000
  • Annual Budget: $1.2 million
  • Website: newstagetheatre.com
Dawn Buck

Medium-City Theatre

Actors Theatre of Louisville, Louisville, KY

When Actors Theatre of Louisville is mentioned in conversation among people who know American theatre, the first response often is a comment about the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The Humana Festival, founded in 1976 by Jon Jory, Actors Theatre’s artistic director from 1969 to 2000, is internationally recognized as a showcase of new works for the theatre, having premiered Pulitzer Prize-winning plays such as Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends, and D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, in addition to new works by Constance Congdon, Horton Foote, Arthur Kopit, Tony Kushner, Jane Martin, Marsha Norman and dozens of other writers.

General Manager Jeff Rodgers says that the Humana Festival is still the theatre’s most significant accomplishment and the theatre’s “key competitive advantage.” The new play festival is a highly-respected showcase for Actors Theatre, which was founded in 1964 when two local acting companies, Actors, Inc. and Theatre Louisville, merged and began producing theatre in a tiny loft. Quickly outgrowing the loft space, Actors Theatre moved for a time to a former railroad station on the Ohio River and eventually to its present-day space in converted 19th century buildings on Louisville’s Main Street.

The theatre’s current mission statement calls Actors Theatre “the leading arts organization in Louisville,” which is “highly valued as a catalyst for creativity, innovation, inspiration and education.” The creation of artistic “community” has been one of the theatre’s continuing core values; the original 1964 mission included a goal “to promote good fellowship among persons within the dramatic profession and with those persons in the kindred professions of literature, painting, sculpture, music and dance.”

Most of the patrons attending productions, events and related Actors Theatre programming come from the Louisville area. While the Humana Festival draws artists and audiences from all over the world, 75 percent of those who attend the festival are local. Managing Director Kevin Moore says the theatre has a strong group of season ticket holders, but also has responded to changing audience needs by offering other packages and developing a generous and flexible ticket exchange policy. “Beyond our season ticket option, we have an array of packages that can fit a variety of interests and lifestyles,” he says.

Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough adds that another ingredient that has contributed to Actors Theatre’s success is its Professional Training Company, which has trained and mentored generations of artists and theatre professionals for over 45 years. She calls it the “secret sauce” because of the vibrant creativity and fresh perspectives these young professionals bring to Actors Theatre each year, as well as the deeply connected networks the company has grown through them.

Biggest challenge Actors Theatre has faced?

Moore cites one challenge, while Rodgers, the general manager, names another. Both are issues facing many theatres.

Moore: “A major obstacle that all arts organizations face is the rise and fall of the economy. The economy affects ticket sales, buying patterns and a patron’s willingness to invest in a commitment as large as a season ticket package.”

Rodgers: “Expanding the reach and diversity of our audiences and artists on our stages. A significant obstacle to the continuing success of the arts is the decline in arts education in the schools. For earlier generations, exposure to art and music was more deeply integrated in the American classroom. Research shows us that early exposure to arts experiences is essential for developing a lifelong interest in participating in the arts.”

How was it addressed or overcome?

Moore: “Though we have seen some waves of decline (in ticket sales), our season ticket holders have stayed tried and true to our programming, and our focus on providing flexibility in ticket purchasing and exchanges helps immensely.”

Rodgers: “As a result of the decline in opportunities provided by the schools, Actors Theatre and other arts organizations have established programs to take experiences with our art form into the schools.

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

“Louisville has a history of embracing new works of art in many forms,” says Rodgers. “I think one of the secrets to Actors Theatre’s success is the ongoing conversation with our audience members about the value of engaging with new work and the important role Louisvillians play in the development of new plays.”

Challenges for the future?

Continued concern about the sustainability of the subscription model; continued investment in new play development; arts support in general.

SNAPSHOT

  • Founded: 1964
  • City/County: 760,000
  • Metro Area: 1.3 million
  • Theatres: Pamela Brown Auditorium (633 seats); Bingham Theatre (318 seats); Victor Jory Theatre (159 seats)
  • Annual Audience: 140,000
  • Served Annually in Education Outreaches: 15,000
  • Annual Budget: $11 million
  • Website: actorstheatre.org
Kevin Moore
Meredith McDonough

Large-City Theatre

Alley Theatre, Houston, TX

The Alley got its start when Nina Vance sent out 214 penny postcards with the message “It’s beginning! Do you want to see a new theater for Houston?” More than 100 people responded to that $2.14 investment by attending a meeting and paying a dime to become a voting member of the new theatre. They named it The Alley because one had to go through an alley to get to that first meeting.

One of the nation’s three oldest resident professional companies, the Alley has emerged as a leading regional theatre serving the nation’s fourth largest city with a mission to “produce great theatre that embodies the resident company.” Artistic Director Gregory Boyd exemplifies the Alley’s longevity and community engagement after more than 25 seasons at the Alley’s helm – and he notes that other artists in the company have been there as long as he has.

Edward Albee had a long and close collaboration with the Alley that included some of his plays’ American premieres. Other premieres have included works by Eve Ensler, Horton Foote, Ken Ludwig, Keith Reddin, Frank Wildhorn and Tennessee Williams, and heralded collaborations with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave and Robert Wilson. Boyd says “the highest interest for us is to develop new work and new ways to work.”

After decades of presenting world premieres and nurturing new works for the stage, the Alley recently began a major new initiative, “Alley All New,” as a year-round source for new play presentation, development, workshops and readings. In addition to premiering full productions of new works, Alley All New includes readings and workshops that are free and open to the public. The first annual Alley All New Festival was presented in February 2016. New in 2018 will be a Latino Theatre Festival. These initiatives are designed to broaden the established theatre’s appeal to a less establishment audience and to reach out to Houston’s large and diverse community by bridging the gap between its traditional audience and emerging audiences who are finding new ways of engaging with the theatre. In that way, the Alley seeks to educate its base of support along with what will become its future.

In October 2015, the Alley completed the first major renovation of its distinctive Brutalist-style theatre space since its opening in 1968. The $46.5-million project included a stage expansion that put 62 percent of the audience in the first 11 rows and alterations to wing space and loft space that made it possible for the Alley to present larger shows and more musicals.

Biggest challenge the Alley Theatre has faced?

“There were major challenges with our renovation,” says Managing Director Dean Gladden. “We had to raise twice as much money as the previous Alley Theatre capital campaign in 2005. Renovating a historic building, which was primarily made of concrete and steel, in 12 months was a herculean task. Finding a location off-site to perform the entire season and convince our audience to follow us was challenging. You uncover many hidden surprises in a renovation: the challenges of the calendar, finishing the project in just 14 months; moving our operations out for a year and then moving back in time to produce a season; and most importantly, finishing on time and on budget.”

How was it addressed or overcome?

“Preplanning every detail and allowing for all types of contingencies,” Gladden says. “Our planning process took several years working with architects, engineers and staff… Every detail was planned and executed so that the project finished on budget.”

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

“The commitment of the artists, of the staff and trustees – and of the audience, of course,” says Boyd. “The theatre’s identity is built around the idea of company… a resident theatre company: namely, the artists live in the city for whom they perform. And many of the other artists with whom we work have a long relationship with the actors and with the audience. At the same time, we open ourselves to welcome artists new to the theatre with every production. And the renovation also lets us invite other artist-based companies that inspire us (KneeHigh, the National Theatre of Scotland, e.g.) to come for extended periods.”

Challenges for the future?

“The embrace of an increased commitment to new work, and to profoundly widen and broaden the audience that the company creates and performs for,” Boyd says. “The renewed theatre spaces here have let us open ourselves to the real question: What is the heart of the theatre experience? What is the relationship between the actor and the audience? Why make theatre? There is no point in going into a theatre building or theatre space to experience something you can get outside it.”

SNAPSHOT

  • Founded: 1947
  • City: 2.3 million
  • Metro Area: 6 million
  • Theatres: Hubbard Theatre (774 seats); Neuhaus Theatre (310 seats)
  • Annual Audience: 179,721
  • Served Annually in Education Outreaches: 80,083
  • Annual Budget: $19 million
  • Website: alleytheatre.org
Gregory Boyd
Dean Gladden

Resident Summer Theatre

Peninsula Players Theatre
Fish Creek, WI

Recognized as: Oldest professional resident summer theatre in U.S.
Founded: 1935
Theatre: Proscenium (621 seats)
Annual Audience: 38,000
Annual Budget: $1.7 million
Website: www.peninsulaplayers.com
Answers Provided By: Brian Kelsey, Managing Director

Biggest challenge your theatre has faced?

The biggest challenge we faced was the deteriorating infrastructure on our property. Some buildings dated to the 1920s, when our property was a boys’ summer camp.

How was it addressed or overcome?

Over the years, new housing was built to accommodate our acting company, ultimately providing 19 studio-style units that met union requirements. The theatre, scene shop and canteen were deemed no longer adequate in the early 2000s. At the end of the 2005 season, after raising an adequate amount of funds to begin the project, the old theatre and scene shop were razed, making way for a $7.2-million theatre and production facility. We opened our 2006 season in the new space, which changed our available seating from 470 seats to 621. The new theatre and the technology required to operate the facility enabled the theatre to produce larger-scale productions while giving our patrons and acting company a more comfortable and safe environment to work and experience our
productions.

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

The secret to our success is threefold.

  1. We run lean and mean. We employ only four full-time employees and hire our full company each season based on our production and administrative requirements. We also challenge ourselves to write a balanced operating budget prior to adding our development costs and income. This way we do not rely as heavily upon unearned income as many other companies.
  2. We treat our staff as a family. We bond together and work to create the best art we can, all whilst giving people the freedom to explore and express themselves in a safe environment. We also are not afraid to take risks and produce world premieres regularly.
  3. We have a community, patrons, donors, volunteers and board members who solidly believe in us, applaud the risks we take and give freely of both their fiscal and nonfiscal gift-giving abilities.

Dinner Theatre

The Barn Dinner Theatre
Greensboro, NC

Recognized as: Longest-running dinner theatre in U.S.
Founded: 1963
Theatre: In the round (254 seats)
Annual Audience: 40,000
Annual Budget: N/A
Website: www.barndinner.com
Answers Provided By: Nate Alston, Playwright and Marketing Director

Biggest challenge your theatre has faced?

Being a for-profit theatre, we face challenges of the ever-changing economy and appealing to a broader, more diversified audience.

How was it addressed or overcome?

  1. Broader demographic: Our main focus has been to create a more diversified season that would appeal to a broader audience. One step that we took was to introduce more African American-based shows to our regular season. The new addition was a big success. A huge buzz of African American patrons began filling up our mailing list. It was so amazing to see the immediate response to live theatre. We now add at least one or two African American based shows each year, one being our yearly holiday performance of Black Nativity. This has not only opened us up to a broader audience, but has also driven sales through our entire season.
  2. Better variety of shows: We’ve also shortened our run times for our mainstage shows and added “one night only” special concerts. This has allowed us to add more shows and more variety for our patrons. Today, our average run time is 4 to 6 weeks. Some of our more popular shows run 8 or more weeks. For our holiday season, we run two contrasting shows, one religious and the other a holiday comedy or revue.

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

We start small with what we do best, “dinnertainment.” We focus on great customer service and making sure that every guest is taken care of from beginning to end. We trade with many local businesses in order to help spread the word about our theatre. We are a destination stop for many bus tour companies. We are longtime members of the North Carolina and Virginia Motorcoach Associations and attend all of the conventions each year. We get tours from Georgia, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and many other states. This not only introduces people from other areas and states to our theatre, but it also introduces them to our wonderful city and area businesses.

Children’s Theatre

Nashville Children’s Theatre
Nashville, TN

Recognized as: Oldest professional children’s theatre in U.S.
Founded: 1931
Theatre: Proscenium (535 seats)
Annual Audience: 80,000-plus
Annual Budget: $1.5 million
Website: www.NashvilleCT.org
Answers Provided by: Bennett Tarleton, Development Consultant, and Dan Brewer, Company Stage Manager

Biggest challenge your theatre has faced?

The sudden death of Nashville Children’s Theatre’s artistic leader and visionary for more than 30 years, Scot Copeland, in late February 2016, coupled with the planned departure of Kathryn Colegrove, managing director, a week earlier gave NCT an experience that few organizations, if any, ever face. Beyond the stunning immediate and ongoing grief, necessary actions had to be taken immediately – including opening the fourth production of the season one day after his death.

How was it addressed or overcome?

Although the emotional impact of losing its top two leaders was enormous, NCT’s staff and board leaders immediately acted to ensure that NCT would move forward as seamlessly as possible. The board promoted the company stage manager, Dan Brewer, who has been with NCT for 32 seasons, to acting artistic director and contracted an interim managing director (Bennett Tarleton, a retired arts administrator/fundraiser). Along with Director of Education Alicia Fuss, they became NCT’s key leadership team. Brewer and Fuss immediately secured an appropriate guest director for the only show remaining in the season which Copeland was to direct. The bumps in the road were not seen or felt by NCT’s family of students, parents, grandparents, educators, families, subscribers, attendees and participants, although big actions (shifting staff responsibilities, interim hires, launching the search for a new artistic director) were underway from the day after Scot’s death. (We honored Scot with a great “celebration of life” event and named his favorite NCT space the Scot Copeland Rehearsal Hall. A new artistic director, Ernie Nolan, was hired in 2017.)

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

NCT guards against mission drift. Every major step – moving from all-volunteer to Equity, lobbying for a city-owned building, undertaking a capital campaign, inclusion of new plays and some “edgy” choices, significant growth of the education program – has happened after careful consideration of what would best serve the young people of Middle Tennessee.

Broadway Transfer

Arena Stage
Washington, DC

Recognized as: First regional theatre to transfer a production to Broadway
Founded: 1950
Theatres: Fichandler Stage (680 seats); Kreeger Theater (510 seats); Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle (200 seats)
Annual Audience: 300,000-plus
Annual Budget: $18.9 million
Website: www.arenastage.org
Answers Provided By: Edgar Dobie, Executive Director

Biggest challenge your theatre has faced?

First, it’s important to note that the people who founded the theatre are not the current ones running the theatre, so this is a tricky question to address. The organization has faced many huge challenges. Our artistic founder, Zelda Fichandler, recently passed away and we looked back at her career and contribution to our field through her many speeches. I would say the biggest struggle remains the same: the delicate balance between capacity and ambition. You ask for a specific example, so I will provide one, but add that any continuing organization will never meet their “biggest” challenge and overcome it; any operating organization will meet multiple challenges, overcome them, and then meet more. A very huge challenge faced by Arena Stage in the last 20 years was dealing with our building, our physical space. As appropriate as it is to focus the majority of the organization’s resources to supporting the work, choosing to leave critical facility repairs as a low priority takes a toll. Artistic Director Molly Smith and Arena’s Board of Trustees chose a bold design and embarked on a bold campaign to turn the building into the Mead Center for American Theater. The deliberation and design process took several years, and the fundraising campaign took time to ramp up. After construction began, the bottom fell out of our country’s economic system. Investment returns were negative and philanthropists stopped giving.

How was it addressed or overcome?

We dug in deeper. It was less that there was one incident or one action that made it possible, but rather finding the fortitude, as a group and an organization, to persevere. Happily, our new Mead Center honors our founders’ original vision and positions us to serve effectively as the finely tuned instrument of civilization our community relies on us to be. So, clearly there is no one thing you can rely on. It’s a fool’s errand to look for a silver bullet.

The theatre’s formula for continued success?

Have enduring founding principles. Be a place for everyone. Be resident, and understand what that means in your community.

AUTHOR PROFILE

Edward Journey is an associate professor of performance at Alabama A&M University. He previously was a director, administrator and educator at regional theatres, including a stint as education director and managing director at New Stage Theatre in 1998-1999. He is a member of the Southern Theatre Editorial Board.

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