State of the stage: Thespians talk about past, future of community theater in Grand Valley
Local theater enthusiasts are hopeful the present and future state of community theater in the Grand Valley is as bright as an overhead spotlight.
Their hope isn’t without reservations, however.
Success in business on the stage depends on the availability of local talent, responsibly managed theater companies and financially supportive patrons and sponsors.
While theater programs aimed at children or at Mesa State College are thriving, privately-produced community theater aimed at a wider audience lately has been in shorter supply.
It doesn’t seem to be for a lack of actors, singers, directors and other theater hounds.
There are dozens of local, talented adults who want to be on stage as their schedules allow, said Jim Werner, a former Broadway performer and founder of the High Desert Opera, and Jeremy Franklin, an instructor with Mesa State’s theater department.
And there are some opportunities for local talent to get on stage, albeit on a semi-regular or inconsistent basis.
The High Desert Opera produces two shows a year, one in winter and another in summer. Rehearsal and set design for the New Year’s Eve performance of “The Sound of Music” already has begun, Werner said.
“We want to give performing artists the chance to perform,” Werner said.
From mid-November through early December, the Grand Valley Community Theatre is scheduled to stage “Oliver” at Terri Schafer’s Showtime Productions, 2148 Broadway.
The group put on “Quilters” in September, but canceled performances of “Blithe Spirit” set to begin the last week of October. Schafer said it has been years since Grand Valley Community Theatre consistently had six shows a year as it used to.
Its goal is to produce one show a month, but now that may depend on Schafer’s ability to keep Showtime open, she said.
The Museum of Western Colorado, with the relatively new Lost Theater Troupe, has a two-day run of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” beginning Friday, Oct. 22, at the Avalon Theatre. Nearly 40 people are involved in the performances.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a group so dedicated who will work for hours and hours out of pure love,” said David Bailey, museum curator.
Bailey said the museum and the Lost Theater Troupe want to continue to work together to produce a couple shows a year at the Avalon and more smaller shows at a theater the museum plans to build in a mostly vacant area in the east wing of the Museum of the West.
The group is eyeing a spring 2011 show, Bailey said. But nothing is officially set.
Creative Avenues, a performance haven for youth, will stage “Annie” from Nov. 11–13 at Grand Junction High School and several adults will be in the show. This is the first time adults have been cast in a production from Creative Avenues, which opened in 2007, said owner Joy Potter.
One of those adults is Franklin. In fact, Franklin moved to Grand Junction specifically for theater.
In 2002, he was hired on a three-month contract with The Cabaret Dinner Theatre, where he ended up acting, directing and teaching for several years.
The Cabaret, which was one of the more well-known professional theater businesses in the Grand Valley in recent history and consistently opened shows, closed in 2008 under a cloud of debt.
The business side of community theater isn’t as fun to talk about, said Potter, Werner and others.
“In this town, you have to do theater because you love to do theater, not to make money,” said Dana Schmidt-Clingman, actress and Creative Avenues director and choreographer, who worked at the Cabaret during its run.
However, mismanaging a theater business doesn’t help, and The Cabaret was a case in point. The Caberet owed thousands in back taxes and lease.
Schmidt-Clingman, Franklin and others associated with The Cabaret said they aren’t interested in blaming anyone for its demise.
Several other area theaters — Paramount Playhouse, Greenshoe Theatre Company, Empire Theater Company— also opened and closed in the past 10 years.
And there has been plenty of unnecessary competition and in-fighting in the community theater scene, according to Schmidt-Clingman and others.
Fortunately, the bickering and bad words have largely subsided, Franklin said, because people would rather stage shows than dramatic fights.
Unfortunately, “for-profit theater can’t exist in this town right now,” Franklin said.
“Do I think the town is ready for a not-for-profit theater? Yes. We are the only major city between Salt Lake City and Denver.”
One example of a successful, nonprofit community theater exists nearby.
The Magic Circle Players, 420 S. 12th St., in Montrose started its 51st season in September. Funded through ticket sales and donations, the nonprofit theater group puts on five main stage shows and two childrens shows during a school calendar year. The Magic Circle Players also offers a summer drama camp for youth.
The playbill is consistent, so people know when shows typically will be scheduled.
A seven-person board oversees the general management of the theater, and a group of directors and other interested players help select a playbill every year, said manager Lisa Rediger.
The Magic Circle Players, which has volunteers working on every part of the production, stages its next show, “Broadway Bound,” for eight shows during three weekends in November.
“We are a community theater,” Rediger said.
The existence of nonprofits rests on the generosity of the community they are in, she said.
Werner, Schafer and others echoed Rediger’s words.
Without people in the seats, live theater is nothing more than actors acting to the rafters.
“I have to say, I did not realize what it takes to do a major production,” Bailey said.
There are the actors, musicians, costumes, venue, sets, lighting and advertising, but what can cost the most is the rights to the scripts and music. A theater company must pay for rights based on number of performances and number of seats in the audience. Rights for musicals are typically more expensive to obtain than straight dramas or comedies.
Often, after everything else is paid for, there is little left to pay actors, a director or musicians. It isn’t ideal, people agreed, but it is the reality of community theater.
“We go from show to show,” Werner said of the High Desert Opera. “We pay as we go. We never allow bills to linger from show to show. It’s a huge risk because it’s a huge investment.”
But the alternative to not taking the risk is not having any community theater at all.
When talking about the need for community theater, Franklin likes to restate some words he once heard from Bill Robinson, former head of Mesa State’s theater department.
Robinson said that creating theater doesn’t save lives. Heck, theater may not even change lives. But the experience of seeing and creating theater enriches lives.
“What theater needs right now is the ingenuity that we are seeing right now,” Franklin said. “The quality has been there. And the quality is still there.”