VALLEY THEATER GROUPS Is collaboration the answer so local shows can go on?



It's not the first time local theaters have talked about working together.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- Pride. Identity. Tradition.
Those are key reasons why Mahoning County has not one active community theater group, but four: Youngstown Playhouse, Oakland Center for the Arts, Victorian Players and Move Over Broadway Productions.
Still more theater has been offered by Youngstown State University Theater, Easy Street Productions and other small groups in recent years.
If pride, identity and tradition continue to drive these theaters as separate entities, there are other factors at play that may necessitate a greater spirit of collaboration among the Valley's arts organizations.
Money and patrons -- or lack of them.
Facing problems
Problems at Youngstown Playhouse have been widely reported in recent weeks. Among them: a public spat regarding would-be managing director Bentley Lenhoff, who was poised to return to his old job but found himself in a power struggle with the board of directors; debts totaling $183,000; and calls for the board members' resignations, which president John J. Maluso Sr. did Thursday night.
Likewise, the other groups have their crosses to bear. Victorian Players is finding ways to carry on without its founder and chief financial supporter, the late Jean Kelty. Move Over Broadway needs a new home; its lease at DeBartolo Executive Center in Boardman will be terminated at year's end. The Oakland didn't replace its artistic director (founder Sandy Vansuch, who resigned a year ago) while it whittled away a five-figure debt by operating largely on a volunteer basis.
What the talk is about
The talk these days in theater circles isn't about merging theaters, but aspects of operations.
"No one ever said consolidate," said Playhouse board member Glenda Whitehouse. "I think we should work together."
"We're all in it together. That's always been my view," says Dr. George McCloud, dean of YSU's College of Fine and Performing Arts.
About six weeks ago, McCloud met with representatives of many arts organizations -- theatrical groups and otherwise -- to discuss ways to promote the arts here.
McCloud thinks the public will see results by this fall.
"This effort we're making to cross promote could lead to more intricate kinds of collaboration," McCloud said.
Brenda Williams, president of Oakland's board, suggests two ways in which community theaters could cooperate -- a joint advertising campaign and a central box office.
"One of our biggest problems is that we don't have a budget to promote what we do," said Williams, who's an architect. "We would like to take a regional approach to that."
Collaboration "could help with publicity," agreed Nikole Rapp, a two-year member of the Victorian Players' board. "Everyone struggles with that and advertising dollars."
The central box office idea has "floated around for a while," Williams said, and "it's more pertinent than ever. Funding is scarce. If you can reduce staff that's required to sell tickets, it will benefit every arts organization involved." Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland uses Tickets.com to sell tickets to shows at four theaters, she noted.
Seeking a new site
"I suppose that would work," said Marlene Strollo, managing director of Move Over Broadway, but she has more pressing needs. A change of landlords at DeBartolo Executive Center has resulted in an early end to the group's five-year lease there. This will be the third time that Move Over Broadway will have to move in its 10-year history, Strollo said.
When a theater group doesn't have a home, "you don't have an identity," she said.
Move Over Broadway can't afford to pay rent, she said. Nor can it receive some grants since it doesn't own a stage. An upcoming dinner theater benefit at A La Cart Catering in Canfield may be a sign of things to come if Strollo hasn't found a new home by December.
Asked if she would relocate to a theater, "I don't see why not," Strollo said, although she hasn't discussed it with any other groups.
Logistically, that wouldn't be easy, John E. Ballantyne Jr. said. Ballantyne is a play director, owner of a theatrical production company and member of Save Our Stage, the group that wants Playhouse board members to step aside and for Lenhoff to take over.
"I'm not sure two theaters can share the same home, unless one operates in the summer and one in the winter," he said.
'Different personalities'
Cohabitation is a subject that hasn't come up at the Oakland. "The theaters that exist have very, very different personalities," Williams said. "The Playhouse is a traditional American playhouse. The Oakland is known for diversity and producing challenging shows. Move Over Broadway and Victorian Players do more mainstream theater. I think that diversity is what makes our theater environment exciting."
Another problem is the size of theaters. The Playhouse seats more than 500 people; the Oakland, 135. "The Oakland doesn't typically do productions that will draw 500 people," Williams said.
Having a central location for box office transactions, or a wood shop or stage shop -- "That all makes a lot of sense," she added.
Ballantyne is leading the charge to establish a community theater awards program to honor actors and stagehands. As a result, they have set up the basis of a Youngstown Community Theater Alliance, which will encourage information sharing and pooling of advertising dollars. He's not trying to compete with McCloud: "I think we're both after the same thing," he said.
Previous attempts
Granted, this isn't the first time that parties have tried to find some common ground. While Robert Vargo was managing director of Youngstown Playhouse, he invited leaders of various arts entities to sit down at the Playhouse and discuss ideas such as establishing a warehouse for stage props and costumes, starting a database of potential actors and directors and pooling funds for advertising and marketing. A number of meetings were held, but enthusiasm and attendance waned with each one.
Ballantyne said this alliance will have a board and elected officers in order to run itself, rather than have a self-appointed leader.
Obstacles are inherent in collaborations.
"You run into a situation of a power struggle; who's in charge?" Strollo said. "There has to be a leader."
"Any time that people try to collaborate, everyone wants to protect their own interests," Williams said. "Egos often get in the way. I'll probably be vilified for saying that, but it's true."
"The way around that is to come up with a win-win situation so everyone profits equally. That's the ultimate goal."
Something in common
One reason that collaborative talks may be more fruitful this time is that the Playhouse, the Oakland and possibly others have something new in common. Boards have been managing operations in the absence of permanent staff. "We've run ourselves ragged trying to do all jobs of running a theater in addition to our full-time professions," Williams said. Now that the Oakland's debt is nearly erased, the board is looking into ways it can afford to hire an operations manager.
It might also make a difference if the discussion groups are kept small -- "Two or three from Victorian, Oakland, the Playhouse," Rapp said. "A group of 50 wouldn't get much accomplished."
Rapp added: "Those who are interested have to go in with a little bit of an open mind."
shaulis@vindy.com

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