Category: Producing Theatre


I have been a bad blogger this past many weeks as I start to build up readers and then abandon you. However, it’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you in the mean time. Before I launch back into my weekly or hopefully more frequent posts on what’s happening in my world as SCT’s Artistic Director, let me quickly revisit some highlights from the month past.

Jared Walters and Terry Bloodworth in Martin McDonagh's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'

1.) ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ – I would be thrashed if I didn’t lead with the extremely time consuming endeavor that kept me away from my computer more than anything else this past many weeks. After what I feel is my most artistically successful production to date, ‘The Pillowman’ in 2008, I decided to return to the work of playwright Martin McDonagh to open the fall season this year. ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ is probably McDonagh’s lightest and most heartfelt play…believe it or not. Like his other works, the show offers extraordinary roles for actors. And I was lucky enough to have an extraordinary cast to rise to the challenge of not only a tough little tale to tell, but also Western Irish dialects. While comedy in many plays is easy to identify and play, McDonagh’s plays while quite funny require finding the right balance of honesty, character and humanity in order to make the comedy soar. The cast rose to every challenge that was presented them and the resulting production was remarkable and one of the finer theatre experiences of my career. I can’t thank my ‘Inishmaan trippers’ and the audiences that took the journey with us enough.

2.) ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ has moved into the theatre. The cast begins rehearsals on stage tonight…and from what I’ve seen so far, I think this October is going to be an electric month to be around the Vandivort. If you’ve never seen the stage musical that inspired the 1975 cult film, now is your chance. While the film is a pretty true adaptation of the stage script, this fresh staging of the show will take you to some new places, but not without embracing the ‘Rocky Horror’ you know and love.

To answer the most commonly asked questions: (a) No. The cast is not acting in front of the film. If they were this would be called ‘The Rocky Horror PICTURE Show.’ This is a live stage musical. (b) Yes. You are welcome to talk back at the production as has become popular in the midnight showings of the film. However, we ask audiences to take into consideration that not all the traditional film callback lines will make sense. The script, cast and performances are slightly different. So listen up and pay attention…respond where it is appropriate and hell, you might even find a few new places to add some fun to the proceedings. (c) Yes. You are able to use audience participation props as a part of your ‘Rocky Horror’ experience. Thought note: Outside props are not allowed in the theatre. We will be selling participation kits containing nine interactive props at the theatre for $5.00 each. For you ‘Rocky Horror’ virgins, there will be a printed instruction sheet on the use of the props located in your program. The kits will contain everything you need to get involved with the show. The main reason for this is that since this is a live show, we have to take the actor (and audiences) health and safety first and foremost into concern. With a theatre fully rigged with theatrical lighting and sound equipment, we can’t have audience members shooting water guns. With actors dancing in platform heels, we can have the floors getting covered in water, rice, toast or other things that could cause injury. And the fire marshall doesn’t allow open flames in the facility, so no cigarette lighters. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get the experience you know and love.

3.) ‘Secret Garden’ auditions – Casting is complete for our family holiday musical and this cast is going to be dynamic. There are some amazing performers in this show. Some vocal powerhouses. This production will also mark my return to the stage after a six year absence from acting. It should be great stretching those muscles again.

4.) ‘Winter/Spring Season’ – Since last I blogged, we finalized our winter/spring season and made the announcement of five more attractions that will populate our schedule from January through May of 2011. In case you missed it…here’s what to expect.

In January, we will be presenting the second production of Ned Wilkinson’s new musical ‘Julie Bunny Must Die!’ The bunny was recently premiered as a part of the 2010 Orlando International Fringe Festival to great acclaim. Springfield Contemporary Theatre is thrilled to be the next stop for this new musical. It’s by one of our favorite collaborators and it promises to be lots of fun. We finish out January with our friends from MSU’s Inertia Dance Company. The company will bring to stage a wonderful evening of dance choreographed by current MSU faculty as well as current and former students. This company has performed around the US and abroad and we are thrilled to host them at the Vandivort for this special engagement.

February brings to stage a four week run of the hit Broadway show ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’ David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s musical takes the characters and story from the film and takes it all to a new level. I’ve always enjoyed the film, but this musical is even funnier and better written. I’m also thrilled that in the starring roles of the con men we will bring back to the SCT stage Springfield favorites who are used to playing title characters: Todd Smith (‘The Music Man’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’) and Luke Mills (‘Bat Boy’ and ‘Tommy’).

March will see the opening of ‘The Oldest Profession,’ a funny and poignant play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel. In 1999 we presented Vogel’s Pulitzer winning ‘How I Learned to Drive’ and we finally return to the work of this remarkable American dramatist. The story of five senior ladies continuing to make a go of it in New York in the only life they’ve known is a telling story of friendship and weathering a changing world. Last season we tackled another 80’s play, ‘Talk Radio,’ that seemed to have a foresight into the evolving political, social and economic landscape the has shaped today’s world. Vogel’s play has an equal clarity that will resonate with audiences long after the final curtain.

We then finish up the season with Peter Shaffer’s epic drama ‘Amadeus.’ Sure to be one of SCT’s most ambitious projects to date, this tale of revenge pits two of the theatre’s most captivating characters opposite each other.

5.) Finally, we’ve been collaborating on another exciting project that we will be debuting this Friday. Check back. It’s going to be something special.

Don’t you just hate it when people do that? I know I do. But we’re keeping this project under wraps until it’s ready for the public. But come Friday it’s not something you will have to wait for. Hmmm… what could it be?

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As the title of this blog states, I’ve promised to share the latest items from my active desk with the readers of my blog. So this week, this open letter is the most pertinent thing crossing my desk, so here it is:

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Dear Patrons, Supporters, Volunteers, Media and Friends,

By this point, it is likely that you have all heard of the pending foreclosure on the Vandivort Center. This is a situation of which we at Springfield Contemporary Theatre have been aware for the past ten days and have been waiting further developments.

We want to assure you all that this is an issue between our building owner; ABG, LLC; and the bank that holds the note on the building. Like many others, we at the Vandivort Center Theatre are tenants of the building. Ultimately, what this means for us is that we might be getting a new landlord in the immediate future. Likely, this change will only effect behind-the-scenes building issues that impact Executive Producer Lou Schaeffer and myself on a daily or weekly basis and will have no bearing whatsoever on the public presence of the organization. In our sixteen years, the building has changed hands before with no impact on our patrons.

We appreciate all the support and kind words that have been pouring in since the reported and in some cases misreported news of this foreclosure. It is honestly a testament to the presence and reputation the Vandivort Center Theatre has brought to the Vandivort Center property that we are often viewed as one and the same entity. We are anxiously waiting with our fellow tenants to see how this issue will be resolved.

In the mean time, we continue to focus on our mission of bringing the best in contemporary theatre to downtown Springfield and serving the community that has shown its support over the past sixteen years. There is a reason we are the largest and oldest tenants of the Vandivort Center and that is because of all of you.

This current situation reminds us of the harsh economic climate we are all facing. We have maintained a strong professional relationship with AGB, LLC in their time owning and managing our building and our encouragement goes out them in this tough time. As we are spending our season restructuring and building our own organization for the future, we continue to remind our patrons and friends the most important thing you can do is attend and support local arts organizations. The richness and diversity of our community thrives on the vibrant and active arts community we are all working to build.

Sincerely,

Richard Dines
Managing Artistic Director
Springfield Contemporary Theatre at the Vandivort Center

A re-occuring topic of conversation between myself and others involved in producing or presenting contemporary theatre: Why is it so hard to get audiences excited about coming to see fresh, new works of theatre? This is a topic that producers are dealing with on all levels from Broadway to the smallest of regional theaters.

It would seem that theatre-goers want to go to the theatre and attend shows they have already seen before. A production of “Hello, Dolly” will most often sell more tickets than to say “She Loves Me.” Likewise, tickets to “The Rocky Horror Show” will sell better than those to “Zombie Prom.” I drew the above parallels due to the type of show. Like “Hello, Dolly,” “She Loves Me” is a wonderful classic book musical written by some of the best writers of the American Musical Theatre. However, the show is not as well known. It’s just as strong of a romantic comic musical, but for some reason never took off in the same way. Likewise, both “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Zombie Prom” are campy, off-Broadway horror musicals both with mediocre scripts and scores, but one is a cult classic and the other is relatively obscure.

The thing is that the audience for “Hello, Dolly” would love “She Loves Me” if they were to give it a chance and likewise for the other two titles. So the obvious answer is… well, no one knows “She Loves Me” and “Zombie Prom” that’s why they won’t sell. Thus I pose this argument in regards to ticket sales and attendance. If movie theatres only ran films that were previous box office successes and older films that were classics and included no new films, how long do you think they could stay open? The movie-going public is a much larger percentage of society than theatre-goers. To look to them as a model, they demand new content when they go to their local cineplex. They don’t want to see the same flick they saw last year. Why is then that theatre audiences seem to demand to see the same shows they saw a couple years ago rather than seeing something new?

By all means, this is a topic that could fill a book rather a weekly blog. However, I’ll tackle a few of the things we know. First of all, a movie ticket is most often cheaper than a theatre ticket. There is less risk involved. If you see a movie and hate it, you haven’t wasted as much cash. Also, the movie studios have a few things at their disposal that those of us in the theatre don’t such as huge marketing budgets, star power, internationally regarded and known directors/writers and sequels. While Broadway has tried cashing in on several of these items with varying degrees of success, in the regional theatre we don’t have most of these resources at our disposal.

Basically, Hollywood can succeed in constantly marketing new material due to the “familiarity quotient.” I love Julianne Moore as an actress. I’ll see anything she does on screen with little knowledge of what the film is about or how it faired amongst critics. That kind of selling power can be difficult to harness on a local level.

Thus in theatre to use the familiarity quotient to much success most theatres have felt the need to keep remounting the same shows that audiences have seen over and over again. This seems to work most of the time. Theatre audiences seem ready to shell out their money to see a show they know no matter the quality of the production due to the fact they know they like the show itself. Also keep in mind, while you can pick up your favorite movie and watch it on video any time you choose in the comfort of your own home, you have to catch your favorite play or musical while someone is producing it in a theatre.

We also see this familiarity quotient reflected in the current Broadway shows being produced which are often based on films or other familiar sources: The Addams Family, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Wicked, Shrek, Green Day’s American Idiot, Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Elf, Leap of Faith, Catch Me If You Can and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark just to name a few.

And here’s my conjecture: I feel that most people who would be willing to go to the theatre do not necessarily educate themselves or even know how to educate themselves on what theatre they would most enjoy, so they default to the familiar. This isn’t a knock on the more regular theatre-going public. I truly believe that there are many more people out there that would be willing to go to the theatre, but they don’t know how to pick the shows that they would most enjoy, so they tend to go to the ones they have heard of before regardless of whether that show fits their specific tastes. Then if they aren’t too excited by these shows, they assume all theatre is like this and quit going.

I frequently talk to people who are going to be traveling to New York and would like to see some theatre while they are visiting. They ask me what they should see. Usually the first thing I ask people is to tell me about some shows they have recently seen elsewhere that they really liked. Then I can make some better recommendations to their tastes. I’ve been known to recommend people to see shows I hated, because I knew the shows might be their cup of tea even though they weren’t mine.

I am baffled when speaking to non-theatre-going friends and family who have never been to New York when they say they want to go to New York to see “Phantom of the Opera.” When I ask them questions to better determine their film or music tastes, I can’t figure out why they would want to see this show. I would think there would be a much longer list of titles that would better fit their style. But they insist they want to see “Phantom,” I think, because they’ve heard of it. This is not a good reason to plop down over $100 see a show.

In order to succeed at producing contemporary theatre on a regional level, it begs the question do you strive to present the best quality plays and musicals you can get your hands on or do you find the show with the strongest ‘familiarity quotient’?

Like our locally shot film “Winter’s Bone,” an unknown piece with no stars (and thus no familiarity quotient) can defy the odds and be a success, but how often does it happen?

In my curtain speech before each performance I mention a box we have in our program that states:

HELP!
We need your help. Like so many others we are struggling to keep afloat.
One of our major problems is how to get on people’s radars. You can help us by going home tonight and e-mailing, Facebooking, Tweeting, texting or calling five, or more, friends:
“I saw Springfield Contemporary Theatre’s production of [Name of Show] at the Vandivort Center Theatre and really enjoyed it. I encourage you to attend one of the remaining performances, running through [Closing Date]. Call 831-8001 for more information and tickets.”
If you didn’t enjoy this production, please e-mail our Artistic Director at richard.p.dines@gmail.com.

We appreciate all the promotional help you can give us.
__________________________

The content of this message is something we couldn’t feel stronger about. Over the years, great deals of money have been spent trying to figure out the best way to market and promote our productions. In the end, the most effective thing is word of mouth. Nothing sells tickets like having a friend tell you they saw this really great show that you have to see.

We feel just as strongly about the request for responses from individuals who didn’t enjoy the production. We do get some notes from patrons. Executive Producer Lou Schaeffer and I have both been diligent about immediately responding to all letters we receive. Often these letters are in reference not so much to a production, but to a specific element of their experience at the theatre (temperature, noisy patrons, etc.).

Today I received a letter from a patron in the mail. It came without a return address and without a signature. Since I have no way of personally responding to this patron, I’ve decided respond publicly to their concern. I am not publishing this letter and response in a manner to embarrass or disrespect the writer, but rather I would like to respond, but due to the lack of identity on the letter I can not respond privately. Hopefully, the writer of this letter will be reading. Here’s the letter (I have not edited or changed it in any fashion):

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Sir:

We went to the opening on 6/25/2010 of your play “Out of Order”.

You requested us to let others know of the play…and to let you know if we didn’t like the play…..

We did not like the play…..not knowing the plot of the play adultery etc….we would have thought twice before coming. Since we did not know the content of the play and was coming to support one of the players we came.

Ultimately the foul language completely embarrassed us. How sad…..

On a positive note…..the acting was good…..The senator/congressman’s aid absolutely took the show…..with the waiter coming in a very close 2nd.

The reception you had was also very nice…how thoughtful for the actors.

A relative wanting to see it asked me of it and I could not recommend it….what had the foul language have to do with anything…..absolutely nothing…

Such a sadness that one has to lower oneself to this level.

It does look like a good play is coming up later on and I am hoping to be able to go see it “The Secret Garden….. I do hope that it is not ruined by low standards of language….I am going to give it another chance because it is wonderful to see the folks in a setting so easy to see and be comfortable….otherwise it will be our last time supporting your endeavors….

Respectfully submitted

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My response:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I thank you for taking the time out to write to us regarding our current presentation of “Out of Order.” It means a great deal to us that you take the time out to put down your thoughts in regard to our production. Thank you for your kind words regarding the performers. I will be sure to pass these nice words along to them. Also, thank you for complimenting our opening weekend receptions. We do these in order to show our great appreciation not only to our casts and crews, but also our audiences for their support.

In regard to your reservations about this play, I can only say that at Springfield Contemporary Theatre we stand by the work of the playwrights whom we choose to produce. We don’t censor their works. We do not feel that is fair to their or our artistic integrity.

That said, we know that it is our choice to produce works containing such content. As we are a company committed to producing new and original works from contemporary voices, it is to be expected that these works will often contain the language of the day. The plays we choose to produce are brought to us by our team of committed and talented directors. We then select the plays that balance our season and bring a diversity to the works we produce. We are looking to produce shows that speak to a diversity of audiences and raise issues that not only entertain, but also challenge our collaborative artists and audiences.

It is not our intention, however, to mis-lead our audiences in regards to the plays we put on stage. The play description that we have published in our print materials and on our website do include a description of the play that does speak of “Conservative Congressman Richard Willey…attempting to have an affair with one of the secretaries of the House Majority Leader…” and the description does end with “This production contains adult situations and brief, partial nudity.” Our box office is also happy to answer any questions as to the content of any production when taking ticket orders. I personally have fielded a call or two in regards to this production. I was recently ¬†asked by a parent thinking of bringing their teenaged children to the show if the show contained any objectionable material. I told her of the occurrence of any objectionable words and the number times they appeared and I explained in detail the staging of the brief nudity in play. She decided that she was comfortable bringing her children to this production.

We understand that it is the audience member’s decision on whether or not they are comfortable bringing themselves and/or their friends and family to our productions. We want to educate them the best way possible about what to expect without giving away any surprises in the plot of the play. However, we are happy to answer any direct questions when they are of concern to our audiences.

I am sorry that you were not able to enjoy this experience at the theatre due to the play’s content. I do think that “The Secret Garden” will likely be a wonderful show that may fit your tastes. In future, I encourage you to ask our box office if you have any concerns over content in the future, they will be more than happy to help you make a confident decision in your ticket buying.

Thanks again for your patronage!

Richard Dines
Managing Artistic Director
Springfield Contemporary Theatre at the Vandivort Center

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Now the question I pose my blog readers: Is it the job of the theatre producer to put ratings on theatre as the movie studios do? Should we as producers be putting ‘parental blocks’ on our ¬†plays in order to protect our audiences? If we feel that editing plays shows a lack of artistic integrity, should we choose not to produce certain works of contemporary theatre due to the inclusion of strong language and content that might offend some audience members? I pose this question to my readership and our patrons. In doing so I do ask that no personal attacks be made to the patron that took out their time to do just what we have asked and registered their complaint to our production. This was a legitimate concern on their part and for their bravery and honesty to respond I commend them.

So… talk amongst yourselves… what do you think?

Opening a show is an all consuming endeavor. This is something I can never forget. However, this is taken to an even higher level when you are running a theatre company with a tiny, tiny staff. My intention was to be blogging twice per week and I’ve already missed two entries.

This weekend we are opening Ray Cooney’s door-slamming farce OUT OF ORDER. Likely, if you are reading this I’m going to assume that you are aware of what we have going on at the theatre. This won’t be a platform for directly trying to encourage you to buy tickets. Though I might likely offer you a different insight into our productions.

The decision to change the setting or location of a play is a decision that no director or artistic director should take likely. The decision to do so with our current production came after much deliberation. For me the key elements that should be considered are best outlined in Terry McCabe’s book Mis-Directing the Play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre. McCabe sets forth that a director’s job is to clarify plot, character and thought and otherwise to stay out of the way of the playwright’s creation. The major offense a director can make, according to McCabe, is to use directing as a platform for making personal statements at the expense of the text.

Whitney Ice, David Crossley and Maxine Whittaker in Springfield Contemporary Theatre's production of OUT OF ORDER.

Mr. Cooney wrote OUT OF ORDER in the early 90’s as a political farce set against the landscape of the end of Margaret Thatcher’s term in office. Richard Willey, a conservative member of Parliament who is described as Ms. Thatcher’s lapdog, is having an affair with Neil Kinnock’s secretary. At the time Kinnock was the Leader of the Opposition and was known for frequently attacking Thatcher’s stances. While the politics of the play are the backdrop against which the mechanisms of British sex farce are set, in order to truly understand what is at stake in this play and what might drive these characters to such extremes you have to have knowledge of the politics behind the key characters.

As we were discussing producing Cooney’s outrageously hilarious script which is one of the funniest plays I had read in some time, we had to consider whether our audiences would remember the specifics of twenty-year-old English politics…and in the case of some of our younger audiences if they would know these central figures at all. For that reason, we felt we would be serving the best interests of the production and the playwright’s intent with the play by bringing these references into modern day politics. While British farce is inherently British, David Rice, the director of OUT OF ORDER has done a magnificent job of translating this piece into the world of Washington politics. This play will now please our audiences to the level that it originally pleased the Brits two decades ago.

Welcome to this new departure for not only for Springfield Contemporary Theatre, but also myself. So why might you ask does someone working in New York take a year off from his life to return to Springfield, Missouri to help helm a small Midwestern theatre company? The answer to such a question is multi-faceted and honestly wouldn’t interest most people. So at some point, we’ll cross that bridge and address that question. For now let’s address what I’m doing now that I have returned to Missouri. This will likely cover several entries.

Let’s start with the basics…there are many who still have the question, “What is Springfield Contemporary Theatre? And what happened to our beloved/adored/despised/(insert your own adjective) Vandivort Center Theatre?” Well, here’s the important thing to know. Nothing has happened to the Vandivort Center Theatre. It’s still on Walnut Street in downtown Springfield where you remember it being for the past 15 years. (Can you believe it’s already been fifteen years?!?!?) Here’s the scoop though. A new non-profit producing umbrella called Springfield Contemporary Theatre has been formed as the producing organization behind the Vandivort Center Theatre.

Why, pray tell, would such a producing organization be necessary you might ask? To put it in the simplest way possible, the cost of producing theatre has gone up. This is a phenomena that theaters everywhere are facing. From the rent for our facilities to the licensing fees we have to pay to present the shows we put on to the cost of building materials used in the sets on stage. It’s all going up. Well, in a basic business model, what do you do when the costs of production go up? Well, you raise the prices you charge for your product or service. If our ticket prices truly reflected the increasing cost of doing business, our tickets would be selling for around $30-$32. In most cities to see a show at a theatre our size, this is the price you would likely pay for a ticket. However, we understand that our patrons are not used to paying this much to see live theatre and we want live theatre to remain an integral part of their lives.

So how do we make that happen? Well, there is only so much belt tightening that can be done. So now we’re on to the next stage. By creating a not-for-profit umbrella to produce the shows we put on stage, other doors open up to us to locate the necessary funding to keep presenting quality theatre for our amazingly low prices. Truly, we are able to cover 60-70% of our production and operating expenses through ticket sales and consumer revenue. It will still take other forms of funding to be able to cover the remaining balance and continue the caliber work we have done over the past 15 years.

So that’s what this season is all about for us. An internal restructuring as it were. From the outside, I know our patrons will continue to see the great theatre they’ve come to expect at the Vandivort. Honestly, this season we have the opportunity to blow our patrons away by raising the bar from the work we’ve done in the past. Though behind the scenes we will be working hard to build a framework that will help secure the organization in order that it can be around for many, many seasons to come.

So what can you expect in this blog…I think this is going to be a great chance to look behind the curtain. We’re going to explore what goes into making an organization such as this tick. I will likely talk about ideas that are in the works. How we get a production from early planning to the stage. We’ll take a look back at some of the theatre’s greatest moments and people. Hopefully through your feedback we will figure out exactly and specifically what has made us great in the past so that we make sure not to loose any of those wonderful qualities as we continue to be leaders in the local Springfield theatre community.

I think we have some interesting ground to cover this year… tune in. Let us know what you’re thinking. We are making something great here.