Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Permission granted by Mr. Pierce to repost here:


I just read your interview in Dramabiz magazine and was intrigued.  I am the director of a professional regional theatre company in Columbus, GA, a city of 200,000. I’ve been here for 20 seasons and I’m, ahem, 55 years old.

I am in absolute agreement with your basic thesis and I’ve been preaching this gospel for years.  When the American Little Theatre movement morphed into the American Regional Theatre movement something absolutely essential was left behind – an intimate connection with the community.  In fact, I believe that when local artists ceased being able to participate in THEIR theatre, the fabric of the community was loosened just a bit more and hastened the unraveling that we see today.

We rarely ever acknowledge that those passionate amateurs of the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s built the superstructure of our current American regional theatre.  Loyal audiences and facilities were built and sustained.  Even very small towns were raising money from local businesses and individuals for THEIR local theatre.

Once the ivory tower institutions emerged with their giant facilities, executive payrolls and imported personnel, the link was broken with that community and they began to look toward the national foundations, NEA and big corporate givers for support.

So, I’m with you, my friend.

Now, let me tell you something you might find interesting.  I run annual budget of $2.1 million. I’m operating in the black. My audience grew by 17% last season, by 13% the season before and by 9% the season before that.  And catch this – the growth audience is young. My audience is skewing younger every year.

Here’s how we’re doing it.  In addition to our mainstage, studio and children’s series, we also run a Theatre Academy with 750 students (k-12) and an educational outreach program that serves 16,000 children a year.  We created a full voting position for a Theatre Academy student (this year, an 11th grade actor) on the board of directors.

Eleven years ago, I hired an incredible actor/director/playwright/teacher from First Stage Milwaukee as my associate artistic director and made him the director of the Theatre Academy as well as the director of the Children’s Theatre.  By doing that, we removed the “silo” that education programs usually occupy at regional theatres – separated from the main mission of the company.  Today, I have 750 young student actors who are in my building year-round. I also know their parents and those parents have begun to take leadership roles on the board of directors.  Local youth has a SAY in our theatre and we listen.

The emergence of this youth movement over the past several years has had a more tangible impact – more tangible than even audience growth.  We are now six months into a capital campaign for the construction of a Teaching Theatre and Education Center. We already have 5 studio classrooms and we’ll add five more with this project. But, before you react to the capital campaign as more monument-ism, keep two things in mind. One, this education center is all about building audiences for the future. And, two, half of the campaign goal is for just the type of endowment you suggested in your interview.

With this campaign, we will be able to hire resident artists for our main program who will act, direct, write and teach right here in the community year-round.  They will receive an annual salary, health benefits and 401K. They will be a central part of the identity of the theatre and an investment in its future growth and success.  This endowment will also support programming and help us diversify our work by not having to go commercial when the economy turns as it has recently.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is currently doing a study on the impact of our youth education programs on audience growth.  With the graying of audiences nationwide, the Knight Foundation is working hard to identify “best practices” in audience building and, possibly, develop a model that other regional theatres can use to invigorate their programs and re-connect to their communities.

Come see us sometime.  I’d enjoy showing you what we do.  I hope I can see your show soon. It sounds wonderful.

All Best, Paul

Paul R. Pierce

Producing Artistic Director

Springer Opera House

103 10th Street

Columbus, GA 31901

1:28 PM