Today we have the final two performances of Cotton Patch Gospel at Wayside Theatre. It also marks the end of our 47th Season. For another notch on the pole it also marks the end of my 10th season as Artistic Director. Who’d a thunk things would go this far?
It has certainly been a wild ride throughout those 10 seasons. The first one was nothing short of a disaster as I and the Board of Directors had to figure out what was what. We produced some good work in those early seasons amidst the chaos, but it was really all about figuring out what we needed to do to really move forward on the mandate I was given when I was hired in 1999. At the time, Wayside Theatre’s season ran from June to December and the board wanted to get to a season that ran throughout the year. We worked hard on that goal and achieved it in 2003. There was a lot of courage exhibited by a few and a great deal of cowardice by others over those years and that still seems to be the trend today.
We’ve had some amazing successes and some stunning failures. We’ve almost had to close the doors a couple of times, this past fall being one of them. Given the state of the economy currently, it is anybody’s guess how we’ll emerge from a huge funding downtown and a climate where are ticket sales are much lower than we need them to be, but we keep finding ways to keep things going forward.
We renovated the facility that was surely in sore need of it. The plumbing was ready to collapse, the roof leaked and needed replacing and I won’t begin to tell you how scary the electrical system was. During that renovation we moved out for a year and created another theatre in Front Royal about 10 miles away. We really had no choice because the alternative would have been to shut down during that period and to shut down even temporarily meant goodbye for good. Who knew we’d turn into a political hot potato during that time. That interesting little theatre we created at the Royal Phoenix was unique and wonderful and we really hoped it would become a second space for us, but politics and money kept that from happening and so we returned home to our renovated theatre last season, with hopes of someday being able to move onto Phase II which will allow us to expand a little. Although I think we’ve already outgrown those original expansion plans.
Our Educational Programs have grown to a point where we not only do amazing work with the area’s youth, but we do just amazing work. In this still very much rural area we see kids who ache to perform and learn what that means. We fill that need, but the kids fill us up with their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm.
Our Intern Program continues to discover and help shape some wonderful young artists and this is as much who we are as it ever has been. At tonight’s final performance we’re saying goodbye to Leah, Dacia, Adam, Ashley, Matt, and Denim, who, like those who have preceded them, made a huge impact on Wayside Theatre and have done great work. As we say goodbye to Interns each year we wonder how we’ll ever replace them but the new group coming in always brings us dynamic new blood and energy. Life cycles. The theatre is full of them. The birth and death cycle is there with each show and each season.
And we’re also saying good bye (for a time) to good friend, great actor, stellar musician, Larry Dahlke. He’s moving on to get married and we’re all thrilled for him as a friend but sad to lose him as a collaborator. Larry’s versatile gifts have allowed us to do things we couldn’t do without him. We’ll miss the regularity of Little Larry being around, but we’ll also rejoice when he returns this spring to do another show.
But Larry is only one of the remarkable artists that have graced our stage and played for our audiences this decade. My lovely wife Thomasin, Ray Ficca, Faith Potts, Jim Fleming, John Alcott, J.T. Arbogast, John Stanier, Liz Albert, Carl Randolph, Ilona Dulaski, James Laster, David Maga, Richard Follett, Bill Diggle, Elliot Dash, Vaughn Irving, Robbie Limon, are just a few of the names that have become a part of who we are and what we do at Wayside Theatre and the creativity that we build magic around.
And then there’s our staff. For a theatre that thrives on young talent and energy, I’ve been blessed, and our audiences have been blessed that the core of our staff has stayed together for going on six seasons for some of them. They must all share some of my insanity because they certainly don’t do it for the money. Til Turner, Tamara Carruthers, Cat Lovejoy, and our Stage Manager Malia Arguello are an amazing team and amazing collaborators. Add my colleague, music director, and composer Steve Przybylksi to that mix, and you’ve got the makings of a creative team that can challenge any team anywhere. We’ve made some real miracles out of nothing at times and it is only because we can get inside each other’s brains and work as we do together. Picking a favorite show (or favorites) out of the work we’ve done together is like picking a favorite child, but we’ve had some that have just been outstanding. None stands out though like our recent production of Southern Crossroads, which literally told our story and kept us open in tough times. We hit on all cylinders. Maybe it was because we had to, maybe because the stars aligned. Whatever the reason, we pulled some magic out of our hats or butts or somewhere and created a show that looks like it will have a life beyond our lives together at Wayside Theatre, and in the final analysis that is what this business is all about.
Of course that making something out of nothing is the real crux of the issue as I stare the beginning of decade number two in the face. The single biggest failure
we’ve I’ve had during these 10 seasons is that I have yet to convince the community that Wayside Theatre and the remarkable work we do here is worth sustaining on the level it should command and most likely would command in other areas. Goodness knows we’ve tried. Goodness knows we’ve failed. A lot of good hearts have worked to make it happen with little to show for it. That struggle has been the challenge for over 47 seasons. It sadly, will continue for a least the foreseeable future.
I get asked why I keep beating my head against the brick walls here. The real answer is I don’t know. There have certainly been times when I’ve wanted to chuck it all. But on some quixotic level, I feel if I give up on this little theatre with a big heart that I’ll personally give up on much more than just my attempts to make it work. I know so many have given up on live theatre as a sustainable venture and maybe I’m a dinosaur to continue to believe as I do. But I still believe the power of live theatre is that it begins conversations in a way that no other medium can.
I believe watching an actor tell or sing you a story, and realizing that he/she does it night in and night out brings us back to something that is not only important but crucial to our existence. Other (read digital or electronic or cinema) media is as disposable as it is long lived. When you can view it any time it loses its immediacy. When you can view or listen to it in the perfect way it was intended it becomes museum like even on its first viewing. Experiencing the moment live is ephemeral and fleeting and to a degree dangerous. Each breath the performer takes is shared with the audience and each twist along the journey of any story or song is revealed in a communal setting that makes the reaction and the receiving immediate and more powerful because of that immediacy. It might be easy to rewind or see again in other media, but it diminishes the urgency to participate. Lose the urgency and you remove the engagement, and I think the importance, The story becomes disposable as does the art of telling it, as does the conversation. We’ve told stories for generations and the telling of them over electrons and bits and bytes is relatively a young innovation. Sure it is the future of so much, but I always come back to the stories that have endured through those generations and centuries where live was all we had. As they have evolved in their telling from the live and immediate to the preserved and always available, the enduring ones, the ones that really tell us about us, are the ones that were first told in a live setting. Maybe that’s just me.
I also think there is a part of us that is afraid of stories told live. There is danger there. A real live, breathing human being is telling us something, making us laugh, or making us cry. There is no safety net. No on/off switch. We confront our reactions in a live intercourse even under the faux protection of dimmed house lights, and by and large I think we’d rather not. I often wonder truly how audiences reacted when there was no lighting and performances left the audiences and their reactions as exposed as the performer.
I came to Wayside Theatre 10 seasons ago because I was seeking a place where live theatre wasn’t a disposable commodity, and could be a part of the conversation in the life of a community. On some levels I think we’ve achieved that, but only because we are on an island in this small community. Those conversations do exist and are wonderful. But they don’t exist in enough numbers. We haven’t achieved that with enough effort to sustain it forever, or at least in our lifetimes. I guess my goal at the beginning of decade number two is to keep this theatre from becoming as fleeting and ephemeral as each of the performances it presents. Sure, live theatre is disposable as well because of its immediacy and fleeting nature. But I believe it creates a memory or a moment that is held dearer because it will never be created again. Almost like that first kiss.
Maybe there’s some poetry in the fact that I selected Man of La Mancha to open Season 48 in June. Here’s hoping all we do isn’t an Impossible Dream.